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A Guide to Using Public Transportation in Chicago

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A guide to using public transportation in Chicago.

We all have pretty vivid ideas about cities. They are choked with smoke. They are filled with the cacophony of blaring car horns. Everywhere, taxis and angry commuters inch forward bumper to bumper as they try to get to work, dinner or anywhere else throughout the city.

The fact of the matter is, very few cities are capable of handling the kind of car traffic that would be needed to get everyone where they needed to go. That’s why cities have developed extensive public transportation networks in order to provide a more efficient means of moving people throughout the city. Public transportation is also usually greener and can drastically shorten the time wasted on a morning commute.

Chicago is no exception. As a major hub for travelers, business people and resident commuters, the city has to work hard to get people from one place to another in a timely fashion.

Luckily, Chicago is home to one of the world’s best public transportation networks. Between the Chicago Transit Authority, the Metra Commuter Rail, bike lanes and plentiful taxis, getting around Chicago without a car is easy — as long as you know what you’re doing.

That’s why we’re putting together this guide to public transportation in Chicago. Because there are so many types of different transportation in Chicago, it is important to understand the various strengths of each option. Some are free, and some cost money. Some involve spending time in close quarters with other riders, while others provide you with individual service. Some even give you some exercise along the way!

So join us as we go through the various types of transportation in Chicago. Whether you want to get where you need to go by foot, car, bike or train, the public transit system in Chicago can get you there.

By Foot

Alright, this isn’t exactly a public transportation system. But that being said, for those looking to avoid taking a car to get through the busy streets of Chicago, walking is a great option. Plus, traveling by foot is and will always be free!

There are a number reasons why people choose to walk in the Second City. To begin with, as far as American cities go, Chicago is very walkable! According to the walkability ranking site, Walk Score, Chicago received a grade of 78 out of hundred, bringing it in as the 6th most walkable city in America.

Chicago is the 6th most walkable city in America.

According to their analysis, this is because Chicago has an exceptionally walkable downtown, complete with great urban parks that give you a route through the city separate from automobile traffic. Anyone who has walked through Millennium Park knows that route gives you great access to many things downtown while also giving you an incomparably scenic view in the process.

Additionally, one of the most important criteria for their rankings is the ability to accomplish errands by foot. In Chicago, you can do most anything, whether it’s picking up a pizza, getting a prescription filled or taking care of banking, all by foot. In fact, regardless of where you are in Chicago, you are more than likely within walking distance of a Giordano’s.

In addition to the downtown, Walk Score identifies a number of exceptionally walkable neighborhoods, including Near North Side, East Ukrainian Village, West Loop, Lincoln Park, and Noble Square.

However, walking isn’t perfect, and the harsh Chicago winters are the strongest deterrent against walking year round. While native Chicagoans are accustomed to the winter weather and many are willing to brave the chill, those who are visiting or who have just moved to the city may find the cold a bit too much.

But come spring and summer, Chicago’s mild climate all but makes up for the harshness of winter. Taking the city by foot at worst is a seasonal activity.

An abundance of other public transportation options makes getting somewhere through a combination of walking and some other method a great approach. For example, just take the train downtown and then enjoy a nice stroll. If the weather’s nice, a six or seven-block walk through downtown Chicago is the ideal way to get around!

By Bike

There is another zero emission option for urban travelers: biking. Fortunately, Chicago is an extremely bike-able city.

According to Chicago Complete Streets, the city offers over 225 miles of bike lanes, whether they are protected by barriers, buffers, designated traffic lines or designated shared lanes.

And that number is only growing. Because of the tireless advocacy of organizations like Chicago Complete Streets, the city is working hard to making biking safer and easier in the city. While city officials are concerned about the safety of its citizens, encouraging biking also helps to alleviate traffic congestion while reducing pollution, which in turn makes the city a better place to live and work.

Chicago offers 225 miles of bike lanes.

To make biking in Chicago even easier, they recently launched a bike share program called Divvy. In order to provide low-cost, low-maintenance bikes to any interested citizens, Divvy has created a fleet of heavy-duty bikes — all colored in its signature sky blue — that can be docked and locked at any of the 580 docking stations throughout the city. If you are a regular in Chicago, you can get a yearly pass that gives you unlimited rides of 30 minutes or less. If you are just visiting, you can purchase a 24-hour pass that grants you a day of unlimited access.

Divvy is one of the main reasons why there has been a rapid increase in Chicago bicycling. According to Bike counts conducted by Chicago Complete Streets, 21% of Chicago bicyclists used Divvy in 2015, which is a rise of 16% from the previous year!

