How to ride the CTA. We’re lucky to have a fantastic public transportation system in Chicago. You can get almost everywhere in the city (and some suburbs) on a train or bus. Chicago’s ‘L’ (L stands for elevated) system has eight rapid transit routes and consists of 146 stations over approximately 224.1 miles of track. Parts of the ‘L’ run above ground, in subway tunnels and tubes, as well as at grade or in expressway medians. Two routes, the Red and Blue Lines, operate 24 hours, every day. there are 129 bus routes covering 1,536 miles.
Ventra Payment System
The CTA uses Ventra as it’s payment system. You can get Ventra Cards at any Ventra Vending Machine in ‘L’ stations, Ventra Retailers around town, online or by phone. These contact-less cards are easy to load and easy to use. You just tap and go.
Ventra Cards cost $5, but the cost is returned to you as value if you register your card online (by computer or smartphone) or by phone within 90 days. Transit value can be used for rides on buses and trains, or applied toward the purchase of a pass. You can use cash and credit cards in stations to load your Ventra card or credit cards online.
Ventra Tickets are a disposable fare option. These paper, contact-less tickets are vended from machines in every station. They are an easy option if you’ll only be riding for a few days.
Ventra Tickets are good only for a limited time and cannot be loaded again once used up. Your pass activates the first time you use it and is good for the full length of time from that moment. There are single tickets and three passes available that visitors should consider:
- Single-Ride Ventra Ticket: $3 good for up to 3 rides within 2 hours of use. Buy at any Ventra Vending Machine, except at O’Hare. Ventra app
- CTA Single-Ride Ventra Ticket at O’Hare $5. The fare from O’hare is $5. Good for up to 3 rides within 2 hours of use.
- 1-Day Pass: $10 good for unlimited rides for one person for 24 hours from first use. Buy at any Ventra Vending Machine.
- 3-Day Pass: $20 good for unlimited rides for one person for 72 hours from first use. Buy at Ventra Vending Machines at O’Hare & Midway.
- 7-Day Pass: $28 Good for unlimited rides for one person for 7 days from first use. Buy at any Ventra Vending Machine.
Ventra Cards (plastic cards like a credit card)
Ventra Cards cost $5, but the cost is returned to you as value as soon as you register your card–online (by computer or smartphone) or by phone. Transit value can be used for rides on buses and trains, or applied toward the purchase of a pass. You can use cash in L stations to load your Ventra card, load it with your credit card online or through the Ventra app..
The basic ‘L’ or subway fare is $2.50 ($5.00 from O’hare). Free transfers between all ‘L’ routes are available at designated locations (see route guides or maps). If you transfer to a bus it costs $.25. A transfer is good for up to 2 additional rides within 2 hrs. You cannot pay your fare in cash to board the L.
The basic bus fare is $2.25. You can also buy a transfer. It will deduct the .25 from your card when you board another bus. You can pay your fare in cash when you board the bus. You cannot buy a transfer with cash. If you pay cash and want to transfer to another bus you will have to pay another fare. The driver does not have change. CTA fares.
Cheap tip: If you just need to run a couple of quick errands you can ride round trip for the cost of one fare and a transfer or $2.25
CTA bus and rail tracker
The CTA offers a bus (and rail) tracker here. Or when you arrive at a bus stop text “CTABUS” (no quotes) a space and the bus stop number to 41411 to get approximate bus arrival times. You can find the bus stop number at the bottom of the bus stop sign. The Ventra app also have an excellent transit tracker.
Tips on riding the bus
If you plan on using transit a lot while you’re here buy a multi-day pass. Or buy a Ventra card and load the Ventra app onto your phone.
You will be able to ride transit like a local and not deal with cash. You can add cash to your card through the app with your credit card. Use up the value and take your last ride with cash. When you leave you can throw the card away.
If you are in a group calculate your fare before you board the bus and have your exact fare ready.
Do not board the bus and ask how much the fare is for your group and then pull a ziplock bag of money out of your fanny pack and slowly count out singles and then search for coins until you have the fare. Do not pull out a twenty and ask the drive for change. CTA bus drivers haven’t given change since the 1960’s. Do not turn to the bus riders and yell out does anyone have change for a five. If you do not have correct fare go to Walgreens, 7-11 or somewhere and buy something so the register will open and you can get change. Then board the bus. Not being prepared to board the bus slows everything down.
