Chicago, a whirring city with 2.7 million residents, has 77 neighborhoods, from Albany Park to Woodlawn, and it’s the third largest city in the United States, following New York City and Los Angeles. The metropolitan area, referred to as “Chicagoland,” is home to about 10 million people. As the international nucleus for many industries—technology, finance, telecommunications, transportation, and commerce—as well as the home to one of the busiest airports in the world—O’Hare International Airport—this city can present some challenges when getting from point A to point B.
Use this guide to navigate Chicago, positioned along Lake Michigan, and avoid the occasional driving snafu that so many visitors experience.
Rules of the Road
A number of rules are enforced by law when driving in Chicago, specifically with regard to safety, construction zones, and lane usage.
- Cell phones: In Chicago, it is illegal to use a hand-held cell phone while driving, along with electronic communication devices like portable computers or personal digital assistants. You may use a hands-free cell phone or one connected to a headset.
- Construction zones: When entering a work zone, motorists are required to change lanes where possible. Drivers should also yield to workers and authorized drivers, and reduce speed.
- Emergency vehicles: When an emergency vehicle is moving, and you can hear or see it, pull to the right side of the road or stop vehicle to allow it to pass. Slow down and proceed with caution when an emergency vehicle is parked on the side of the road. Cell phones and photographs are prohibited within 500 feet of an emergency scene.
- Right of way and passing: Yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk and school children during school hours. Do not pass within 100 feet of an intersection or railway crossing, a school or work zone, or when your view is blocked.
- Alcohol: The number one killer on Chicago highways is alcohol; digital signs on the highway alert you to the number of deaths, which increase as time passes. Blood-alcohol concentration must be lower than .08 and if it’s higher, you’ll be hit with a Violent Crime charge.
- Expressway driving: When entering the highway, there will be a lane to increase speed before merging. The right lane is for slower traffic while the far-left lane is for faster cars. Note: freeway exits may be on the left or right side.
- Winter conditions: Snow, ice, and darker skies are all conditions to contend with on Chicago roads—increase following distance, slow speed, drive with windows fully defrosted and cleared of snow and ice, and make sure you have nonfreezing window washer fluid. Also, brake early and use slow and steady pumping to avoid skidding.
- Aggressive driving: Drivers who are speeding, passing on the shoulder, cutting off other drivers, slamming on the brakes in front of a tailgater, honking, yelling, and exhibiting additional aggressive behaviors may pose a risk. Do not engage the aggressor, leave space for passing, and lock your doors with the windows rolled up.
Traffic and Timing
Always check traffic reports in real time before driving in Chicago, especially if you have quite a distance to travel. Timing can vary drastically depending on when you are on the road. Within the city, the streets are positioned in a grid, running north to south and east to west, which makes navigating fairly easy. The expressway, however, has expected traffic jams daily. Drivers commute on Illinois expressways into the city from the suburbs, and the reverse is also true.
- Worst traffic times: On average, traffic is the thickest between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m. and between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. on interstate highways, with afternoon traffic on Thursdays and Fridays being the heaviest. Bottlenecks and a high number of cars on the road are both factors. Traffic accidents, inclement weather, and construction also play a part.
- Seasonal traffic: Summer is the worst season for traffic, due to construction, increased tourism, and end-of-year school and work schedules.
- Sporting events, festivals, and concerts: Keep in mind that big events, concerts, and games all increase traffic. If there is a Chicago Cubs game or a concert at Wrigley Field, for example, you can expect high traffic and limited parking throughout the neighborhood (plus, full public transportation).
Parking in Chicago
Several parking options such as massive garages, tiny lots, and street parking exist in Chicago, with fluctuating prices dependent on where you’re going and for how long.
- Parking garages: Grant Park North, Millennium Park, Grand Park South, and Millennium Lakeside garages are convenient for accessing the city between the Chicago River and the lakefront. Discounts are available if you purchase parking vouchers online in advance, and if you get a multi-day pass. Rates vary depending on how long you’ll be parked and what time of day it is.
- Reservation services: Using a parking app or an online reservation service ahead of time is a good way to guarantee you’ll find a space in garages, lots, and spaces throughout the city, near where you need to be. Another benefit is that you will receive a discounted rate. Multi-day and monthly parking is also available through these systems.
- Valet: If you don’t mind spending a bit more cash, valet parking is a great option for hotel guests, restaurant-goers, and theater enthusiasts. Plus, with Chicago weather often making sidewalks a challenge to traverse, you’ll keep your shoes clean and dry.
- Meter parking: Prices vary by neighborhood, block by block, and nearly all meters accept credit cards only; you can typically use an app on your cell phone to pay as well. Many neighborhoods have limited parking, with street parking allotted for private residents only. Often, you may have to circle the block, looking for a spot to open up. To avoid your car being towed, read all of the parking signs carefully, with restrictions listed, and look out for “No Parking” paper signs tied to trees and posts due to regular street cleaning.
Should You Rent a Car in Chicago?
Renting a car certainly gives you flexibility and access to transportation exactly when you need it; however, it may not be necessary. Operated by the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), the Chicago “L” rapid transit trains are the easiest and often fastest way to get around much of the city. Many travel to the Loop, the central business district, in downtown Chicago, and some of the trains run 24-hours a day. Of course, there are also buses, taxis, rideshares, and bicycle rentals throughout the city.
Road Etiquette and Driving Tips for Chicago
To blend in and not cause any ruffles while driving in Chicago, follow these tips.
- Yield for pedestrians. With nearly three million people living, working, and going to school in Chicago, there are many people walking on the streets, through busy intersections, and along the curbs. People are also out hailing taxis or rideshares. Maintain awareness and be safe.
- Drive with intention. When exiting or entering the freeway, be assertive and proactive. You’ll have to turn on your blinker, increase your speed, and tip your car nose into the traffic to keep up with the fast-paced flow. Also, use all three of your mirrors to keep an eye on approaching drivers.
- Watch out for cyclists. Drivers have to share the road and often, without you even noticing, cyclists (motor or pedal) will be weaving in and out of cars, passing along the center line and sneaking up on the shoulder, so be vigilant.
- Use your blinker. This seems to be an obvious suggestion, but it’s really important when you’re driving with lots of cars, bikes, and pedestrians on the road. Also, just because you have your blinker on, doesn’t mean another car will let you in. While driving in Chicago, you may have to be more aggressive than you’re accustomed to.
- Honk nicely, if at all. Unless a long and loud horn honking is explicitly necessary, offer a quick and light “beep beep” to get your point across when needed.
Things to Know
City buses: Watch out for public transportation exiting and entering the lane to pick up and drop off passengers. Many of these buses are accordion style—super long and big—and they take up a lot of space as they’re moving around. Change lanes when possible to avoid being stuck behind one of these behemoths.
Cameras: Many red lights and speed devices have cameras that will ticket you if you disobey traffic laws.
Tolls: Prepare to pay a toll while driving on Illinois highways. If you don’t have change or money on hand, you can pay within seven days online. You’ll have to take note of the toll plaza or mile marker number to identify what amount you owe and where you were when you missed the toll. Payments can also be made by mail, but this is not a recommended method as the money will need to be received within the seven-day requirement.