Chicago - Transportation
Getting Around (intro)
Getting Around Chicago
Chicago is a city that takes its grid system seriously. While there are streets that make a diagonal slash through the city, by and large, you can easily navigate the streets here, either on foot or behind the wheel of your rental. The first thing you’ll need to do once you’ve checked into your hotel is get a feeling for the block you are on. Blocks are consistent throughout the city and are usually 1/8th of a mile long. Walk 8 blocks and you’ve walked a full mile. The two roads you are going to want to find on the map are State Street and Madison Street. If the road your hotel is on has an E or a W at the end, it means that you are either west or east of State Street. If it has a N or a S, it means that you are either north or south of Madison Street. Got it? It can be a little confusing at first, but once you understand the logic here, it makes the whole system much easier to figure out.
You’ll notice that you run into a busy street once per mile. This was done on purpose to help people find their way around. Every multiple of 800 is a major street in the city. You’ll also find secondary streets are located every half mile. This utterly logical and easy to follow system should have served as the template for every American city that has come since, but alas, it hasn’t.
You can rent a car in Chicago, and if you are planning on seeing the outlying communities, it may even be worth it, but if you are mostly coming to enjoy the blues, the deep dish pizza and do some shopping, Chicago offers wonderful transit that can get you most anywhere.
Metro Buses and Rail Services
Music buffs know that the original name of the hit band Chicago was The Chicago Transit Authority. The problem was, there was also the name of Chicago’s transit system and the band was threatened with a lawsuit. While band members may still hold a grudge, you will likely fall head over heels in love with how easy and affordable transit is throughout the city. The transit authority is in charge of all city buses and the elevated trains that you see running throughout the city. To use this system, you can purchase a plastic card at any station and load up as much money on it as you like. In most instances, you don’t even have to swipe your card when you get on a train or a bus. The fare will be automatically deducted from your card. Neat, huh?
One drawback is that few of the lines run around the clock. There are exceptions, however. The Blue Line train that runs from Chicago’s O’Hare airport downtown to The Loop runs all hours, as does the Red Line that starts at Howard and goes to 95. The bus system is nothing special here, but it will get you to where you want to go. The stops are easy to see and clearly display which bus stops there. Don’t be afraid to ask for directions from a bus driver, it is their job to know the entire system route, including the elevated trains. If you feel that you will be using a lot of transit during your stay in Chicago, check the transit authority website to see which buses stop by your hotel and which ones service the attractions you want to see most. Also check to see how far away you are from an elevated train stop.
When it comes to buying tickets, you have several options. You can simply buy a series of one way fares, but that can get expensive, especially if you spend your day hopping on and off trains and buses. The smart thing to do is to buy a day’s pass. These passes allow for unlimited use of the transit system and come in one day, two day, three day and five day increments. Both O’Hare airport and Midway airport have kiosks you can get your tickets from as soon as you get to the city.
If your vacation is going to take you outside of greater Chicago, you may want to check out the Metra trains. These are commuter trains that connect the suburbs, as well as outlying communities like Kenosha, Wisconsin and spots like South Bend, Indiana with Chicago. If you are going to be in the city for a while, buy the 10 ride ticket and save upwards of 15 percent. The weekend pass is also an excellent idea and allows for unlimited rides all weekend long.
As well as servicing outlying communities, the Metra trains also run what is known as the Electric Line. This is a fantastic way to get around Chicago. It connects The Loop, the convention center, Hyde Park and several other parts of town, and best of all, it is extremely fast. The only downside here is that it was essentially made for rush hour traffic, and once rush hour is over, this train only runs about once an hour. Check out the website for the Metra to plan a trip or pick up a schedule at any of the stations. One important note, at the time of this writing, the Metra trains only accept cash. That is expected to change, but be sure you have proper fare with you just in case.
Without a doubt, the best value throughout the Chicago metro area is the free trolley system. You can easily spot all of the places the free trolley stops throughout the city. It runs the entire summer and always stops at all of the famous tourist destinations, such as the Navy Pier and down the Magnificent Mile. The trolley is also in use during the holiday season in December, and is often packed with both tourists and locals looking to get from one shopping destination to another. One thing you want to look out for, however, is that you don’t confuse the free trolleys with the tourist trolleys that also do tours of downtown. Simply ask the driver before you hop on if this is a free trolley or not.
If you are absolutely convinced that you need a car, be prepared to pay for it. Traffic can be downright terrible on most days in downtown, and your hotel is sure to charge upwards of $30 a day to park your car. What makes things even more complicated is that many city streets are one way or have multiple levels, so even if you think you know where you are going, you most likely don’t. Parking on the street can also be a real challenge, and not just in downtown. Many restrictions are in place throughout the day, and even into the night due to snow clearing or street sweeping. To put it simply, parking anywhere other than a garage is not recommended, and if you are going to park in a garage, be prepared to pay through the nose. One more tip for non-Illinois residents: talking on a cell phone while driving is illegal in the city of Chicago. You are required by law to either use a hands free set or you can just pull over and park. If your car is moving, both hands need to be on the wheel. Perhaps the best reason to simply leave your car in park is the way people drive in Chicago. If you are coming from places like New York or Boston, you likely won’t notice a difference, and that’s exactly the problem. People are aggressive drivers here, and if you are spending most of your time with your nose buried in a map, you could cause a serious accident. Leave the driving to the transit professionals and don’t rent a car.
Traveler Information, Maps & Books
Because Chicago is often an overwhelming place to visit, you may want to plan your trip carefully before you arrive. There are several resources available to help you get started. Visit the Regional Transportation Authority’s website at www.rtachicago.com to get started or phone 836-7000 in any local area code once you arrive to help plan you trip using public transportation. You can also visit the Chicago Area Transit Authority’s site at www.transitchicago.com to get the information you need. Additionally, you can order road maps and other information from the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau. You can find them online at www.choosechicago.com.
Should you need to rent a car while you’re in the city, you can find bureaus for all of the major car rental companies located throughout the area. Alamo, Enterprise, and Hertz are all very visible in the city, and there are many smaller companies as well. Most have offices within the airport as well as shuttles to take you to and from the lot.
Finding a taxi in the city isn’t difficult, as they run continuously. Your hotel’s concierge can help you find a cab, and you may be able to hail one from most of the major attraction points.