Here are some good resources for getting started living car-free in Chicago

Still from Luis Gusto's guide to using the 'L' system.
Still from Luis Gusto's guide to using the 'L' system.

It’s pretty sweet to work for the blog that inspired my move to Chicago. I grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, and knew that I’d eventually move to a larger city. In high school I discovered the link between climate change and our car-centric transportation system and vowed to move to a city where I wouldn’t need to own a car for daily trips. I chose Chicago due to its proximity to Little Rock, relatively cheaper cost of living (compared to peer cities like New York City), cultural offerings, and robust public transportation, at least by U.S. standards.

In my first visit to the city as an adult I relied on Google Maps to help me navigate the CTA. I got lost plenty of times. One memorable experience was when I stood on the Sheridan Red Line platform utterly confused about whether I got off at the right stop for my destination along Sheridan Road. 

A few weeks ago someone who recently moved to our city from suburban New Jersey wrote to Streetsblog Chicago asking if we offered one-on-one or group orientations for using Chicagoland transit. “Having been car-dependent for most of my life, it’s a little intimidating, but I am convinced (and your blog reinforces this) that going carless is a good option.”

We don’t offer this service but we certainly recognize the need for accessible resources for those navigating local transit for the first time. We asked our readers on Twitter what resources they’d recommend to folks navigating Chicago’s transit system for the first time.

If I could go back to my days as a newcomer to public transportation, I would have looked up my trips in advance. One can easily plug in your starting point and destination in Google Maps and obtain transit drections. Looking at this information in Google Maps also gives you a wider view of Chicago’s street grid.

Speaking of the grid, I found this YouTube video by Luis Gusto, on his channel Go Luis Gusto, about the Chicago street grid very useful and sent it to a friend who was asking about navigating Chicago by transit. (Streetsblog Chicago also ran a post a while ago with useful and interesting factoids about the street numbering and naming system.)

I would supplement watching that video with studying a map of an area of Chicago to see how the grid works. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to figure out what your most common trip will be and keep track of what train stops or bus routes you’ll be using the most. Gusto has also created this guide to riding the ‘L’, as well as a guide to riding CTA buses.


The CTA’s website also includes guides to using the system. Topics include making regional transit connections, using Bus Tracker and Train Tracker, traveling with children, and bringing your bike on buses and trains.

A number of folks recommended downloading a public transportation app to your smartphone. Popular transit apps are Transit and Citymapper. You can find a number of transit apps by typing “transit” or “CTA” into the search tool in your smartphone’s app store. These apps allow you to see when your train or bus is scheduled to arrive and many allow you to see how many available Divvy bike-share cycles are available.

In addition to the online CTA Bus Tracker and Train Tracker features, every CTA bus stop sign has a number you can text for bus arrival information. I also recommend using the Ventra app to keep track of your balance on your transit card and easily purchase a Metra ticket, among other uses. Ventra is the electronic payment vendor for the Chicago Transit Authority, Pace, and Metra. 

If you’re open to navigating Chicago on two wheels, consider a Divvy membership. Most Chicago transit stops have nearby Divvy stations, so the cycles are handy for first- and last-mile trips to and from the train. I started out using Divvy for rides on the Lakefront Trail, but I eventually started using the system whenever I’d miss a bus or found the wait time for a bus too long.

Streetsblog Chicago co-editor John Greenfield created the Chicago Mellow Bike Map, a guide for those seeking a calmer way to get around Chicago by bike. I encourage you to save the map to your phone. In general, you can find a calm side street one or two blocks over from a major road. 

How easy it is to live car-free in Chicago definitely depends on your neighborhood and lifestyle but in general this is a city where it’s possible to enjoy a good quality of life without car ownership.

Are there any other tips you’d recommend to those new to car-free life in Chicago? Share them in the comments section.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

Courtney Cobbs Comments on the CTA

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[This piece originally ran in Checkerboard City, John’s column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets on Wednesday evenings.] Social worker and transit fan Courtney Cobbs moved to our city from Little Rock, Arkansas, in 2013, partly because she wanted to be able to live car-free. She has posted some thought-provoking comments on Streetsblog Chicago […]