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Chicago's extensive public transportation network includes rapid-transit trains, buses, and a commuter-rail network. The Chicago Transit Authority, or CTA, operates the rapid-transit trains (the El), city buses, and suburban buses (Pace). Metra runs the commuter rail.
The Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) for northeastern Illinois oversees and coordinates the activities of the CTA and Metra. The RTA's website can be a useful first stop if you are planning to combine suburban and city public transit while in Chicago.
Pace (847/364–7223. www.pacebus.com.)
Regional Transportation Authority (312/913–3110. www.rtachicago.com.)
CTA: The El and Buses
The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) operates rapid-transit trains and buses. Chicago's rapid-transit train system is known as the El. Each of the eight lines has a color name as well as a route name: Blue (O'Hare-Congress-Douglas), Brown (Ravenswood), Green (Lake-Englewood-Jackson Park), Orange (Midway), Purple (Evanston), Red (Howard-Dan Ryan), Yellow (Skokie Swift), and Pink (Cermak). In general, the route names indicate the first and last stop on the train. Chicagoans refer to trains both by the color and the route name. Most, but not all, rapid-transit lines operate 24 hours; some stations are closed at night. The El, though very crowded during rush hours, is the quickest way to get around (unless you're coming from the suburbs, in which case the Metra is quicker but doesn't run as often). Trains run every 15 minutes, though during rush hour they run about every 10 minutes, and on weekends every 30 minutes. Pick up the brochure "Downtown Transit Sightseeing Guide" for hours, fares, and other pertinent information. (You can also download it at www.transitchicago.com/assets/1/brochures/downtown_sightseeing_guide.pdf.) In general, late-night CTA travel is not recommended. Note that many of the Red and Blue line stations are subways; the rest are elevated. This means if you're heading to O'Hare and looking for the Blue Line, you may have to look for a stairway down, not up.
Fares must be paid by transit card on trains; buses accept both transit cards and cash (dollar bills or coins; no change given). Transit cards can be purchased from machines at CTA train stations as well as at Jewel and Dominick's grocery stores and currency exchanges. These easy-to-use cards are inserted into the turnstiles at CTA train stations and into machines as you board CTA buses; directions are clearly posted. Use them to transfer between CTA vehicles. To transfer between the Loop's elevated lines and the subway or between rapid-transit trains and buses, you must either use a transit card with at least 25¢ stored on it, or, if you're not using a transit card, buy a transfer when you first board. If two CTA train lines meet, you can transfer for free. You can also obtain free train-to-train transfers from specially marked turnstiles at the Washington/State subway station or the State/Lake El station, or ask for a transfer card, good on downtown trains, at the ticket booth.
Buses generally stop on every other corner northbound and southbound (on State Street they stop at every corner). Eastbound and westbound buses generally stop on every corner. Buses from the Loop generally run north-south. Principal transfer points are on Michigan Avenue at the north side of Randolph Street for northbound buses, Adams Street and Wabash Avenue for westbound buses and the El, and State and Lake streets for southbound buses.
Bus schedules vary depending on the time of day and route, and run every 8 to 15 minutes, though service is less frequent on weekends, very early in the morning, and late at night. Schedules are available online at www.transitchicago.com.
Pace runs suburban buses in a six-county region; these connect with the CTA and use CTA transit cards, transfers, and passes.
The CTA fare structure is as follows: the basic fare for rapid-transit trains is $2.25 by transit card. The basic fare for buses is $2.25 when paying cash and $2 when using a transit card. Transfers are 25¢ when using a transit card; no transfers are issued when paying cash. Transit cards can be purchased in preset denominations of $10 or $20 at many local grocery stores, currency exchanges, and stations. You can also purchase a transit card of any denomination over $2 at any CTA stop. Transfers can be used twice within a two-hour time period. Transfers between CTA train lines are free—no transfer card is needed. Transit cards may be shared.
For $5.75 a one-day Visitor Pass offers 24 hours of unlimited CTA riding from the time you first use it. Visitor Passes are sold at hotels, museums, and other places tourists frequent, plus all transit-card booths. A three-day pass is $14, and a seven-day pass is $23.
CTA (Merchandise Mart, 567 W. Lake St., Chicago, IL, 60661. 888/968–7282. www.transitchicago.com.)
Metra: Commuter Trains
Metra commuter trains serve the city and suburbs. The Metra Electric railroad has a line close to Lake Michigan; its trains stop in Hyde Park. The Metra commuter rail system has 11 lines to suburbs and surrounding cities including Aurora, Elgin, Joliet, and Waukegan; one line serves the North Shore suburbs, and another has a stop at McCormick Place. Trains leave from several downtown terminals.
Metra trains use a fare structure based on distance. A Metra weekend pass costs $7 and is valid for rides on any of the eight operating lines all day on weekends, except for the South Shore line.
Metra information line (312/322–6777. www.metrarail.com.)
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