Help me ride the bus in Chicago
April 9, 2024 4:25 AM   Subscribe

I'm arriving in Chicago by train and it looks pretty straightforward to get from Union Station to my hotel by bus according to google maps directions but I haven't ridden a city bus in ....30 years? Hold my hand?

I'm embarrassed to be asking this; I rode buses and subways in Washington DC alone and effortlessly as a child but now as I contemplate my upcoming trip after a suburban adulthood I feel a little worried. I will be with a group of four other adults, all even less experienced with public transport than me.

I'm just gonna give you the address of my hotel, 198 E. Delaware Place. When I enter this trip into google maps it looks so easy, one bus, no transfers. From reading the CTA website it seems pretty easy to get Ventra cards at Union Station so I think I've got paying the fare covered. We will be there 4 days and I'm not sure exactly what we'll be doing but I think I'll just get everyone 7 day passes. We will have to get to Midway airport when we leave.

But how will I know when to pull the cord to get off if I'm going someplace I've never been and won't recognize? Do I just watch myself moving on google maps?

Also how obnoxious will our party be if each of us has a carry on roller bag?
Let me know what you think and please point out any glaring gaps in my knowledge revealed by my question.
posted by Jenny'sCricket to Travel & Transportation around Chicago, IL (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Overall you should be fine: the buses have recordings that announce each stop as it approaches and there is digital signage at the front showing what stop is up next. Sometimes the GPS is off by a little bit so you can also keep an eye on your progress on your phone, or make note of the stop before your stop and look/listen for that one. If you end up on the 151 or 157 I would be extra careful not to miss your stop because those do go express on Lake Shore Drive soon after your stop and you could end up way out of your way.

What day of the week/time of day will you be arriving? It's possible 4 people with roller bags might be a little tight if it's like rush hour, but any other time of day you will be fine, and buses that go along Michigan Avenue always have tourists on them.
posted by misskaz at 4:43 AM on April 9 [3 favorites]

You can ask the driver to give you a heads up when it’s your stop, more often than not they are glad to help.
posted by slmorri at 4:49 AM on April 9 [3 favorites]

The CTA busses have recordings that announce each stop and each stop also shows on a marquis at the front and sometimes the middle of the bus, so you can either follow along anxiously on the Google map as you pass each stop (which I stiil do sometimes when I'm going somewhere new) or just watch and listen for your final stop.

It may be slightly obnoxious to be on the bus with roller bags. If you're thinking about trying this move during rush hour, I'd just get an Uber XL instead, frankly. If you're traveling off peak, though, it'll be fine. Just be conscious of where your bag is and how much space you're taking up. You may not be able to all sit together, so I'd plan for someone to be the captain and indicate when it's time to get off the bus.

Looks like the 151 will be your best bet, for the shortest walk to the hotel from the stop. The 121 will also get you close, but there's more of a walk at the end.

Ideally, you'll exit through the back of the bus, to keep traffic in the aisle moving. When the bus is at the stop, there will be a green indicator light over the door to tell you that it's safe to push it open. If the bus is at the stop but the light isn't on, tap the door and an alarm will sound that lets the driver know to release the door for you. If you're at the front, for some reason, the driver will open the door for you.

Welcome to Chicago and thanks for riding the CTA!
posted by merriment at 4:50 AM on April 9 [4 favorites]

Also how obnoxious will our party be if each of us has a carry on roller bag?

Bags might be not fun for you or other passengers if it's crowded, but don't feel bad about it. Public transportation is meant to cover all kinds of transportation needs, whether someone's disabled or needs to ask questions or has a baby stroller or is transporting something or whatever. That's not being obnoxious, that's using the system as intended. Do try to be considerate about space, of course.
posted by trig at 5:14 AM on April 9 [5 favorites]

It's more that bus can get full enough that it's hard to get another person on it much less for people with bags. That bus during rush hour is an uncomfortable time no matter what. I've had difficulty with my commuter backpack on that during rush hour.
posted by AlexiaSky at 5:26 AM on April 9 [1 favorite]

The buses usually have a little raised platform area near the front door where you can put one or two bags, which helps them get out of the way.

