- Download our Moving to Chicago Guide (PDF)
Chicago has a comprehensive and efficient network of public transportation. The city is home to the second-largest public transport system in the USA, consisting of an extensive network of buses and trains, some of which run 24 hours a day.
The availability of good public transport reduces the need to drive, especially in terms of commuting in and out of the city centre. That said, new arrivals with children or who plan on travelling to other parts of the USA may still find having a car worthwhile.
Public transport in Chicago
Chicago's well-integrated public transport network is operated by several entities, all of which fall under the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) umbrella. The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) is responsible for most of the city's buses and trains, with additional services provided by Pace Suburban Bus and Metra Commuter Rail.
Those who plan on travelling regularly should get themselves a Ventra Card. This smartcard system allows commuters to simply tap in and out when boarding or disembarking from a bus and to buy mobile tickets for the train. Travel passes or credit can be loaded onto the card online or at a machine. Ventra can be used on all forms of CTA, Metra and Pace transport.
Learn more about Ventra Cards on the official site.
Buses are the most commonly used mode of transport in Chicago and are run by both the CTA and Pace. They serve local communities and help commuters move across the city. There are also a number of express services available. The frequency of buses varies depending on the particular route and the time of day.
Known as 'the L' (for 'elevated'), Chicago's rapid transit system is extensive. Managed by the CTA, the L is made up of eight lines, each of which is associated with a particular colour. The Red and Blue Lines offer 24-hour service.
Metra operates a commuter rail service comprising 11 lines, covering outlying suburbs. Metra trains are generally fast and reliable, although trains arrive less frequently outside peak hours and during weekends.
Taxis in Chicago
Taxis provide a convenient way to get around Chicago. In the city centre, taxis can easily be hailed from the side of the road. That said, those living further away from the city centre should consider pre-booking a cab ahead of time. Ride-hailing apps such as Uber and Lyft are often the easiest and most efficient way to do so.
Driving in Chicago
It's generally best to avoid driving in the city centre of Chicago, at least during peak hours. Even locals with cars don't typically use them to commute into the city, preferring to use public transport, cycle or walk.
Traffic can be awful and parking expensive. Even outside Chicago's city centre, parking is not readily available. Furthermore, many parking restrictions are in place; for instance, many neighbourhoods reserve street parking for those with matching residential permits. These rules are constantly enforced in the form of parking fines and towing.
Local drivers are also known for driving aggressively, especially on Chicago's expressways. Drivers will be pleased to know that Chicago's road conditions and signage are of a good standard.
For expats and drivers from other states, Chicago allows for a smooth exchange of out-of-state and foreign driving licences. Non-US visitors over 18 years old with valid foreign licenses can drive in Illinois for up to one year from arrival, provided they carry both their home country's licence and, if not in English, an International Driving Permit (IDP).
For those moving from another state or establishing residency (getting a job, enrolling in school or buying/renting property), exchanging their existing licence within 90 days is essential. While Illinois does not have a direct exchange programme with any country, foreign licence holders do not typically start as first-time drivers; they can be issued an Illinois licence after passing necessary tests.
- Understand Chicago's parking restrictions on the Chicago government site
- Get information on road conditions in the state from the Illinois Department of Transportation
- Learn more about driving license exchanges at the Illinois Secretary of State's office
Cycling in Chicago
Chicago has a national reputation as one of the best large cities in the USA for cycling. Chicago has more than 200 miles (322 km) of cycle paths. There are also bike racks and sheltered, high-capacity bicycle parking areas at many rail stations. This allows one to cycle for part of their journey and then hop onto a bus or train for the remainder.
Divvy is Chicago's bike-share program, providing residents and visitors with convenient, affordable and eco-friendly transportation. With numerous docking stations spread throughout the city and surrounding suburbs, Divvy bikes are readily accessible for short trips or daily commutes. Riders can pick up a bike from any station, ride to their destination and dock it at the nearest station.
- Learn more about Divvy Bikes
- Explore Chicago's cycling infrastructure on the Chicago government site
Walking in Chicago
Chicago is a highly walkable city, with its compact downtown area, lakefront, parks and diverse neighbourhoods offering an array of sights and experiences. Sidewalks are generally well maintained and pedestrian friendly, and the city's grid layout makes navigation straightforward. The city also boasts several pedestrian-specific areas, like the Lakefront Trail and the Riverwalk, offering unique, leisurely experiences to pedestrians and promoting a healthy and active lifestyle.
Are you an expat living in Chicago?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to Chicago. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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