Getting Around Chicago: CTA Subways, Buses, and the “L”

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Chicago’s mass transit system is so important to the city, one entire section of the metropolis is named for the elevated trains that service it.  Of course, I’m talking about the famous “Loop”–the area encircled by the hub of Chicago’s “L” trains.

Brown, Pink, Purple, Green, and Orange lines all converge here.  With the exception of the green line, all routes form a sort-of lasso: the routes come into town, loop here, then rejoin their tracks for the outbound ride. The green line traverses only two sides of the loop (east and north), connecting communities to the south and west of downtown.

Aside from the Red and Blue Lines (which are subways), Chicago’s trains travel on elevated tracks, roughly at eye-level with the second- or third-stories of surrounding buildings.  It seems like a bad idea to have noisy trains rattling through the city, with unsightly tracks hovering above the roads.  But somehow, in Chicago, it seems perfectly alright, even ideal.

Most of the “L” stations are also elevated, and you’ll have to climb a flight of stairs.  Some are handicapped-accessible, others are not.

The really cool thing about the “L” tracks and stations is that they seem to be caught in a time warp.  I imagine they look nearly the same today as they did when constructed, back in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.  At many stations, the platforms are still made of wood planks, and covered with roofs made of tin.  Some look just old and rickety enough to make you think, “this might not be safe”, but of course they are.  It would be a shame if the city ever decides to modernize.

You can read up on the history of the “L” by visiting Chicago-L.org, which provides extensive history lessons–all the way back to the first “L” train, which began service on a 3.6 mile route, in 1892.

In addition to the overhead trains, you’ll also want to take advantage of Chicago’s underground rail system, and busses.  There are two subway lines servicing downtown: the blue line comes into downtown from the west and northwest, while the red line cuts a north/south line through downtown, below State Street.

If you can’t reach part of town on the rails, you can get there aboard a bus.  Chicago’s busses are just as clean and convenient as the trains (so even if you’d never dream of riding the bus in your hometown, you should give them a try in Chicago).

There are simply too many bus routes to try to remember, so pick up a free map in any area that stocks CTA publications (like a train station or transit station).
If you’re just visiting for a couple of days, and planning to make full use of the city’s trains and busses, the first thing you should do when you arrive is buy a visitor’s transit pass.  They’re available for purchase in vending machines at “L” stations.  A 24 hour pass costs $5, a 48 hour pass costs $9 (as of 2006 – check with the cta for current prices).  Ride the system just five times in two days and you’ve saved money. Best of all, you don’t have to worry about buying transfers when hopping between trains and busses–just swipe your card again.

Note: This trip was first published in 2006.

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