If there’s a long line for the Ventra machine or you don’t want to stress about misplacing a new transit card: if your party all have contactless payment (Apple/Google Pay or any credit/debit card with a tap to pay chip) then you don’t actually need Ventra cards - you can directly tap your card/phone on the reader and it will just work.
posted by theodolite at 5:29 AM on April 9 [5 favorites]

If you use the ventra app, Make sure you put the exact amount of money you will be spending because you can't get money back from the ventra wallet after you leave.
posted by AlexiaSky at 5:30 AM on April 9 [1 favorite]

I just want to confirm your intuition: even as a local, I often have Google Maps pulled up to know when I'm near my stop
posted by LSK at 5:48 AM on April 9 [2 favorites]

If you're a visual landmark person, your stop is very very close to one of Chicago's landmark skyscrapers, the Hancock Building. When you see that, your stop is next. The "voice" will call out Delaware next, and you'll pull the cord.
posted by Huggiesbear at 6:07 AM on April 9 [3 favorites]

You can ask the driver to give you a heads up when it’s your stop, more often than not they are glad to help.

I have lived in Chicago for 20 years, know my way around pretty well, and pre-plan my routes with google maps. I STILL ask the CTA bus drivers for stop confirmation if I'm even a little unsure. They are always cool about it, especially on the downtown routes which are more likely to have tourists.

"Does this bus stop at x?"
"Is this the x stop?"
If it's uncrowded and you can sit in one of the priority seats in the front and you asked when you got on, the bus drivers in my experience will also usually let you know "hey, x stop is next get ready."

Welcome to Chicago people are pretty chill here, have a wonderful time.
posted by phunniemee at 7:12 AM on April 9 [6 favorites]

Do you have the Transit app? It’s literally an app called Transit. I use it all the time because I get around by bus at home, but when I go to other towns, and Chicago was one recently, it connects with their transit systems. You can tell it where you are, and where you want to go, and it will suggest routes. There’s a red button that says GO and if you tap it, it will show you where you are on your route the whole way. You can literally watch the bus stops go by, and see yours coming up.

I really was impressed with the screens that the buses have at the front of the bus in Chicago. They show the next few stops, and how long until you get there. This was amazing in terms of helping me feel oriented in a strange place. I could see my stop come up two or three stops ahead, and be ready for it.

The bus drivers were, in my experience, a bit taciturn, but helpful. There were other out-of-towners on my buses and the drivers were very helpful about answering their questions.
posted by Well I never at 7:22 AM on April 9 [2 favorites]

Just wanted to confirm that you can easily get Ventra cards at Union Station! (I did it in October 2023.)
posted by sc114 at 7:38 AM on April 9 [1 favorite]

I really was impressed with the screens that the buses have at the front of the bus in Chicago. They show the next few stops, and how long until you get there. This was amazing in terms of helping me feel oriented in a strange place. I could see my stop come up two or three stops ahead, and be ready for it.

I agree this is a super great feature of the newer buses but a lot of older models are still on the road so not all of them will have this. I suspect many of the downtown ones will, though!
posted by misskaz at 8:27 AM on April 9 [2 favorites]

Maybe phunniemee or another person can correct me if I'm wrong, but the last time I was in Chicago I was surprised to see all the buses now had POS terminals -- you just get on the bus and tap your debit card. It was shockingly frictionless and easy. Didn't have to deal with Rahm Fucking Emanuel's buddy's dubious/crooked Ventra terminals at all.
posted by kensington314 at 9:46 AM on April 9 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Google Maps also has a transit navigation feature that will track your progress and notify you of next steps, even while your phone is locked or the app is in the background.
posted by mbrubeck at 11:18 AM on April 9 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks everybody, your information is so helpful! I feel much less worried now.
posted by Jenny'sCricket at 2:36 AM on April 11

Response by poster: Writing this update riding the L to Midway.

Thanks for your help everybody! The answers here were so much more directly helpful than general websites. We got around Chicago using CTA for 4 days.

The main hiccup was finding a working Ventra machine at Union Station. We found 3 non-working ones, though their not working did not become clear until spending a chunk of time at each one. We found a bus and a (as advertised) taciturn but helpful bus driver. Knowing in advance that we could pay fares with a contactless bankcard meant we could get to our hotel without more fussing to acquire a ventra card. Later that day we were able to buy them at a Walgreens.

Knowing about the google transit navigation was incredibly helpful and I think we would have made a lot of mistakes without it.

Thanks so much!
posted by Jenny'sCricket at 7:27 AM on April 18 [4 favorites]

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