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CTA 101: A First-Timer’s Guide to Getting Around Chicago

BY: MOLLY METZIG | 10.30.2015 |

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Ah, the L. It’s as Chicago as Lake Michigan and hot dogs without ketchup. In a city where one-ways abound and parking can cost more than your meal, the L just might be the least stressful way to get around. Its eight color-coded lines run both above and below the city streets, all converging on the Loop, Chicago’s bustling downtown.

The L, combined with Chicago’s 120-plus bus routes, comprises America’s second-largest public-transit system: the Chicago Transit Authority, or the CTA. If you’re visiting Chicago, you may want to harness the power of Chicago public transportation, so we’ve come up with a few tips on how to do it right.

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1. Become a card-carrying tourist.

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First, you’ll want to get a Ventra card, which is what you’ll use to board buses and trains. When you purchase one (whether online or from an airport or train-stop kiosk) you’ll have a few options: add a dollar value that will be deducted as you scan your card; opt for an unlimited pass that covers 1, 3, 7, or 30 days of unlimited CTA rides for a single rider; or get a handful of single-ride tickets. Here’s a chart to help decide what’s best for you:

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Note: Multiple people can use the same Ventra card if you are paying with a dollar value. Multiple people can’t use the same card if you’ve bought an unlimited pass—you’ll need one per rider.

2. Know how to board.

Always take your Ventra card out of your wallet before you scan it at the turnstile. If you don’t, the scanner might charge other cards in your wallet along with your Ventra card. And don't be alarmed if your card doesn't work when you scan it; just hold it over the sensor again until it registers.

3. Get on the right train.

If you’re not accustomed to navigating public transit on your own, you’ll want to make sure you get on the L in the right direction. Here’s what it’s like to use a CTA map for this task:

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4. Embrace the bus.

Chicago’s buses are often overshadowed by the L, but they can be a useful tool. The routes are predominantly linear, thanks to the city’s grid layout. With few exceptions*, a northbound bus is going to take you straight up the street, and a southbound bus is going to take you straight down the street. Eastbound buses take you toward Lake Michigan, while westbound buses take you away from it.

* Express buses don’t always follow linear routes. Take my advice and don’t get on any bus that says “Express.”

5. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

Chicago is a big city, but it has midwestern hospitality; meaning most locals you approach will be happy to give you some guidance. The CTA operators are also helpful. If you’re boarding a bus and are unsure if it’s the right one, just ask the driver. And should you ever realize you’re going in the wrong direction, don’t panic. It happens. Just get off at the next stop, move to the other side of the platform or street, and hop on the next train or bus. Because, thankfully, there is always another one.

(Unless it’s 2 a.m. Then, hail a cab.)

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Images: El Looking South by Mobilus In Mobili under CC BY-SA 2.0; illustrations by Grey Blake, Groupon

Guide Staff Writer
BY: Molly Metzig Guide Staff Writer