The Transit Tourist: Chicago, Ill.

The Transit Tourist takes a look at other transit systems across the globe from the first person perspective of a visitor. What can Metro learn from how these other systems treat the uninitiated – and often bumbling – tourist?

Quiet summer afternoon at Fullerton Station (Chicago, IL) Photo: Joseph Lemon/Metro

This is…The Transit Tourist – Chicago, Ill.

Chicago, Illinois
City Population: 2,695,598 Transit Agency: CTA Miles of Rail Track: 224.1
Density: 11,864 people/sq. mi. Rail Lines: 8 Bus Routes: 140
Area: 234 sq. mi. Rail Stations: 143 Op. Budget: $1.39 bil.

Source: US Census and

Airport Connection

The Chicago “L” — a heavy rail system that runs both above and below ground — runs from downtown to both of the city’s major airports, O’Hare and Midway. The train and area buses are run by the Chicago Transit Authority, the region’s equivalent to Los Angeles Metro.

The Blue Line runs to the airport and takes about 45 minutes to travel to downtown Chicago. The Orange Line runs to Midway and takes about 25 minutes to reach downtown.

There is direct access to the “L” station at O’Hare from terminals 1, 2 and 3 — although like everything at O’Hare, it can involve a long walk.

Here’s a pretty useful web page on the CTA site that explains all the basics about traveling by rail to or from the airports.

Trains at Chicago O’Hare Blue Line Station (Chicago, IL) Photo: Joseph Lemon/Metro


A one-way trip fare was $2.25 (rail) and $2.00 (bus) using a stored-value Transit Card with one-transfer costing $0.25 and additional transfers free. The taxi fare between O’Hare and downtown is about $40.

For several reasons, the best option for visitors is to buy the one-day ($5.75), 3-day ($14) or $7-day ($23) pass. Beware that most ticket machines around town only accept cash and they do not make change — an important consideration for those who want to put stored value on a Transit Card.

Rail System

The eight “L” lines of the CTA. Graphic:

My Chicago transit experience was primarily dominated by rail. It’s easy to see why when considering all of my activities were in downtown or its inner peripheral. Throughout my entire stay I was never more than a five minute walk from a station.

The downside to such connectivity, as I alluded to above, is that once you’re on the train, the trips feel longer than they should be. This feeling was exacerbated when I rode a Red Line train that filled to capacity and then some, though this appeared to be an anomaly caused by a perfect storm of peak hour commuters and Cubs baseball fans returning from Wrigley Field. On my other trips, trains were at least half full and at most standing-room only.

Much of the rail system is old and trains can be slow. That said, its reach is considerable, with 224 miles of tracks — about three times the size of Metro’s system — running beyond Chicago’s city limits and deep into well-known suburbs such as Evanston (the home of Northwestern University)

Game-day crowds exiting Addison Station (Chicago, IL) Photo: Joseph Lemon/Metro

Bus System

Because of the short duration of my trip, choosing the most time efficient method of transport was paramount. Unfortunately, given the option to walk, take the train or take a taxi, the bus lost out. This is in large part due to me spending most of my time in the most rail-dense part of the city with a variety options, of which, the bus was consistently the slowest.

I’ll provide my real-world example. Compare the time and costs from the Park West Neighborhood to the South Loop:

  • Bus: 37 minutes
  • Walk & Train: 28 minutes
  • Taxi: 12 minutes

Considering the bus and taxi times do not factor in traffic, rail wins on all three fronts: reliability, cost and efficiency. Both times I considered taking a bus, I was on the same street as my destination but a few miles away. Knowing Chicago’s streets generally run in a massive grid, I figured a straight-shot on the bus would be a no-brainer. But both times after checking Google Maps, it turned out that walking a few blocks and taking the train would still be faster.

Taxis, on the other hand, became a viable option when I traveled in larger groups, mainly in the evenings when traffic became less of a factor and cabbies took the streets en masse.

CTA bus and shelter (with arrival display) Photo: Joseph Lemon/Metro

Customer Service

I had two interactions with customer service, both through service attendants at the stations. There was nothing noteworthy in these encounters other than I was actually face-to-face with a person and was able to get the information I needed. Given that, I’d have to say the CTA’s customer service was solid.

Report Card

The Good:

> Frequent and reliable train service to the city core from both airports.

> In downtown and its peripheral core, the city’s built environment is conducive to pedestrian activity, making the prospect of walking to stations or stops less daunting.

