Do Yourself a Favor and Take the CTA Bus

Writer Caroline Bell reflects on the benefits of taking the bus

Chicago’s public transportation is truly one of a kind, reflecting the best and worst aspects of city life.

The CTA’s train system — better known as the L — can be inconsistent, sometimes taking 15 to 20 minutes to arrive. High-traffic commuter times mean trains and buses are so full people are packed in like sardines. But at the end of the day, public transportation is a luxury, one that many rural and suburban areas don’t have access to.

I’m from the southeast suburbs, just an hour from Chicago but far enough away that services like the CTA, Metra trains and Pace buses don’t extend to my town. I’d never taken a train until college — except for one excursion on the South Shore Line when I was about 6 — and in my mind, buses similar to CTA or Pace only existed in places like New York City.

My second year, I finally mustered up the courage to take the Red Line. In the year that followed, I began to feel secure enough in my knowledge of the Red Line to be able to navigate around certain parts of the city. I could even impress my out-of-towner friends by naming stops without looking at a map.

However, relying on the Red Line limited where I was able to go since I would simply frequent places near stops. I’d hesitate to take the Blue or Brown lines, opting to go only with friends who’d traversed those lines before. Likewise, I was too intimidated to take the bus, despite the multiple routes located around campus.

That changed in September when I got a job in Evanston and realized the Red Line wouldn’t take me all the way there. The thought of taking a mode of transportation I was unfamiliar with was daunting, but I was lucky that I had two options — I could transfer to the Purple Line at Howard or take the 201 bus. Both run through Evanston, going as far north as Wilmette and Skokie, respectively. The Purple Line would’ve added an extra 10 minutes to my commute, so I chose the bus.

It was trial by fire. The first time I took the 201, I checked Google Maps every 30 seconds to ensure I wouldn’t miss my stop. I watched other passengers closely to determine how long before my stop I’d have to pull the rope. I made mistakes as I went along, including getting off four stops too soon once because I panicked, thinking I’d missed my stop.

It took me about a month to feel like I had the hang of things but once I did, I wondered why it had taken me until my fourth year to utilize Chicago’s bus system. From what I’ve seen, the bus is much cleaner and safer than the L — although both have seen an increase in crime since the start of the pandemic, according to the Chicago Tribune. The bus runs less frequently than the L but is more on schedule and easily trackable.

The bus is also more conveniently located than the L, with stops every block or two along routes. The 22 — which runs along Clark Street — has recently become a godsend for me, as there are two stops within two blocks of my apartment, allowing me to bypass the 10 minute walk to the red line.

I’ve also begun taking the 147 — which runs along Sheridan Road — on days when I leave for Evanston straight from the Lake Shore Campus. The 147 has won a special place in my heart, as it offers a much more scenic view of downtown Chicago than the Red Line and contains a fraction of the tourists.

The bus also fosters a sense of intimacy for regular commuters that the L can’t due to its size. I’m able to recognize many of the drivers and regular commuters. One driver, who I ride with once a week, honks and waves at every other 201 bus we pass on the road. There’s a woman and her young daughter I occasionally see on my way back to Howard who always share a seat, the daughter sometimes singing to herself.

While these aspects of commuting remind me of the uniqueness and usefulness of Chicago’s public transit system, I’ve had my share of frustrations. I once waited at Howard for 30 minutes for a bus that never came, I’ve been verbally harassed at bus stops by anti-government conspiracy theorists and I’ve waited in the pouring rain for 20 minutes at stops that weren’t covered.

But I’ve also watched an 80-year-old woman on the 147 get off the bus to push a man in a wheelchair up the ramp. We happened to transfer to the 201 together, where she gave me a bookmark to thank me for letting her on the bus before me. It hangs on my bedroom wall, where it serves as a reminder of the kindness in everyone.

That’s truly the beauty of public transportation. We see the best and worst of humanity — sometimes back-to-back — then go about our days. I’ve learned to love CTA buses not only because of their convenience, but because of the eclectic blend of passengers and often unhinged drivers that reflect the chaotic yet homey atmosphere of the city.

Feature image by Ella Govrik / The Phoenix

Caroline Bell

Caroline Bell