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Chicago

Getting there & around

The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA; 312-836-7000; www.transitchicago.com) runs all the El trains and local buses. The El train system is an efficient, air-conditioned way to get around Chicago, though only the Blue Line from O’Hare to the Loop and the Red Line from Howard to 95/Dan Ryan run trains 24 hours. You shouldn’t have to wait more than 15 minutes for a train, but track construction meant to improve service may slow things down on some lines until 2009. Bus routes generally follow major thoroughfares north–south or east–west. Between the two systems, you can explore the furthest reaches of the city. Pick up useful, free system maps at all CTA stations, or plan your trip on their website.

For years, the CTA has been griping about insufficient funds, threatening to cut service and double rates if the state didn’t bail them out. When a crisis point came, the Illinois legislature did just that, stalling fare hikes for a time. A rate increase of 10% each year for three years has been proposed, and Sunday service may be limited in the future.

For the time being, the fare for single adult riders on both CTA buses and the El is $2. The plastic card tickets have a magnetized strip that allows you to add as much fare as you’d like (up to $100). Fares (and transfers) are deducted automatically when you enter the El system or board the bus. The best bet for travelers is to buy a visitor pass: one day ($5), two days ($9), three days ($12), seven days ($20). These are available from vending machines found in both airport El stations and at visitor centers, as well as at a few other stations and some hotels and hostels. The Currency Exchange (312-944-4643; 62 E Chicago Ave; 24hr) also sells CTA passes (for cash only). If you buy them online at www3.yourcta.com, at least 10 days in advance they can be mailed to your residence.

The CTA has done a few things right in the past few years: so far they’ve put 20 diesel-electric buses into service (each has 90% reduced emissions over regular diesel), their headquarters are designed to exacting environmental standards, and they’ve been part of a bio-diesel bus test program.

During the summer months and Christmas holidays, the Chicago Department of Transportation runs a Free Trolley (www.cityofchicago.org/Transportation/trolleys/; 10am-6pm). Four routes connect the town’s major sights: the blue trolley runs from Navy Pier to River North; the green trolley to/from the Loop and Museum Campus and Hyde Park; the red connects the Gold Coast with the Loop; and the yellow links Navy Pier with the Loop. Route maps are available online. The low-emission, trolleylike buses depart every 20 to 30 minutes. And yes, it’s free. But be warned: on a hot summer day when you’re packed in like sardines, you may wish you’d paid for public transport.