Students, there’s really only one thing you need to know about public transportation, and it’s the U-Pass. Treat it like your baby. Don’t lose it.
U-Pass is a cooperative program between local colleges and universities and the CTA. If you attend a participating school, the cost of your U-Pass is embedded in your tuition, but you’re saving a ton of money.
U-Pass basically gives you unlimited use of CTA rail and buses. Unfortunately U-Pass is not accepted on Metra trains or Pace buses, but these routes are generally suburban.
A few things to be careful of: don’t share the card, don’t put it in the cash slot on buses, and don’t try to use it at the same station in succession. The CTA is strict about U-Passes that need to be replaced if lost or stolen. It’s a long process and it costs an extra $50. For a full list of participating schools as well as the rules and conditions of the U-Pass program, visit the CTA website.
Once you’ve made your college decision, the hard part is done.
But that doesn’t mean you can slack off.
You’re coming to the third-largest city in the country, a place where the people are loud but friendly, the food is plentiful but pricey and the weather is … well, we’ll get to that. Before you talk to your roommate and decide who’s bringing the TV and who’s bringing the microfridge (and definitely before you send your teary-eyed mother on her way), read this list to prepare for the adventure of your life.
This isn’t a test. It’s just planning to make the fun part even more fun.
Eat out once a week.
Chicago has this little thing called Grubhub.com, where you can order just about any food at just about any time of day for a reasonable fee. Check this out at 2 a.m. after a hard night of studying (or “studying”) and you’re bound to find hundreds of joints willing to deliver you a “hangover burrito” (this exists and is amazing) or the greasiest not-Chicago-style pizza (because sometimes you just want it like they make it at home). Furthermore, each campus in this city has its share of little coffee shops, brewpubs and sandwich makers where the in-the-know students hang out. You’ve got to eat, so why not eat well? That said, your meal plan is a much better deal (especially if it’s on Mom and Dad’s tab), and the Freshman 15 is not an urban myth, so make sure you do your splurging in moderation.
Dress for the weather.
Chicago has a unique style: Weather appropriate. The people who live here know how to let their winter-musts make the fashion statement for them. David Murphy, a graduate of Northwestern University who has since moved to the warmer climate of San Francisco, says it comes down to two words: “Thick coats.” Chicagoans learned this the hard way during a record-breaking blizzard in February. A zero-rated parka (check out these coats from L.L. Bean) might make you look like little Randy lumbering around in his snowsuit in “A Christmas Story,” but when you have a mile to walk between the dorm and class, you won’t be sorry.
Chicagoans will tell you that there are only two seasons here: winter and summer. That was true this year, but usually there is that period in March and April where the average high temperatures are in the 40s and 50s (and NOAA knows better than anyone). Spring here is rainy, and nowhere in the world will you see a better assortment of galoshes. Check out the selection of rain boots on Zappos.com for a style that suits you.
Then there’s the hot weather, a three-month anomaly that just this week led Chicago Police to shut down North Avenue Beach when four people suffered from heat exhaustion. That’s when it helps to get some sweat-wicking clothing (Moosejaw in Lincoln Park has a great selection) and constant hydration.
Learn the CTA.
This was our top tip from Chicagoans themselves. Annie Koval, who did her undergrad at the University of Illinois before moving to the big city to pursue her graduate studies at Northwestern, says it best: “Figure out the L, and figure it out fast.”
Many universities give students a U-Pass, which let’s you ride as much as you want. Your student fees pay for it, so use it. Within the city, a CTA bus or train can get you anywhere you need to go, and if you’re a future Wildcat headed to Northwestern’s Evanston campus, you can use the Pace bus, which directly connects to the CTA.
Remember the buddy system.
As soon as you told people you were moving to Chicago, you probably heard lots about being safe. In the end, your safety is largely a result of your common sense and intuition. According to the Chicago Police’s Personal Safety Tips Checklist, you should be alert and be prepared, carrying your money in places that aren’t easy for pick-pockets to get to and walking on well-lit streets. Women are always recommended to leave the clutch (which can just as easily become an un-clutch) at home and carry all that stuff in a sling bag or cross body purse.
Most importantly, travel in pairs or in groups at night and, if you must go out alone, tell a roommate or resident assistant where you’re going and when you should be back.
Leave campus whenever possible. (Be a tourist!)
This city has so much to offer, from parks to museums, theaters and clubs. If you stay in your dorm and never venture past the cafeteria or classroom, the world that is at your fingertips might as well be a world away. Instead, check out the list of events at Metromix and plan a hall night out on the town. Or choose one of the many plays or shows in Chicago – this summer, we have the Broadway touring casts of West Side Story and Beauty and the Beast. After a quick read of Chicago’s official tourism site, you will find something for everyone.
Buy a map. (But leave the car at home.)
The cost to park here is astronomical, and public transit is reliable and cheap. So catch a ride to Chicago with your parents (they’ll feel better if they see you settled into your new home anyway) and leave your car at home.
That doesn’t mean you won’t need a map, though. The last thing you want is to get turned around in a neighborhood you don’t know well and not know how to get back from whence you came. Yes, there’s an app for that, but what if you don’t have 3G/4G? What if you’ve dropped your phone? A good carry-around pocket-sized map is the Randy McNally Chicago Pop-up Map. Bonus: It has the Blues Brothers on the cover for maximum hipness.
As Christopher Rios, a student at Dominican University, explained on Ask Metafilter: “Learn the grid system of Chicago. You’ll never get lost if you know it.”
