El tracks leading to cityYou don’t have to have a car in Chicago, but it helps.

My first day in the city (and subsequent days in the city), I used public transportation to get everywhere, as I have done in every other city in which I’ve lived. It worked fabulously, cheaply, and with great character. The rattling trains and overground tracks that are essential to Chicago let you know exactly where you are and that you are, indeed, moving. The buses are quieter and seemingly newer than the trains and are thus surprisingly high quality for an American city. You can get anywhere in town.

I, however, was not prepared for the distances. My second day in Chicago I woke up with sore legs and feet. After living in Hong Kong, where public transportation always put you within 2 blocks or 100 yards of your destination, I did not understand that 2 blocks in Chicago really meant about half a mile. The sudden change in my walking distances, from half a mile a day to 2-4 miles a day was a surprise to me and my muscles. The scale of things in America is just bigger.

Chicago is amazing for its grid line street map, replete with numbered roads indicating how far you are from the intersection of State and Madison in the Loop. This is a city made for easy navigation, whether by train or automobile. There are often compasses outside of train stops; just in case you happen to get turned around when coming out of the Grand and State red line stop, look at the ground and a compass rose will point to the north. From there you can always figure it out: to the east is the lake, to the west is the eventual oblivion of the suburbs, with lots of bits in between.

Just because something is navigable does not make it easy. There is the distance and the cold and the other people. Thus on the train I have heard people try to convert everyone in the train car, proclaim that a certain insurance man is the devil, and I’ve seen one person move into 10 facing seats with all their worldly possessions and a smoking cigarette, and another left a shit on the ground. If the people weren’t bad enough, there is the joltiness, the occasional delays for track work and sick passengers, and the horrible horrible cold. Today I stood at a bus stop for 20 minutes, and having failed to account for “real feel” when I looked at the weather this morning [A balmy 27! “real feel: 7°F”], took 30 minutes to thaw once I arrived at my destination. Since the majority of train stops are above ground, one always must prepare for 15 minutes of outdoor time per transfer. Then once you’re done with the public transit, you walk the half a mile to save yourself from waiting for one more bus.

This is where the car becomes tempting. A non-car owner always runs the risk of abusing the friend-with-a-car. Sometimes it is just easier, in spite of the traffic on Lake Shore Drive. You get in and you go, blasting your own music or talking to your buddy in complete privacy, surveying the amazing skyline and lake front vistas. This, instead of the book reading on the jerky train for 30 minutes.

It is a goal of mine to never own a car. The maintenance and gas cost and parking costs just seem like too much of a hassle. Along with all the other reasons cars are bad (environment, safety, uselessness at pub nights) I see no reason to ever own one. Except that I like driving, and sometimes a car is just nice to have.

Chicago is a great place to live if you don’t want a car, and if you do have a car. As an acquaintance of mine recently put it, “you don’t have to have a car, but you can if you want one.” The streets are wide and car friendly [mostly, not including when Lake Michigan washes into Lake Shore Drive in giant waves] but the public transit gets you where you need to go. I’d like to think I can maintain my resolve and never buy a car, but I may one day give in. Then I hope I buy a Tesla. But until then, I’ll rent my cars for road trips.

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