The 'EL' and what that actually means.

One of the greatest things about Chicago is the very easy public transportation system. Although not the fastest system around, it certainly is one of the easiest and can theoretically get you everywhere. I say theoretically because there are certain parts of the city where you must take a bus or be picked up in a car and that can be very time consuming. I have waited over a half hour during a transfer. It has also taken me up to two hours to travel long distances, even just within the city limits.

Let me ‘break it down’ for you…

All the buses and city trains are run by CTA (City transit Authority)

If you want to ride the bus or city train, called the ‘EL’ because it’s mostly on an elevated track, you can use one card. You can go to the train vending machines and put money on a disposable card with cash or use the alternative machines in the station with a credit/debit card. For a 1/3/7/30 day pass go to a currency exchange or Jewel/Dominick’s grocery store. The most recent thing is called a Chicago card (or plus), which is a hard plastic card. This card gives you more protection and control over the money you put on it because you can monitor your money through the internet and cancel it if it’s lost/stolen. You can get this online and at some stations.

Keep in mind that when you are downtown the Red and the Blue line are subway trains and there is an underground transfer tunnel that connects them at Jackson. If you ever have questions, there is almost always a CTA employee at the station and they will help you, usually happily (unlike NYC).

Although they are cutting costs big time within the CTA, they are also adding conveniences that can ease the ride. Now, they are tracking the next train in many of the busier train stops with an electronic board that says when the next train will arrive. I like that, at least, I can make a choice to take a cab if I am in a hurry. For the buses, if you have internet access, log on to bus tracker http://www.ctabustracker.com/bustime/home.jsp. This will tell you when the next bus is coming. Once in a while the bus is not ‘trackable’ for whatever reason, weather or traffic. But overall it is a great system and is very accurate. I ran to another bus stop once with a stranger because we tracked a bus on a neighboring street. It was fun.

Be careful!!! Lately, there is a new phenomenon called Flash Mobs. Several people (5-6), usually teenagers, are jumping/robbing people, who aren’t paying attention because they are on their phone or listening to music. Currently you will see a group of guys out wearing red berets, called the Guardian Angels. These group of guys are volunteering their own time and protecting stations with high crime rates. The program began in NYC in the 70's. These men are to be put at the utmost respect. To be a Guardian Angel, learn more or donate go here:

Be mindful when you are riding the train. Don’t ‘zone out’ or trust people. Don’t fall for card game scams or any type of money scam. No one really needs money if they already got on the train and no one ever wins money on the train. Be aware of your surroundings, trust your instinct but don’t act afraid or naive. Stay out of any anger related situations that may occur in front of you. Stay out of peoples business, don't stare if someone is hitting their child. Be nice, calm and confident if someone talks to you or shouts at you. Don't worry, the bad experiences are few and far between. Just be cool kids.

On a lighter note, the trains to the suburbs are much nicer, quite luxurious in fact. There is also a conductor who collects your ticket and keeps out the riffraff. It’s a lot of fun to ride these trains.

If you are going to the BURBS, check out, Metra Trains http://metrarail.com/metra/wap/en/home.html

These trains will literally get you to every city in the Chicagoland area and beyond or close enough. One even goes to Wisconsin. Be careful to figure out which train station you are leaving from downtown because there are several. Union Station (225 South Canal Street)/ Ogilvie (500 West Madison Street) are the biggest and historically impressive. They are both located just west of where the Chicago River curves. You could hypothetically just go there, pick a city and go. You don’t even have to purchase your ticket at the station, although it’s cheaper. You could just get on and purchase it from the conductor. Trains are fairly frequent. Here are some suggestions for a day or night trip with a map here:

Kenosha Wisconson
Arlington Heights downtown (my home town)
Arlington Heights Race track
Elgin downtown (Gambling Boat)
Woodstock, Illinois
Hyde Park
Evanston (You can also get there by El train)
Ravinia music venue (http://www.ravinia.org/ )

The list goes on but those are just a few popular places. Enjoy Chicago without a car. I have been doing it very happily since 1998.