Driving in Chicago

chicago driving streets

Driving in Chicago really isn’t as bad as people say. In fact, I love just going for a drive every once in a while through the city. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend hitting up Lake Shore Drive at 5pm on a Friday, but driving can be a pretty easy way to get around the city. The following are some helpful tips about driving in Chicago.

Things to Be Aware Of

Bike Lanes

As a driver in Chicago, it’s important to be aware of the multitude of bikers in the city, especially during the warmer months. Bike lanes run through almost all major veins in the city, as well as many smaller streets. If you’re taking a right turn, make sure to check your mirrors and over your shoulder to make sure there isn’t a biker coming up behind you. I’ve seen this disaster happen more times than I’d like to think about. Also remember that, though they shouldn’t, many brave bikers will weave between cars and cross through red lights. Since I assume you don’t want biker remains on your windshield, keep an eye out for these guys. And hey, they’re doing good for the city by not driving, so give ’em a brake, ok?! (Heheh, pun definitely intended…)

The Grid System

Driving in the city is pretty darn easy, at least as compared to New York or — god forbid — Boston! If you’ve already read our city orientation article, you understand Chicago’s grid system. Once you’ve grasped that whole concept, driving in the city should be a cinch. Just be aware that many of the city’s side streets are one-way.

Speed Humps

A somewhat recent development, speed humps are popping up around the city, and not only in residential neighborhoods. Though they are mostly kept to smaller side streets, they have even been placed in busy areas like downtown on streets near Michigan Avenue. Keep an eye out for them… no one likes a broken axle.


It’s illegal to text or talk on a cell phone without the use of a hands-free device while driving in Illinois. Of course, people get away with it every day, but you can (and possibly will) get a ticket for doing it. The fine for holding a cell phone while driving is $50, and up to $200 if there is an accident.

You are required by law to wear a seatbelt while in an operating vehicle. This includes back seat passengers. Children under the age of eight are also required to be in a child safety seat.
Photo-enforced lights are becoming more and more common. So, be extra cautious about yellow lights. If you don’t want to risk getting a ticket, just play it safe and treat yellow lights like red. Otherwise you might get a snazzy photo of yourself picking your nose sent to you by the Secretary of State. Not so fun.

An obvious one, but must be said: it is against the law to drive with a blood alcohol level over .08. It’s never very hard to catch a taxi on the street, so it’s best to just hail one if you’ve had a few drinks.


In Chicago, we call them expressways. Highways are ok, too, but they are definitely NOT freeways, *ahem Californians ahem* (though, yes they are, in fact, free to use). We do also have a few tollways, so be sure to note which ones will cost you. An important thing to remember when using the expressways here: we Chicagoans don’t tend to call the interstates by their designated number. Instead, we like to call them by other given names. This helps indicate which part of the interstate is being referred to. For example, I-90 has multiple names depending on where in or around the city you are located. Yes, its annoying for newbies, and yes, you will need to learn the names AND the numbers, but give it time, grasshopper. You will be juuuust fine.

The following is a list of the major expressways that run through downtown Chicago and their given names:

  • Kennedy Expressway (I-90/I-94, north of the city): runs northwest from the city between O’Hare International Airport and downtown Chicago. Named after President John F. Kennedy.
  • Dan Ryan Expressway (I-90/94, south of the city): runs south from downtown until it splits into the Bishop Ford (I-94) and the Chicago Skyway (I-90). Named after Daniel B. Ryan, President of the Cook County Board of Commissioners.
  • Edens Expressway (I-94, north of the City): runs north from the Kennedy Junction to the north suburbs. Named for William Edens, head of the Illinois Highway Improvement Association. Fun Fact: Edens never owned or drove a car!
  • Bishop Ford Highway (I-94, south of the City): starts on the south side where the Dan Ryan ends; runs into Indiana. Named for Bishop Louis Henry Ford, who worked at a nearby church.
  • Chicago Skyway (I-90): starts on the south side where the Dan Ryan ends; runs into the Indiana Toll Bridge.
  • Stevenson Expressway (I-55): runs south from the city toward St. Louis, Missouri. Access to Midway International Airport. Named after Illinois governor and presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson.
  • Eisenhower Expressway (Highway 290): runs from downtown to the western suburbs. Named after President Dwight D. Eisenhower
  • Lake Shore Drive (U.S. Highway 41): runs along the lakefront from 63rd street on the South Side to Hollywood & Sheridan on North Side. Named for it’s location. Obviously. Also known as LSD.

Other Chicagoland expressways include: I-57, I-190, I-294, I-88, I-355

Getting an Illinois Driver’s License and Illinois License Plates

If you have recently moved to Chicago, you will want to get an Illinois Driver’s License. You can legally continue to drive on your out-of-state driver’s license for only 90 days, so if you plan to be driving, it should definitely be a priority to get your new license. CDL holders must obtain an Illinois CDL within 30 days of becoming an Illinois resident.

To get your new license, you will have to go to a Driver Services facility and pass a vision test, written exam, and in some cases a driving exam.

To change your vehicle registration and get new license plates you can fill out of form at the same facility where you pick up your license. Your plates must be changed within 30 days of becoming an Illinois resident. Better get on that!


Don’t have a car? Want to save the earth? Chicago is a participant in Zip Car, and also has its own car-sharing system, I-Go.

Drive Safely!

Jackie Berkery

About Jackie Berkery

With a strong phobia of cubicles and those three little words (“nine to five”), I am thrilled to be working on UPchicago from the comforts of my own couch at three o’clock in the morning. I love to write. I love Chicago. Hello, dream job!

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