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CTA "L" Etiquette: How to Ride the Elevated and Subway Trains in Chicago

John is a former broadcaster, urban planner, comedy writer, and journalist living in Chicago.

The Jackson Station on the CTA Red Line.

The Jackson Station on the CTA Red Line.

Chicago's Historic Subway

On an average weekday, the Chicago Transit Authority trains serve more than 780,000 passengers at 145 stations on a 224-mile system. The Chicago elevated and subway train system is the third busiest in the country, topped only by the New York City and Washington DC systems; it’s one of only four systems that run 24 hours a day. For only $2.25, you can ride from O’Hare Airport to downtown Chicago—or anywhere on the system.

History of the Transit System

The first elevated train line in Chicago was opened on June 6, 1892, on a short 4.2 mile route along State Street from Congress Street (at the south end of downtown) to 39th Street. In January 1893, the route was extended south to 61st Street, and on May 12, 1893—less than two weeks after the opening of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Jackson Park—the line was extended to a terminus across the street from the fairgrounds.

Just two years after the World’s Fair of 1893, the Chicago and South Side Rapid Transit Company suffered the first of many financial crises that would plague the system—they went into receivership as traffic dwindled after the fair. In 1897, the “Loop”—a circular route around the heart of downtown, and transfer point to other lines connecting other parts of the city—opened to great fanfare (and increased ridership), providing the system with strong and steady income through the onset of the Great Depression.

The first subway line was opened in 1943, on what is now the Red Line. The Chicago Transit Authority—the CTA—was created in 1947, combining the rapid transit, streetcar, and (eventually) bus operations into one municipal corporation. In 1957, the Blue Line subway was completed, traveling in the median of the Kennedy and Eisenhower Expressways for much of its above-ground route. In 1984, service was extended to O'Hare Airport, and in 1993 the Orange Line opened to Midway Airport on the Southwest Side.

Although the population of the City of Chicago has declined by nearly one million people since its peak in 1950, the CTA maintains high ridership rates thanks to high gas and parking prices and new, extended rail lines.

Route of trains making up the Chicago "L"

Route of trains making up the Chicago "L"

Beloved? Mmmm, Yeah.

As anyone who has every seen a movie or TV show set in Chicago knows, the "L" seems to go everywhere. (In reality, it doesn't.) And as fans of The Blues Brothers film surely know, "the trains will come by so often you won't even notice." (In reality, they don't come by THAT often.)

Chicagoans have a love-hate relationship with the CTA—cursing it for its numerous faults and failures and breakdowns, but loving the fact that it does provide such an essential service. In a 2005 Chicago Tribune poll, readers voted the "L" third as one of "The 7 Wonders of Chicago."

Chicago Transit Etiquette

Now, onto the etiquette that all riders should abide by to keep rides more comfortable for everyone.

1. Let the passengers off the train first before you try to board.

You wouldn’t try to force your way into an elevator before the passengers get out, and it’s the same concept when boarding the elevated and subway trains. The train conductor will wait until all the boarding passengers are inside the train before closing the doors, and if you let all the passengers out first there will be much more room for you to be comfortable.

2. When you board the train, don’t stand in the doorway if there are seats available or room in the aisles.

If you stand in the doorways for several stops, passengers will have to squeeze past you at every stop when boarding and disembarking from the train. Apart from being uncomfortable and inconsiderate, this extends the time spent at each stop.

3. Take the window seat first.

If you are alone and two seats are vacant, it’s customary to sit nearest the window. Sitting on the aisle and thus blocking a window seat—expecting someone to crawl over you to sit—is inconsiderate and frowned upon.

4. Be aware of what you have with you.

If you are wearing a backpack or carrying luggage, be aware of how it might block or inconvenience others. If you’re seated, keep your backpack on your lap. If you’re standing, try to keep the passageways in and out of the train open.

5. Giving up seats is not expected, but much appreciated.

During rush hour, trains are almost always standing room only. If you see a person who might be struggling and it’s easy for you to give your seat to a Senior Citizen, a pregnant woman, or a person with a small child, it’s a gesture that’s much appreciated. However, if giving up your seat requires a difficult maneuver or you feel it would be difficult for you, it is not necessary. Use your judgment.

6. Pay attention to your upcoming stop.

Listen for your stop and pay attention to where you need to get off the train. It goes without saying that knowing your surroundings is important; people who aren’t paying attention until they’re at their destination are more likely to forget items, miss their stop, or inconvenience others with last-second, desperate lunges for the exit.

7. Keep the seat free next to you.

Do not keep your personal items in the seat next to you if the train is crowded. If anyone is standing on the train, by choice or necessity, it’s very bad form to keep your personal items in a vacant seat next to you.

8. Be considerate of others with your personal electronic devices.

No one else wants to listen to one half of your long, loud telephone conversation or hear songs blaring out of your headphones.

9. Try to keep the train clean.

Eating on the "L" is supposedly taboo, although many people do it. Drinking a covered beverage is allowed, but be considerate of others around you. You wouldn’t want to sit in someone’s spilled coffee or have to remove someone’s Dunkin’ Donuts trash from a seat, so why should you feel OK about making others do it? There are plenty of garbage receptacles at every station, so take your trash and unwanted items with you when you leave the train.

10. Wait until you are out of the station to check your messages or make a call.

It’s extremely inconsiderate—and dangerous—to start making phone calls or checking messages when there is a line of 50 people behind you trying to get out of the station. Getting out of the train station requires your full attention—going downstairs, walking along a busy train platform, or negotiating crowded entrances and exits.

Keeping these mostly-unwritten rules of etiquette in mind when riding the "L" can make everyone’s trip less stressful, avoid dangerous situations, and help everything run more smoothly. As a person that’s traveled an estimated 200,000 miles on the Chicago "L" over more than a quarter century, I’ve seen that everything works much better when passengers adhere to these customs developed over the elevated lines’ 120-year history.

(And yes, the official spelling for the CTA elevated system is "L"—not 'L' or "El.")