> Real-time arrival information at select train stations and bus stops.

> A vast majority of Chicago’s tourist attractions are available via transit (the CTA has a sightseeing brochure here) and if you’re moving about the Loop, you’ll never be more than a few minutes walk from a train station.

> Station attendants for assistance at most of the stations.

The Bad:

> Longer travel times due to emphasis on system connectivity.

> Even though it’s still a short walk to a train station or bus stop, the experience is probably less enjoyable in the cold and dreary winter months. The thought of waiting for trains at aerial or freeway-median stations in the dead of winter makes me shudder. (Note from Source Editor Steve Hymon: waiting at aerial stations at night in the winter months is indeed a miserable experience).

> Limited options for using debit/credit cards at ticket vending machines and other restrictions when using cash to fill stored-value cards.

What Metro Can Learn:

> First impressions go a long way. Making the existing airport-to-doorstep options as simple and hassle-free as possible should be of utmost importance. Los Angeles World Airports’ LAX Flyaway works well if you know what you’re doing ahead of time, but it isn’t a very obvious or customer friendly choice otherwise. Long-term, first-impressions are something to keep in mind as the Crenshaw/LAX and the Airport Metro Connector projects create opportunities to reshape visitors’ perceptions of transit in LA.

> Use of station attendants. With the locking of turnstiles at Red and Purple Line stations imminent, readers have suggested Metro look at using station attendants — and, indeed, attendants will be on hand. While I’m a huge fan of technology, my experience in Chicago suggests the use of attendants is arguably the most effective way to ensure customer satisfaction and prevent potentially negative experiences.

> Dynamic display and information systems. At some of the stations, the CTA installed standalone video kiosks for promotional material and advertisements. Metro seems to be catching on to this idea to an extent (for example, the recent “More to Love” Orange Line Extension video clips and other promotional slide shows on station displays). I was also happy to see real-time train and bus arrival monitors (most of which were recently installed). This type of information is much more useful than timetable-based arrival times which Metro currently uses, especially when trains are running on altered schedules.

9 replies

  1. mattb,

    In addition to the Quincy/Wells station on the Loop “L” (serving Pink, Orange, Brown, Purple Line trains), the Blue Line Clinton station is two blocks south of Union Station. Also, numerous CTA bus lines serve Union Station from both Canal and Clinton Streets. These buses shuttle daily Metra commuters and Amtrak riders to all parts of the Loop (and beyond).

    Regarding Metra: Sometimes, it is easier and faster to take Metra to certain close-in locations, such as the Museum of Science & Industry on the South Side. Metra Electric (the old Illinois Central line) gets to 57th Street faster than the bus down South Lake Shore Drive, but not as inexpensively, as you might imagine.

  2. I am a LA girl, born and raised. I DO NOT ride the bus at all. The MTA buses are far less than desirable. The train is another story. I occasionally ride and plan to dide more as the routes continue to expand. However, the CTA is by far superioir. I was able to navigate Chicago on my own as a tourist and I love it. Going to google maps and entering your destination gives you exact directions to your destination. Im talking directions that tell you to walk to whatever stop for a specific amount of minutes. You can choose train, bus or walking and the trains and buses, which are a bargain, are easy to manuver. I drove 1 time last time I was in Chicago and when I arrived at my destination, I saw a train station and should have taken the train. I had a CTA card to ride and I loved it.

  3. I have been to Chicago twice (1994 and 2003) and have used the city’s subway system almost exclusively. I noticed that the CTA has added some things since my last visit to the Windy City: real train times at some stations and the use of station attendees. The ChicagoCard was in its infancy the last time I was there. [Questions: (1) Does the CTA still use the plastic transit farecards like we do here in New York? (2) Are the platforms at the elevated still wooden?] My observations, both from my visits as well as from research via CTA’s website (

    Positive–the Red and Blue lines both run 24 hours a day, one of the few subway systems in the world that can make the claim even if all other lines stop running at around 1 AM or so. The CTA has made significant progress with its rail revitalization, rebuilding the Green and Brown Lines and will do so on the southern part of the Red Line in 2013. Two stations have been added since the last time I was there, too. The Els branch out into many areas (as the map above shows) of Chicago & its immediate suburbs.

    Negative–there are far too many “slow zones” within the subway system (which is one reason why the Red Line will be closed for 5 months starting in January 2013) and parts of the system have been in use since the 1880s! If a train gets delayed for any reason, especially South before the Loop, better be using an iPod, iPad or any other electronic device, because it may take a while before the delay is over!

