If you are traveling to Chicago, one of the primary questions you may have to ask is, do you need a car in Chicago? Here is a detailed answer.
Chicago is the bustling financial hub of the state of Illinois and the third-largest city in all of the U.S. There’s tons to see and a plethora of attractions to explore here.
And wait, the deep dish Chicago-style pizza is a reason on its own to travel to the city.
But since it’s a busy city, there’s an important question to be answered: do you need a car in Chicago?
Whether you’re staying in Chicago for a few days or a couple of weeks, there are some things you need to know about the Chicago transportation system.
In this post, we’ll help you decide whether or not living in Chicago without a car is possible.
We’ll also talk about alternatives to driving and how you can get around the city to different places. Read on to know everything about traveling in Chicago.
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Do You Need a Car in Chicago? 7 Things to Know About Traveling in Chicago
Do you need a car while traveling to Chicago? Well, yes, if you don’t want to spend on plane tickets. But should you be driving around the town in your car? The following points will help you decide that for yourself:
CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) is Good Enough
For most people visiting this city, Chicago Transit Authority’s buses and trains are the best way of getting around the town.
So is a car necessary in Chicago? No, especially if you’re visiting the city just for a short while.
The city’s trains and buses will get you just about anywhere. In fact, a lot of people are living in Chicago without a car, relying mainly on public transport.
The CTA consists of hundreds of trains with 145 stations all around the city. To fill in the gaps, there are over 1800 buses that cover more than 140 routes, with the buses stopping every few blocks.
They will take you just about anywhere in downtown Chicago and you’ll only have to walk a short distance before reaching your destination.
Since most popular attractions and business hubs are nestled here, you can easily travel from one point to another through public rides.
And if the routes seem complicated, download a map from CTA’s website to know everything about each bus and train.
So always remember to stash some coins and small bills in your wallet when using public transport.
An easier way to pay is by using a Ventra card. This is an electronic method of paying the train or bus fare, and you can buy this card from over a thousand retail stores or any L station.
See Related: Best Walking Tours in Chicago
Downtown Chicago is Full of Traffic
If you’re planning to stay for a few weeks, renting a car in Chicago may seem like a good idea. However, there’s one thing you should know about Chicago: the place has its fair share of traffic jams every day.
This particularly true for expressways and roads in the heart of the city. Here, traffic is heaviest between 6 am to 8 am and 4 pm to 6 pm, when workers travel to work and go back home.
Also, if you’re traveling to Chicago during the summers, you may want to use public trains and buses instead of driving through the city.
This is because summer brings about some of the worst traffic jams in Chicago due to tourism, construction, and whatnot.
But if you have to drive your car during these hours or travel over long distances within the city, you might want to leave early.
We suggest using Google Maps to find out the fastest traveling routes and avoid the traffic-jammed roads.
Uber and Lyft are Worth Considering
Even though the quickest way around town is by using public transport, it’s not meant for everyone. You may not feel like riding on a crowded bus/train or shifting from one ride to another.
This is especially the case if you’re traveling on longer routes, where you’ll have to switch between several buses/trains and spend long hours traveling.
In such scenarios, traveling through a car is far more comfortable and often quicker if you avoid traffic hours.
But here’s when you’ll have to decide whether renting a car is better suited to your travel plans in Chicago or using Uber or Lyft.
If you’re going to travel long distances across town every day, renting a car might prove more convenient than public transport and cheaper than Uber/Lyft.
But if you’re not planning to travel over longer distances frequently, consider using Uber or Lyft.
Since renting a car in Chicago costs more than $30 per day, you’ll find such services to be much lighter on your pocket.
See Related: Best Things to do in Old Town, Chicago
Parking Rates are High
Speaking of renting cars, it’s worth noting that parking rates are high in Chicago. In fact, the city has quite a reputation for having strict parking rules and high rates.
Finding a free parking space in the city is uncommon, considering the number of tourists and business people pouring into the city each day.
So, you’re left with a few options when you’re using a car to drive around the city.
One, you’ll have to use on-street parking that is metered, and prices vary between four to seven dollars an hour.
The Loop (the main part of downtown Chicago that’s bursting with eateries, malls, and main attractions) costs about seven bucks on most days.
Your second option is looking for a parking garage. It’s easier to find free spots here than on-street parking.
There are tons of garages for parking in Chicago, with some within the Loop as well. You can use an app like SpotHero to compare prices and even reserve a parking spot with discounts.
If all of that sounds too expensive and complicated, you can choose to park away from the Loop.
Parking gets cheaper and easier to find the further you move away from the Loop. After that, you can catch a bus or train towards your destination within the Loop.
As you can see, parking rules and prices are pretty frustrating in Chicago.
This is another reason why having no car in Chicago might prove less of a hassle, and using public transport or Uber is much more convenient.
Using Public Transport from Suburbs Might Not Be as Easy
Do you need a car in Chicago? If you’re planning to stay in a suburb, then yes.
This is one of the few instances where renting a car wins over using public transport.
Riding from a suburb to downtown Chicago can take an hour, and sometimes even more.
If you’ve got a kid with you, then an hour-long ride to the city and an hour to get back home on a packed train can prove quite overwhelming and tiring.
Plus, off-hour trains are infrequent, and sometimes not available.
So if you’re staying in a suburb, consider renting a car to drive to the city. But don’t go all the way in – find a parking spot on the outskirts and use public transport to travel downtown.
It’s easier and quicker this way, considering all the traffic within the city.
Biking is a Viable Alternative
Forget crowded buses and jam-packed roads – get around town on a bike as it’s quick, easy, and cheap.
Chicago is known for its well-developed bike routes with over 200 miles of designated lanes. I
t’s a pretty good alternative for residents and tourists alike, so you won’t have to worry about renting cars or using public transport.
Divvy is a well-known bike rental company that runs on self-service, making it easier to travel in Chicago without a car.
Just download the app and pay for the ride. Next, grab a bike from one of the 570 docking stations throughout Chicago, and bike away.
You can visit your favorite spots and explore them without worrying about parking, long train rides, and rush hour traffic.
Once you’re done, return the bike to the station when your time is up – it’s as simple as that.
You can also book one of the organized bike tours within Chicago to visit the city’s main attractions.
Water Taxi is a Cool Option for Tourists
It’s no wonder Chicago has one of the best-developed transportation systems in the US. The city provides a water taxi service – a whole new alternative to traveling in Chicago that many overlook.
There’s no traffic, no honks, and no cramped spaces – just a boat on a river with exotic sights all around.
This under-appreciated way of commuting around Chicago is offered by two companies – Chicago Water Taxi and Shoreline Water Taxis.
Operating from March to November, these services allow you to travel along the lake and river much faster than an Uber or public ride on the road.
The Chicago Water Taxi service has seven stops, from North of the river to Chinatown. Meanwhile, the Shoreline Water Taxis has two routes.
The Lake route connects Navy Pier to the Museum Campus, while the River Route covers Navy Pier, Michigan Avenue, and Willis Tower.
With taxis leaving every 15-30 minutes, you can catch a quick ride for $6 or schedule one online. Either way, you’ll have a fantastic view of the skyscrapers and skyline.
Do you need a car in Chicago? Our takeaway is no; you don’t necessarily need one.
In fact, we recommend not driving within the city if you’re looking to relax and have an enjoyable time. There are many better, cheaper, and quicker modes of transportation for tourists that can get you from point A to B.
However, a car is necessary if you have kids – they might get cranky and super tired on crowded public rides.
And if you’re staying in one of the neighborhoods and want to travel to downtown Chicago, having a car becomes a must. Other than that, you’re better off without driving in Chicago.
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