Become a fan (or at least give it the ol’ college try).
Chicago lives and dies by its teams, especially the Bears and the Blackhawks, which have a regional following and rabid fans who want to talk shop year-round. It helps that these teams are good – though not the best this season, sadly – so even if you aren’t a walking sports encyclopedia, you can check the headlines every now and again just to have the talking points. To get you started: Cutler’s knee. Canucks’ hair-pulling.
Talk to strangers.
This isn’t advice you’re going to get from the grandparents, but if you want to know Chicago like Chicagoans do, you need to talk to Chicagoans. As we journalists like to say, go to the source. This city has all the charm the Midwest is known for, just in a larger package. As long as you’re not chasing the strangers into dark alleyways, striking up a friendly conversation with the person you’re skin-to-skin with on a packed train or sitting next to at the bar, it’s a great way to become acquainted with the city fast.
CTA in one word
Soliciting signatures or donations may be hard, but asking CTA riders to share their opinions about Chicago’s public transportation system is a piece of cake. Everyone has something to say, and sometimes, a little too much.
We wanted them to sum it up so we asked more than 50 red, purple, brown, green, pink and blue line riders to describe the CTA in one word:
Answers ranged from descriptive words like “L” and “transportation” to more controversial ones like “murderers” and “excellent.”
Most words were inevitably followed up by explanations. One passenger expressed anger that the CTA turned the air-conditioning up on the coldest days of winter. Another couldn’t stop talking about how filthy it is, while a third praised its functionality.
Overall, there was a wide range of words. Most were neutral, negative, or critical, with “slow” being the most common.
Grading CTA safety
In response to the recent death of a woman pushed down the Fullerton stop stairs by a man who had just stolen an iPhone, Chicago Loopster also asked CTA riders about safety.
What did the CTA’s report card look like?
About as positive as the word cloud.
Most of the poor grades were given by people who had witnessed a crime or been victims themselves. For the rest, the lack of security cameras and police was often mentioned, with one man saying he could do anything at the time we were interviewing him, and no one would stop him. “Anything” ranged from committing a serious crime to robbing someone or peeing on the train.
All grades include grade variation. For example, “B” includes “B+” and “B-.”
Meanwhile, other CTA riders highlighted the disparity between different lines. They said CTA safety depends on which line you take.
“On the purple line you can take your laptop out and work. You can even doze off and it’s not uncommon. But I would never in a million years think of doing that on the red,” said Andre Walker, a long time CTA rider.
As the 2011 baseball season kicks into full gear, fans of the Cubs and White Sox once again flood the areas around Wrigley Field and U.S. Cellular Field. Here are the best ways to get to each ballpark on the CTA as the two teams embark on their 2011 campaigns.
View Taking the CTA to Wrigley and U.S. Cellular. in a larger map
When 68-year-old Sally Katona-King died from injuries suffered after being knocked down the stairs by a thief fleeing the CTA’s Fullerton stop with a stolen iPhone, she was the worst kind of victim – an innocent bystander.
Just two days after Katona-King’s death, a 58-year-old Evanston man on a northbound Purple Line train – one of close to 1.5 million daily CTA bus and rail riders – was punched in the head and had his laptop stolen. Two teen suspects were caught by Evanston police and released.
iPhone and other computer and smart gadget theft is on the rise in Chicago and nationwide, according to local authorities. While neither the CTA nor the Chicago Police Department track exactly how many of the devices are stolen, the total is high enough for Kevin O’Neil of the CTA Tattler blog to report a Brown Line train operator saying, “Please keep all electronic devices out of the view of the public. We have had complaints recently of several iPhones being stolen.”
Crime on the CTA increased 7.5 percent in 2010 compared with 2009, according to the Chicago Tribune, but robberies alone jumped 17.4 percent. These numbers are a bit lower than what O’Neil compiled from EveryBlock Chicago data back in January, but the bottom line is that all crime – robbery and theft, in particular – is up on the CTA, and gadgets are what thieves want.
Both O’Neil and the CTA have done an excellent job providing tips for CTA riders to protect themselves and their belongings. The first step to safety and security in any instance, however, is to be aware of the environment.
We often feel comfortable riding CTA trains and buses because it’s part of a routine, and our smartphones, tablets and laptops allow us to take our friends, family and office wherever we go. But it’s dangerous to become so engrossed in technology that we lose sight of what is going on in our immediate surroundings. Thieves spend their lives thinking of ways to take advantage of us, and we must – for the better – think like a criminal. Don’t make their jobs any easier.
And don’t let carelessness put the lives of innocents like Sally Katona-King at risk.
If you’re new to Chicago, or just to the city’s public transportation, the first ride can be a little daunting. Fortunately for you, we’ve come up with some things you’ll need to know before getting on a CTA train or bus.
- You can buy tickets at all train stops and at various retail locations such as Walgreens, CVS and Jewel Osco
- If you’re just visiting the city, you can order one to 30-day passes online at transitchicago.com. Make sure you order at least 2 weeks in advance so your tickets arrive before your trip
- When buying from a ticket vending machine, bring cash. Some stops have machines that take plastic but most do not. Also, the machines won’t make change so carry small bills
As for those pesky vending machines, check out the interactive photo below to familiarize yourself with the interface. Just scroll over any area outlined in yellow and you won’t have to worry about looking like a tourist when purchasing a fare card.
Now you should be ready for your first trip on one of Chicago’s busses or famous L trains. For more information on the CTA, visit transitchicago.com.