  4. “I have traveled downtown with groups of about 5 and it’s often cheaper to take a taxi for a reasonably short trip (despite the menial fee they add for more than one passenger) than it is for five of us to pay $2 each and pack onto a train or a bus”

    And this is why US public transit agencies running on a flat rate fare system are a failure. At $2.25 flat rate, there are cheaper alternatives for shorter trips. Moped and scooters are one of that, but you even said that “taxis were cheaper for shorter rides” especially when there are five people in a group as taxis are “everyone pays for the price of one”

    “It sounds like you take taxis for the same reasons I did.”

    Basically, flat rate public transit is at a disadvantage to taxis (which run on a metered distance fare) for shorter rides, therefore it fails to capture that market. They get zero from short distance riders and make them choose the taxi when if they could’ve charged something like 50 cents for a short trip, they could’ve at least gained 50 cents.

    Even Metro’s head blogger agrees with this; as the lead blogger for Metro, he uses the competition because it’s cheaper for shorter rides.

  5. Hey mattb,

    Thanks for your additional insight! It sounds like you take taxis for the same reasons I did.

    – Joe Lemon, Contributor, The Source

  6. I live near Chicago, and I can share some experiences from the times I’ve visited parts of the city that are reached by the CTA.

    There are some awesome parts of Chicago that are not easily reachable by train but easy to reach by bus. Examples include the Lincoln Park area (Lincoln Park zoo – about a mile from the nearest subway station but the 22 takes you to the front door), Navy Pier (numerous busses go there but it’s about a mile from the nearest subway station) and Hyde Park University of Chicago (about a mile from the nearest green line station but the 2 bus takes you right there). I’m sure other people can mention other awesome neighborhoods that are harder to reach by train but still quite urban. I don’t mind a mile walk but it’s hard for some people.

    I have traveled downtown with groups of about 5 and it’s often cheaper to take a taxi for a reasonably short trip (despite the menial fee they add for more than one passenger) than it is for five of us to pay $2 each and pack onto a train or a bus (of course with a day pass the savings would add up if we used CTA more, but we didn’t do that for some reason). For longer trips, usually we drove to the destination since it’s slightly cheaper and much more convenient to drive with five of us and split gas and parking than it is to buy five Megabus or Greyhound tickets, so we’d just take the car. However I prefer to just take a train or bus (or walk) when I’m by myself.

    I have taken the blue line to O’hare many times – it’s well worth not paying for a taxi and usually when I go (middle of the day on a Wednesday or something like that) it’s not too full and there’s plenty of seats. There is a blue line station a couple blocks from the greyhound station and an loop station a couple blocks from Union Station, which is nice, but it’s very odd that the CTA doesn’t stop at Union Station despite the fact that it’s where Amtrak, Megabus, and many of the Metra trains stop in downtown…that has to make for a frustrating transfer for commuters!

    CTA connectivity is great downtown but between the outlying areas, not so much (this is true for CTA as well, not just Metra). As an extreme example, it would take 1 hour 40 minutes according to Google to go from Midway to O’Hare, but driving takes ~50 minutes in average traffic. Another example (perhaps less extreme) is someone who transfers to the 95th street red line station and wants to go to midway has to go all the way to downtown first, making the trip about an hour long where driving would take about 30 minutes in average traffic. The difference is mostly due to having to go all the way to downtown and then transfer, just to go back towards the west. This was the idea behind the circle line that is likely not to be built due to funding and other issues.

    I haven’t taken Metra so I can’t comment too much on it. I think it could be convenient for going from a relevant suburb to downtown and back, but it’s much harder to go between suburbs.

  7. You might not have noticed, but most train stations have heat lamps for the winter months. They’re hung over the glass wind shelters. Press a button, and the lamp goes on for 5 minutes.

    Also, as you noted in passing: Wrigley Field is at the intersection of the Red and Brown lines (or Howard and Ravenswood, as we used to say). L.A. has a big problem getting in and out of Dodger Stadium.

  8. Their card doesn’t look any better to me… and the website certainly looks just as bad.

    I wish we could get Metro’s developers on the TAP website instead of Cubic’s. I’m sure Metro’s graphic design guys would design it to look and function better and whoever Metro uses to do the programming (whether in house or contracted) would make it work better too.