21% of Chicago bicyclists use divvy.

Of course, safe urban bicycling requires taking the necessary precautions, such as always wearing a helmet, as well as being sure to obey street laws, such as stopping at stop signs and never riding the wrong way down a one-way street.

However, if you are a little adventurous and like the exercise and environmental friendliness of bicycling, it is a wonderful way to get around the city. It’s also a great way to work up an appetite, so don’t forget to stop by a Giordano’s while pedaling around to enjoy a slice of deep dish heaven.

Using the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA)

Just as New York has its iconic subway system, Chicago has the “L.” While may cities opted to put their public trains underground in order to save space, much of Chicago’s system is in fact elevated, hence the name “L.”

However, the CTA is much bigger than just the “L.” The CTA also connects suburban neighborhoods with downtown Chicago, making the morning commute much easier for many Chicago employees. Furthermore, the CTA is an extensive network that combines both rail and bus lines into a seamless system.

In fact, according to the CTA, this transportation network is the second largest public transit system in the United States, serving the city of Chicago and 40 surrounding communities. On an average weekday, 1.64 million people use the CTA.

The CTA is the 2nd largest public transit system in the U.S.

That being said, the CTA can be a bit daunting for the uninitiated. Additionally, since it combines both train and bus routes, it’d be best to go over both modes of travel separately.

Buses in Chicago

According to the CTA, buses account for the majority of rides within the system. Bringing together 140 routes, buses in Chicago take over 25,000 trips every day and connect almost 12,000 bus stops.

Chicago buses take over 25,000 trips every day  and connect to almost 12,000 bus stops.

So what is the best approach for riding the bus?

Finding a bus stop is easy since they are clearly marked with CTA bus signs. Just make sure you stand close enough to the sign that the driver can see you, as many drivers will skip a stop if it appears no one is waiting to be picked up.

Now the trick is making sure you catch the bus you want. Especially popular stops will be serviced by more than one bus line, meaning a bus that stops might not be headed exactly where you want to go.

If you’re unsure about the destination of a bus, don’t be afraid to ask the driver. The final destination will be announced when you first board, but a driver will be more than happy to help you out if you’re confused.

Also make sure to have your fare ready when you board.

When you approach your destination, you want to make sure to pull the request cord to ensure the driver stops at your desired stop. When you leave the bus, use the door in the back of the vehicle to leave the front entrance free for anyone who wants to board.

The trick to understanding the bus system is figuring out the appropriate route, and that is something best done ahead of time. Considering the number of routes, you aren’t going to be able to figure out the bus schedule on the fly. Go to CTA’s bus route guide to ensure you are able to use the bus system efficiently.

That being said, once you get a handle on the bus system, it is a great, affordable way to travel. Whether you just need to use the bus occasionally or you are planning on using it for your regular morning commute, it is easy to navigate Chicago using its bus system.

Riding the “L”

The “L” was originally conceived not to alleviate automobile traffic, but instead to ease congestion caused by horse-drawn carriages. Due to the rapid population expansion in 19th century Chicago, the “L” began operation of its first route in 1892. However, the “L” really started to blossom when third rail electrification was invented, which was first put on display at the 1893 Columbian Exhibition in Chicago.

Ironically, the “L” originally did not service the most important sections of downtown Chicago. This was corrected by magnate Charles Tyson Yerkes, who helped to expand the “L,” finishing the task by 1921.

Since then, the vast majority of Chicagoans have come to love and appreciate the “L,” with many using the train as their primary form of transportation.

According to the CTA, there are 224.1 miles of track within the “L” system which connect 145 stations within eight separate routes.

Like the bus routes, boarding and riding the train is pretty easy. You start by buying a ticket from a Ventra machine or using your Ventra card to get into the station. If you have never ridden the “L” before, don’t worry. There is a Ventra machine at every station.

There are 224.1 miles of track on the "L" System.

You next need to head to the boarding area to catch the proper train. Depending on the station, there may only be one line available, but other stations have multiple lines. If you need to switch lines later in your trip, you should use the available maps to make sure you don’t miss your transfer.

When the train arrives, hop on board! Just make sure to pay attention to when you need to get off so you don’t miss your exit! Also, let exiting passengers have the opportunity to get off the train first before you try to board.

