Chicago has one of the most streamlined, clean, and convenient public transportation systems in the US. In addition to the intricate bus network, the El and Metra trains extend from the heart of the city well into the northern and western suburbs. This brief guide to the main transport systems in Chicago should give you a basic idea of the costs, range of distance, and safety of the El, Metra, and bus routes.
The El (short for “elevated) is Chicago’s signature rail system. Its eight rail lines stretch the length of the city to reach the northern suburbs of Evanston, Wilmette, and Skokie, in addition to servicing the city’s two airports, O’Hare and Midway. While there are definitely at least a few solicitors or drunkards frequenting the various lines, they are balanced out by a large population of commuters and professionals, making the El a generally safe and clean mode of transit.
Trains run frequently--generally every five to ten minutes--and cost $2.25 each way. Transfers between lines are free at most hub stations, and there is a $0.25 fee for transferring to a bus or transferring at a different El station. For short errands, the El can be very cost effective, as the return trip will be counted as a transfer fee if it is within two hours of the original trip. For frequent El riders, daily, weekly, and monthly passes are available at discounted rates; monthly unlimited passes cost $86, making them good options for people who intend to ride the El every weekday.
The Metra network extends as far south as Joliet and Manhattan, Illinois and as far north as Kenosha, Wisconsin, making it ideal for suburban commuters. Like the El, the Metra offers a wide range of discounted long-term passes, as well as other special fares for families, students, and large groups. Because the Metra is so widespread, the system is divided into both lines and zones, depending on the region served. Tickets, which can be purchased on the train or at a station, vary in cost according to the distance traveled, but usually cost between $2 and $10.
In general, the Metra is much safer and quieter than the El, as conductors make frequent passes through the cars to collect and punch tickets. Additionally, the extra second level of the Metra and the wider seats make it a much smoother, more comfortable ride than the El. However, the Metra makes fewer stops in general, and it doesn’t stop at nearly as many convenient locations downtown.
Probably both the most convenient and the most crowded, the Chicago bus system makes it easy to land within a couple blocks of any given destination. Busses cost $2, with $0.25 transfers to the El and other bus routes. El passes and transit cards can be used on the busses, as both systems are operated by the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA).
The bus system moves quickly, so be sure to have a payment method ready before boarding. The surly bus drivers will not tolerate passengers who spend too much time holding up the line for any reason; this means that you should also avoid asking them for directions or a free ride if you’ve forgotten your pass. The usual bus ride in Chicago will involve bumps, sharp turns, little personal space, and large numbers of grumpy passengers--but most Chicagoans recognize that all this is worth the cheap cost and incredible convenience.
Educational train passes and shuttles
Many of the academic institutions in Chicago will offer free or discounted El passes to college students, graduate students, and faculty. Additionally, many of these institutions will offer shuttle services to various areas of the city that can be used for free transportation.
Many Chicago area residents elect to commute using public transportation to avoid expensive parking costs and heavy traffic. Still others simply use the system to travel between the various Chicago neighborhoods when visiting new restaurants, bars, or museums.