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Getting Around in Chicago

By Public Transit

The best way to see Chicago is by public transit. It is cheap, quite efficient and safe. The Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) oversees the various public transit agencies in the Chicagoland area. You can plan trips online with the RTA trip planner or get assistance by calling 836-7000 in any local area code between 5 am-1 am. The RTA also has an official partnership with Google Maps, which can provide routes with public transit.


The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) operates trains and buses in the city of Chicago and some of the suburbs. Put simply, the CTA is Chicago. It is a marvel and a beast, convenient, frustrating, and irreplaceable. Even if you have the option of driving while you're in town, no experience of Chicago is complete without a trip on the CTA.

Fares are paid with transit cards, which can be purchased and re-filled at kiosks in the lobby of every CTA station. All accept cash, and some accept credit cards. Many locals use the Chicago Card, which cannot be purchased at stations, but can be ordered online and also purchased at grocery stores and currency exchanges. Visitor passes are sold for unlimited travel on the CTA and Pace. These passes are on sale at currency exchanges and some convenience stores, and online. Transit cards for single rides or larger increments can also be purchased online.

Train rides of any length, from one side of the city to another or just one stop, cost $2.25. At certain stations, you can transfer to other train lines at no extra cost. Once you have exited the turnstiles, entering another CTA station or boarding a CTA bus costs $0.25 – and doing it a third time is free, provided it's still within two hours of when you started the trip.

Locals refer to Chicago's public train system as the "L". All train lines radiate from the Loop to every corner of the city. The "Loop" name originally referred to a surface-level streetcar loop, which pre-dated the elevated tracks; that any form of transportation preceded the present one may come as a surprise, given how old some of the stations look.

CTA train lines are divided by colours: Red, Green, Brown, Blue, Purple, Yellow, Orange and Pink. All lines lead to the Loop except the Yellow Line, which is a non-stop shuttle between the suburb of Skokie and the northern border of Chicago. The Red and Blue lines run 24/7, making Chicago one of only two American cities with 24-hour rail service. Hours for the other lines vary somewhat by day, but as a general rule are from about 4:30 am-12:40 am, slightly later on weekends.

Before you travel, find out the name of the train stop closest to your destination, and the colour of the train line on which it is located. Once you're on-board, you'll find route maps in each train car, above the door. The same map is also available online. The name signs on platforms often have the station's location in the street grid.

There should be an attendant on duty at every train station. They can't provide change or deal with money, but they can help you figure out where you need to go and guide you through using the machines.

Buses run on nearly every major street in the city. Look for the blue and white sign, which should give a map of the route taken by the bus and major streets/stops along the way. Once inside, watch the front of the bus — a red LED display will list the names of the streets as they pass, making it easy to stop exactly where you'd like, even if it's a small side-street. Major bus routes run 7-15 minutes apart during daylight hours, depending on the route. Less-travelled routes or routes during off-peak hours may run less frequently. Check the sign to be sure the bus is still running. There are several bus routes that are on a daily 24-hour schedule – these are called OWL routes, and the signs usually have an owl

If you have a web-enabled mobile device, the CTA runs a little godsend called the CTA Bus Tracker, which uses GPS to provide reliable, real-time tracking information for almost all bus routes.

CTA buses accept transit cards but do not sell them. They also accept cash, but do not provide change. If you overpay, the CTA keeps the extra cash, so carry exact change if possible.

In compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act, all CTA buses and some train stations are accessible to wheelchairs. Wheelchair-accessible 'L' stations are indicated by the international wheelchair symbol and have elevators or are at ground level.

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