When you board the bus pay your fare immediately and move to the back of the bus.
Do not congregate at the front of the bus. Do not block the aisle with your luggage at the front of the bus. You will not be murdered in the back of the bus or miss your stop if you are paying attention. This blocks the ingress and egress of other riders and slows everything down.
Figure out where you’re going before you board the bus/Take responsibility for knowing where you are going
Most bus driver’s don’t know where everything is. Many bus drivers do not live downtown. Look up where you are going before you leave or use your cell phone. Understand what streets you will be passing once you get on and where you should get off. Use Google maps on your phone. Pull up the bus route map from the CTA website. Once you get on and the bus starts moving look at the display over the front of the bus and follow the streets until the street you need to get off at comes up. Pull the cord immediately to Request a Stop. Or follow your progress on Google Maps on your cell phone.
Do not board the bus and ask the driver questions
“Do you stop at the Eye institute?”, “Where is Saks Fifth Avenue”, “Do you stop at Huron”, “Are you going north”, “Which bus do I take to get to Northwestern Hospital” “Do you go to the train station for the train to Arlington Heights” etc. I could type for hours the questions I’ve heard! Know the exact address where you are going and figure out how to get there before you leave your location and certainly before you get on the bus. I have heard bus drivers give incorrect information. THIS IS NOT THEIR FAULT. There is NO POSSIBLE WAY for them to know where everything is. You could find yourself lost or worse in a bad area if you don’t take responsibility for knowing where you are going and how to get there.
Tips on riding the L
If you plan on using transit a lot while you’re here buy a multi-day pass. Or buy a Ventra card and load the Ventra app onto your phone. You will be able to ride transit like a local and not deal with cash. You can add cash to your card through the app with your credit card. Use up the value and take your last ride with cash. When you leave you can throw the card away.
When you board the L move away from the doors. Do not congregate at the front. This blocks the ingress and egress of other riders and slows everything down. The same rules apply to the L as to the bus. Know where you are going. If you get bad directions and ride the L you could really end up in a bad area.
Research where you’re going ahead of time
Research what buses/trains you need to take ahead of time. CTA bus drivers do not know where everything is and the most expedient way to get there. The CTA has 129 bus routes serving 10,768 bus stops. The “L” has eight routes serving 145 stations. I have witnessed bus drivers giving people incorrect information or tell riders they do not know how to get somewhere.
As noted the CTA goes virtually everywhere. Before you hop on to go somewhere familiarize yourself with where you’re going. Some trains traverse unsafe areas and it may safer to ride the bus through those areas. Some buses traverse unsafe areas and it may be safer to travel via taxi or Uber. Read your guidebook and look at a map before just hopping on. Chicago is a safe city (contrary to what you hear on the news) but you should know where you’re going and utilize common safety precautions such as not wearing expensive jewelry, flashing cash and expensive electronic equipment. If you are using expensive electronics don’t sit near the doors. Thieves will grab your stuff just as the doors are closing and run off the train. Bye bye.
Don’t ride the L at off hours
While the Red line and Blue line operate 24 hours it isn’t always safe to travel at odd hours. Some L platforms can be deserted at off hours, on weekends and on holidays. You may want to exercise caution if you are traveling outside of rush hour (6AM-10AM and 3PM-7PM). I personally don’t ride the L after 7PM unless I’m coming back from a Cubs game (Red line). If my plane lands after 6PM on a weekday I take the airport shuttle or a taxi downtown. On Saturday’s and Sunday’s I won’t ride it back from the airport after dark in the winter. Some people feel comfortable riding the L at all hours.
Buses to popular destinations in and around downtown (check links for details):
- 10 – The Museum bus starts behind Water Tower Place and runs down to the Museum of Science and Industry. Runs in summer only and daytime hours. Also runs Nov. 23-Dec. 31 see schedule for details.
- 20 – The Madison bus runs west down Madison to the west Loop and Greektown and beyond. Get off at Halsted for Greektown. Beyond that it runs to the United Center and into less safe areas. There’s also the 19 which runs specifically for certain events at the United Center.
