Have you ever thought about getting rid of your car? The older I get, the more I think about it. I try to drive as little as possible. In fact, I just opened a second small business account at a bank where I can walk over to deposit checks instead of having to drive 25 minutes through the often-torturous trek west along Diversey Avenue from the lake. [See 2017 updates in the middle and at the bottom of this post.]
I never think of driving in Chicago as a green experience. But it can be – sort of – if you drive a shared car. Now you may or not be able to do that conveniently, depending on what part of the city you’re talking about.
A recent NBC article says Chicago won the number 3 spot as the most car-sharing city. Good to hear. But the article goes on to talk about how Chicago is such a divided city – modern white lakeside communities, traditional white neighborhoods northwest and southwest, and then poor black and Latino communities on the west and the south. None of the car sharing services has a location in the west or south. And to be honest, based on my experience it’s tough to get a cab to show up only as far west as the dodgy end of Logan Square.
So what are your travel options in Chicago if you don’t have a car? In some but not all areas, you can become a member of your local I-GO (2017 update: closed and now operated by Enterprise CarShare) or Zipcar service and rent by the hour or day. You can also use RelayRides or any of several car rental companies. Be sure to read the Yelp reviews on these car sharing options.
Cabs are great if you’re in the right area, but they’re simply not in a hurry to pick you up in some areas. (Update 2/23/17: Nowadays, of course, you also have Uber, UberPool and Lyft – private cars on call all over the city and even in the ‘burbs. The pooling services don’t take much longer – their routing software is amazingly efficient – and as of this writing, can be highly affordable.)
But if you’ve never ridden Chicago’s extensive public transportation systems, I can tell you this is good option, generally available no matter where you live in the city. Obviously it’s more convenient in some areas than others, but getting around in Chicago almost anywhere is doable using CTA.
When I first moved back to Chicago I lived in the then-predominantly Hispanic Fullerton-Pulaski area. I could catch the Fullerton bus to the Brown Line station (at DePaul) and be downtown in 45 minutes. Or I could catch the Pulaski bus and take it to the Green Line (at Lake St.) and be in different parts of downtown in about the same time. Naturally I didn’t always want to transfer bus or train and spend 45 minutes traveling, especially if the weather sucked, but the point is I could get wherever I needed to any time of day.
Now I live in one of those sadly-not-very-diversified neighborhoods along the lake where the CTA is ridiculously convenient. I can take any of half a dozen bus lines – transfers rarely needed – and get almost anywhere downtown in 25 to 35 minutes. It’s city travel nirvana. And now I’ve joined a gym to which I can take a single bus and get there in 12 minutes, including the walk to the bus.
Getting rid of your car will save you a lot of money. Gas, insurance, parking, repairs and tickets can add up – not even counting if you’re making payments – to $5000 a year easily. But one of the additional advantages of not driving that you might notice, as I did the first time I took public transportation downtown when I first moved back, is a sense of freedom.
Say you’re walking down the street downtown and you get an urge to go look at a building, or stop somewhere for a drink or whatever, and you find yourself walking around the corner to look at something in another shop. You can do this when you’re not tied to a car parked somewhere. You don’t have to worry it’s going to cost you another ten or fifteen bucks if you stay a little longer. You can go out of your way because you can always catch the train or the bus at a different stop or even take a different one home.
And by the way, since CTA has installed GPS on its vehicles it now operates something called CTABusTracker. Look up your bus or train route, put in your direction and your stop, and you’ll get the ETA for the next several vehicles to be arriving at your stop. So if it’s nasty outside, you can stay warm inside somewhere until the thing is supposed to arrive. It’s a great service. Oh, and of course, you’ll be walking much more, which will probably make your doctor happy – and make you feel better.
I know you’re not going to dump your car without a lot of deliberation, and maybe you never will. For what it’s worth this has been a little food for thought.
(Update 2/23/17. The day came for me this past June, 2016: I sold my beloved 15-year-old Honda Accord – with only 76,000 miles on it! – and haven’t looked back. Oh, and for heavens’ sake, use Peapod for your grocery shopping when the weather sucks.)