Do You Need a Car in Chicago (Answers from a Chicagoan)

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Do you need a car in Chicago? I hear this question a lot from travelers planning to visit the city.

Truth be told, no.

You only need a car if you are driving into an area where public transportation is not a nearby convenience.

7 Reasons You Shouldn’t Drive in Chicago

When I lived on the north side of Chicago, I took the Brown line from Foster and Kimball to the Loop for four years.

Loved it. Never had a problem, not even at night.

When I lived in Darien, I took the Metra train into the city for eight years.

Loved it. Never had a problem, not even at night.

I have nothing against cars. In fact, I own one. And if you want to take a day trip to Milwaukee, then yes…you should drive a car!

I just don’t think it’s the best choice if you visit Chicago for a week or less – especially if you don’t plan to venture out beyond the city.

woman standing on highway overpass

Public Transportation System

The first reason you should not drive in Chicago is because the city has a comprehensive public transportation system.

You can use the elevated trains, subway, surface trains, buses (CTA and RTA), or the Metra commuter trains to get to any destination in the city, as well as nearby suburbs.

The cost of these modes of transportation is extremely affordable and allows you to see Chicago and points of interest beyond the city, like the Baha’i Temple in Wilmette.

On the “L” train, the cost for one-way transportation is less than $3.

With a car, not only would you need to constantly refuel it at the current high gas prices, but parking in Chicago is quite expensive, with costs starting at $35 per night for overnight parking without in and out privileges.

When you add that to the cost of renting a car, it makes public transportation the obvious choice for travelers.

city worker issuing parking tickets

Challenges with Parking

I’m going to be brutally honest and say that parking in Chicago absolutely sucks.

Parking enforcement officers are not easy to spot, nor are they easy to avoid.

Many officers now patrol the streets on bicycles, equipped with electronic devices primed to swiftly document and report any parking violations.

With the tap of a button, they can capture evidence of offenses like expired meters, illegal standing, or blocking fire hydrants.

Fees run from $25.00 to $250.00, depending on the violation.

There never seem to be enough parking spots in the Loop. You must use a city kiosk to pay for parking or download the city’s ParkChicago app.

I recommend the app because if you need to extend the time you can do it on the phone. However, it’s completely useless if there is a time constraint and parking is limited to 2 hours.

The alternative is a parking garage. It is relatively simple to find spaces if you use the SpotHero app.

However, if you just need to stop at a store and shop for a couple of hours or want to go somewhere for places to eat in the Loop, the parking will be a major part of your expense.

For visitors and residents alike, navigating Chicago’s parking landscape requires vigilance, patience, and a willingness to explore alternative transportation options.

cars and bus on city street

Inflated Costs

I remember when the parking meter was 25 cents for 15 minutes. And if there were no meter, parking was free in Chicago. It didn’t matter if you were in the Loop or in the upscale Gold Coast area.

Those days are long gone.

When Richard Daley was mayor, he established a very long contract with a company that now manages parking in the city. This company is essentially making a killing, as parking has become extremely expensive to the point where it doesn’t make financial sense to own a car in Chicago anymore.

Not only is the cost of hourly or daily parking quite high, but if you can’t leave your car parked on the street overnight, you must pay for rental space in a garage or lot, which is also quite pricey.

The days of free or affordable street parking in Chicago, even in the nicer neighborhoods, are unfortunately a thing of the past.

Parking rates in Chicago can vary significantly depending on the location.

Outside of the Loop and Central Business District, hourly rates are as low as $2.50.

However, within the more central areas of the city, the prices rise considerably. In the Central Business District and West Loop, the hourly rate is $4.75.

Parking in the heart of the Loop will cost you $7.00 per hour. These rates apply whether you utilize the ParkChicago® app or the pay boxes on the street.

Overnight parking is not allowed downtown.

If you rent property, chances are that you’ll need to rent or purchase a parking spot, unless the amenity is included.

Road Construction

Chicago has only two seasons: winter and construction.

Beth Evans

I don’t know Beth Evans or why she even said this, but she hit the nail on the head.

As soon as there is the slightest hint of spring, construction projects begin.

There is no escaping it. The smell of tar fills the air. Men and women in orange vests hold stop signs to manage traffic flow.

On a hot day in August, you’d swear they were just stalling to milk every drop of the construction budget before packing up for the winter.

It’s incredibly annoying, especially for Indiana commuters who drive into the city for work, or those who drive into the city from the suburbs.

delivery truck and school bus on city street


Due to road construction, traffic delays is inevitable.

Peak traffic times are commuter hours during the business week — between 6:30 AM and 8:00 AM, and 3:00 PM to 7:00 PM.

After work commute hours begin early because construction works normally complete their shift by 2PM. Traders in the Financial District leave from downtown between 2Pm and 3PM. Some Chicagoans start the day early so that they can leave the office early.

There is a bit less traffic near lunch hour because restaurant and retail store deliveries are made before and after noon time.

Environmental Impact

Chicago is a major city in the Midwest with lots of corporations, restaurants, and small businesses. With that comes a high volume of inbound and outbound semi-trailer trucks for the transportation and delivery of products.

Needless to say, these big rigs are not quiet, not fuel-efficient, and contribute to air pollution.

The sheer number of these large commercial vehicles traversing the city’s streets and highways every day takes a major toll on the local environment and degrades air quality.

I’ve spent enough hours at the end of the workday to know that sitting in a car behind a semi is not a relaxing way to commute, not efficient use of time, nor is it an environmentally-friendly way to travel.


With all the other factors, I think I’ve made a good enough case for increased risk due to road rage, accidents, or driving in winter.

Obviously, there is an element of risk in everyday life.

But when it comes to navigating the busy streets of Chicago, the benefits of utilizing the city’s robust public transportation system, rideshare options, and bike shares often outweigh the potential hassles and dangers of driving.

Final Thoughts on Driving a Car in Chicago

cars at a stop light

Chicago has a lot of alternate modes of transportation including bike sharing, ride sharing, and buses. If you get a rental car, you’ll probably not drive it every day.

There are pros and cons to driving a car in Chicago. And there are parts of the city where it is totally not worth it.

By leaving the car behind, you can avoid the stress of finding and paying for parking, dealing with aggressive drivers, and risking fender benders or worse in inclement weather.

Instead, you free yourself up to sit back, relax, and let someone else handle the driving while you admire the city from the windows of public transportation.

But ultimately, your transportation needs will depend on the length of your visit, where you need to go, how much luggage you have, and your personal preferences.

Safe travel.

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