- 22 – The southbound Clark Street Bus runs to the south Loop. The northbound bus run north Lincoln Park and to Wrigley Field and beyond. If you are going to Lincoln Park ride the Red or Brown line (stops vary by specific destination). To Wrigley ride the Red line to Addison. It’s faster.
- 29 – The State Street bus runs south into the South Loop and north and east to Navy Pier.
- 36 – The Broadway bus runs north to Lincoln Park and south into the South Loop. You can get to Lincoln Park faster by riding the Red or Brown line (stops vary by specific destination).
- 56 – This bus runs to Wicker Park and Bucktown down Milwaukee. You can get to both faster by riding the Blue Line to California or Damen (depending on your final destination). This is a good option to return from Wicker Park or Bucktown at night until 10PM-11PM depending on day and direction.
- 65 – The Grand Avenue bus travels east and west and terminates on the east at Navy Pier.
- 66 – The Chicago Avenue bus travels east and west and terminates on the east at Navy Pier.
- 72 – The North Avenue bus extends its route out to the North Avenue Beach house in summer.
- 78 The Montrose Bus extends its route out to Montrose Beach in summer.
- 124 – Navy Pier bus runs between Union/Ogilvie Stations and Navy Pier.
- 128 – Soldier Field Express runs nonstop between Ogilvie Transportation Ctr., Union Station & Soldier Field for Bears Games. Special round-trip cash fare $5 full fare / $2.50 reduced (cash or Ventra Card only).
- 130 – Museum Campus bus runs between Ogilvie/Union Stations east to Museum Campus. You can pick it up at Adams and State to go to the Museum Campus. Only runs in summer and daytime hours.
- 146 – This bus can be picked up on southbound Michigan Avenue from Delaware to before Wacker Drive and on State Street and goes to the Museum Campus including the south end of Soldiers Field, Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium and Adler Planetarium.
- 147 – This bus goes down Michigan Avenue between Water Tower and Congress Parkway and stops at Millennium Park.
- 151 – This bus goes down Michigan Avenue between Union Station and Water Tower and stops at Millennium Park. If you take it north of Water Tower it stops at the Lincoln Park Zoo.
- 156 – The LaSalle bus runs weekdays only through the Loop and north into the Gold Coast.
- 157 – This bus goes down Michigan and then turns east at Ohio and heads into Streeterville. It only runs on weekdays.
L stops to popular destinations from downtown (check links for details):
- Blue Line (stop name in italics): O’hare Airport, Division, Damen, Western, California = Wicker Park and Bucktown, Logan Square, Clinton = Union Station, UIC = University of Illinois.
- Brown Line Brown Line trains operate counterclockwise around the Loop: Southport, Belmont, Wellington, Diversey, Fullerton, Armitage (6 stops)= Lincoln Park, Chicago Avenue and Merchandise Mart (2 stops) = River North, Harold Washington Library = Main Chicago Library, Adams/Wabash = Art Institute and Grant Park, Randolph and Wabash = Macy’s, Block 37, Millennium Park.
- Green Line Conservatory = Garfield Park Conservatory (Note: the ride to the Conservatory traverses some unsafe areas only ride during the day), Morgan and Clinton (2 stops) = West Loop, State/Lake, Randolph/Wabash (2 stops) = State Street, Block 37, Millennium Park, Adams/Wabash = Art Institute and Grant Park.
- Orange Line Oragne Line trains make all stops, clockwise around the Loop: Midway Airport, State/Lake, Randolph/Wabash (2 stops) = Macy’s, Block 37, Millennium Park, Adams/Wabash = Art Institute and Grant Park, Harold Washington Library = Main Chicago Library.
- Pink Line Pink Line trains make all stops, clockwise around the Loop
Morgan and Clinton (2 stops) = West Loop, 18th = National Museum of Mexican Art and Pilsen.
- Red Line: Belmont, and Fullerton (2 stops)= Lincoln Park, North/Clybourn = Clybourn Corridor, Clark/Division = Gold Coast and Rush Street, Chicago = Gold Coast, Water Tower Place, Mag Mile, Loyola University Grand = River North, Lake = State Street, Block 37, Millennium Park, Jackson = DePaul University
- Purple Line runs to Evanston and Wilmette (suburbs) on weekdays only. Some trains run express.
- Yellow Line runs express from Rogers Park to Skokie (suburb).