Unlike the bus system, the routes on the “L” are a lot less confusing. If you are a first time rider, there are plenty of maps posted around the stations to allow you to figure out the best way to get to your desired destination. However, if you want to be extra efficient, or if you want to double check that there will be a Giordano’s near by when you exit, feel free to use CTA’s system map to plan out your trip ahead of time.

More Thoughts on Using the Ventra System

If you are looking to use the CTA system with any sort of regularity, it would be wise to get familiar with the Ventra system. Although you can easily pay for every individual fare when you either board the bus or when you get to the train station, the Ventra payment system makes paying for your ride super easy.

A regular rider would do well to use the Ventra card, which is essentially a refillable debit card that automatically pays your fare with just a wave in front of the reader.

There is also a Ventra app that makes mobile payment for your rides equally easy. Plus, the Ventra app informs you if your desired ride is running behind schedule, allowing you to be better prepared for you commute.

Regular riders should get the ventra card.

For more information on Ventra’s many fare payment options, head over to their website.

Metra Commuter Rail

For those who want to use public transportation to get beyond the reach of the CTA, the Metra commuter rail is your best option.

It’s no wonder Chicago is home to one of the most successful and easy-to-use commuter rails. Chicago has long been one of the most important railroad hubs in America since trains were first invented. However, the Metra system itself is relatively new, as the system brought together a number of various rail lines in 1987.

As a result, the Metra system now encompasses 3,700 square miles of northern Illinois. According to Metra’s data profile for 2015, they operated 704 weekday trains that provided 300,000 rides daily for a yearly total of 81.6 million passengers.

The Metra operates 704 weekday trains for 300,000 riders each day.

Whether you are trying to get into or out of the city, the Metra is one of the easiest and most efficient ways to do so — and there are a lot of good options to help you pay for the rides you need while not paying for those you don’t.

The best place to start is the Metra website. This will help you find out where and when the Metra runs. From there, you can purchase single ride tickets, weekend passes, 10-ride tickets or full monthly passes.

However, if you are being spontaneous, you can also buy a ticket after boarding the train. Plus, if you are a regular CTA rider, you can use the same Ventra app to buy Metra tickets.

Once you get on your train, just listen to the announcements so you know when you’re arriving at your destination.

Taxis

Of course, no city would be complete without taxi service. This isn’t always the most cost effective way to travel, but if you need to get somewhere specifically and you need to get there directly, nothing beats the efficiency of a taxi ride.

The nice thing about Chicago taxis is that they are easy to find when you need them. By law, every taxi must take credit cards so they are easy to pay for whether you need to use a card or cash.

If you need to get somewhere directly, nothing beats the efficiency of a taxi ride.

Now you can easily hail a cab using a CHICABS approved apps. Just download one of these apps, and you can easily let a driver know where you are and ensure they get to you quickly.

Just remember that it is also customary to tip your taxi driver. Much like your wait staff in a restaurant, the standard is 15 to 20% — with an additional dollar or two if the driver helps you load up your bags.

If you are feeling extra adventurous, you can also check out one of Chicago’s water taxis. Because much of the Chicago downtown reaches to the banks of Lake Michigan, water taxis are actually a very efficient way to travel, even if they are most popular among tourists. However, even if you are a native Chicagoan, if you need to get between two particularly popular Chicago tourist destinations, a water taxi is still a good option.

Adding Giordano’s to Your Trip Itinerary

Regardless of how you choose to travel through Chicago, if you are looking for the best deep dish pizza in the Second City, then look no further than Giordano’s.

We pride ourselves on maintaining our unwavering commitment to quality while also operating in a large number of popular locations, meaning you get the best pizza available at a consistently convenient place.

To make your search for deep dish even easier, we have developed an easy location guide. If you have location services enabled on your computer or device when you log on, we will automatically direct you toward the nearest Giordano’s. However, if you are planning your trip ahead of time, you can easily search to find the store nearest to your destination.

Plus, if you find yourself well outside of the Chicago area, you can even have a Giordano’s pie shipped to you! That way if you miss out on the opportunity to try our superb and iconic pizza, you can still have one sent to your home throughout the United States. It’ll be like you never left the city.

So whether you are coming to Chicago for the first time, moving into the city or surrounding suburbs or you are a native of the city looking to improve your use of our excellent public transportation system, we hope this guide to Chicago transport has proven useful. We know there is so much worth exploring, and there are just as many ways to get around.

Lace up your shoes, inflate the tires on your bike, get your Ventra card ready and get moving. And remember, regardless of how you travel, when you work up an appetite, nothing in Chicago is better for beating your hunger than an authentic, famous deep dish pizza from Giordano’s.