The “L” Basics

Stemming from my distaste for driving, I am a constant user (and critic) of all city public transportation systems. The Chicago “L” really is the best, most economical way to get around Chicago, and is, compared with many other cities, a very efficient and fast system. And you’ve gotta appreciate that it is largely above ground… anyone else hate hot, dirty, and smelly subway stations?

The L is the third busiest mass transit system in the U.S. behind New York and Washington D.C., and is one of only four mass transit systems that offers 24 hour service on some of its lines. It is also the second oldest mass transit system behind New York. With 144 stations, 224.1 miles of track, 1,190 rail cars, and around 2,391 trips per day, it’s a fairly extensive system that you’d be wise to get to know.

The first thing you need to know is your colors. This has proved a hindrance to me in other cities I have lived because I constantly refer to the subway lines by their colors instead of their names, but in Chicago the eight rapid transit lines are known by their colors, not numbers or names. For an in-depth listing of each line and where they run, click here. These eight lines travel throughout city, to Chicago’s two major airports, and even to some close-lying suburbs. Most tracks run elevated above ground, some are on surface level, and some are underground. The Red and Blue lines traverse the city underground as a Subway, but please, promise me now you will never refer to the “L” as the subway. As a matter of fact, I would even avoid calling it the train (to any true Chicagoaon, that means you’re taking the Metra). No, you are indeed taking the L. And while we are on the subject, the “L” is correct, not the “El,” even though I understand that would probably make more sense.

One ride on the L at the time of writing cost $2.25, and the first transfer cost $0.25. The second transfer is free, but must be used within two hours of the first fare. You can purchase your fare card in one of the vending machines situated in the front of each L station. Simply put your cash and/or coins into the machine and press “Vend” for a fare card. They also have machines called “express vending machines” that accept all major credit cards. At select stations, CTA passes are also sold in allotments of 1-day, 3-day, and 7-day amounts. These are a great idea for the tourist on a budget or the suburbanite in for the weekend. You can also purchase cards at CTA headquarters and select retail stores. Fare cards are reloadable and recyclable– keep an eye out for metal bins labeled ‘recycled fare cards’ in each station. Another option is to get yourself a reload-able Chicago Card. Trust me when I say they’re worth it! If you’re a full-time student, at most colleges and universities in the city you can get a U-Pass, which allows you unlimited free rides around the city.

Now that you’ve got your fare card, take it to the turnstile and insert it with the picture facing you and the side with the corner cut off pointing down. You’ll notice it also says the balance of your card while it deducts your $2.25. You can always check your balance at the vending machines as well.

Now you just have to make sure you can figure out where to go. In order to know which side of the platform to go to, you have to figure out what the last stop on your line is. For example, if you are going northbound on the red line, you want the train heading toward Howard. The sign in front of and on the side of the train should say Howard. If you are heading southbound, go to the side that says 95th/Dan Ryan. “Ding, dong, doors closing.” Success! Just remember to give up your seat for the handicapped, pregnant or elderly, it’s just plain considerate.

For those bikers out there, thanks to a project called “Bike and Ride,” you can truly get around the city in the greenest, and fastest, way possible. Bicycles are allowed on the L every weekday except from 7a.m. to 9a.m. and 4p.m. to 6p.m. (except on July 3 and 4, and in cases of extreme crowding). On Saturdays, Sundays and holidays (excluding July 3 and 4), bicycles are allowed on trains all day. If you board the train with your bicycle before the hours listed above and your trip extends into those hours, the CTA allows you to finish your trip.

Tip: If you don’t have a ChicagoCard or are from out of town, when going to busy events in the city via the L such as a Cubs game, always buy a round-trip pass. If you don’t you will inevitably be waiting for a long time in line to buy one after its over, when you could have breezed through.

And remember, the L likes to have fun too! Each year on New Years Eve the L offers “Penny Rides” from 8pm until 6am in order to discourage people from enjoying a little too much celebratory champagne and then driving home. It also is impossible to find a cab at the turn of the year, so the penny rides are a fantastic idea. And really, a penny? More often than not they just leave the turnstiles up. Around Christmas time the L also features “Santa on the L.” Check the CTA website for when you can find Santa riding the L!

Click here for more information on the CTA L system.

Tessa McLean

About Tessa McLean

There is just something about that feeling when you have been away — maybe for a weekend, a month, 6 months — and you’re driving into Chicago and that first glimpse of the city skyline appears. It just always makes me smile.

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