Chicago, Illinois, is known for its iconic food scene, unique architecture, vibrant culture, notable historical landmarks, and professional sports teams. The Windy City is also one of the most populated cities in the US, with over 2 million residents and an average of 30 million visitors yearly.
Due to the city’s bustling economy and tourism, it’s no wonder why Chicago is notorious for its traffic jams. While traffic is expected with any significant tourism hub, it still helps to know how to avoid it, whether you’re a local, a tourist, or just a driver passing through the megacity.
Chicago Road Rules
Before anything else, let’s go over the road rules in the Windy City. Traffic regulations in Chicago are consistent with the laws in other cities and states. Nevertheless, here are some of the most important things to remember:
- Cellphones: You cannot use handheld devices while driving in Chicago. Bluetooth or hands-free devices are permitted.
- Emergency Vehicles: You must pull off to the side of the road when an emergency vehicle approaches (e.g., police car, ambulance, firetruck). You are not allowed to use a cell phone or take pictures within 500 feet of an emergency vehicle or where personnel is working.
- Construction Zones: The city typically closes lanes in work zones, so you must slow down and merge lanes when possible. You should also yield to workers and work vehicles.
- Speed Limit: The limit in the Windy City is 30 mph unless otherwise posted. The highway limit is usually 70 mph. Police may use speeding devices to monitor drivers.
- Right Turns at Red Lights: You are allowed to make a right turn at a red light (unless otherwise posted) only after making a complete stop.
- Drunk Driving: Driving in Chicago with a blood alcohol of 0.05% or more can get you arrested and prosecuted for driving under the influence.
- Car Insurance: Drivers in Chicago must have liability car insurance.
- Tolls: Many highways in Chicago, like the Chicago Skyway, have tolls. If you do not have change on hand to pay the toll, you can pay it online within seven days.
When is Rush Hour in Chicago?
Traffic tends to be the worst around 6 AM to 8 AM and between 4 PM and 6 PM. Traffic jams are constant on Illinois expressways, with people trying to get in and out of the city.
Traffic thickens around arenas and sports venues during game days. Roads around Wrigley Field and the Wintrust Arena tend to be the busiest before, during, and after major sporting events. Expect heavy traffic all day around these venues and surrounding roads.
Additionally, traffic worsens around summertime in the city due to increased construction, tourism, and sporting events.
On the other hand, the best times to drive on Chicago roads are 5 AM and 2:30 PM–before the morning and evening rush.
What Are The Busiest Roads in Chicago?
If you want to avoid rush hour traffic or the heavy Chicago traffic in general, you might want to avoid the city’s busiest interstate highways when entering or exiting:
- I-90/I-94: Goes from Dan Ryan Expressway to Chicago Skyway junction; extends from Clybourn to West Division Street (north of the city); used by drivers coming from suburbs south of the city.
- I-290: Spans from South Pulaski Road to South Sacramento Boulevard, connects the city to surrounding suburbs.
- I-294: Extends from O’Hare Way to Irving Park Road, often congested and slow due to the busy airport.
- I-80: Connects IL83 to US41 and connects directly to US 41.
You might also want to find alternatives to the busiest streets in Chicago:
- North Lakeshore Drive (US 41): Spans between West Fullerton and North Cameron Drive; alternate route for most drivers when expressways are congested.
- US 53: Goes from Palatine Road to IL62 and runs through Schaumberg, Naperville, and Joliet.
- North McCormick Boulevard: Runs from West Touhy Avenue to West Devon Avenue, often used by drivers as a detour.
- East Congress Parkway: Goes around the Chicago River and South Michigan Avenue, busy throughout the day and any day of the week. Some people walk or bike around this area to avoid traffic.
How to Monitor Traffic in The City of Chicago
It’s best to check real-time traffic reports in the Chicago area before heading out for your commute. You can use the following driving apps to check traffic conditions, find parking, and steer clear of accidents:
- Park Chicago
- Google Maps
- INRIX Traffic
- Traffic Spotter
Remember to avoid using your cell phone while driving. If you must use an app, do it while parked or stopped at a red light.
How to Avoid Rush Hour Traffic and Traffic Jams in Chicago
Heavy traffic is a constant problem in a big city like Chicago. While it may seem hopeless to get to your destination on time without spending forever in traffic, heeding these few tips can help make your trip easier:
- Leave early or late. If you want to avoid the worst traffic times, leave before or after the morning or evening rush hour, especially if you have to take the Kennedy Expressway, West Roosevelt Road, and other busy highways.
- Find the quickest way to your destination. If you commute daily, find the easiest and fastest way to reach your destination. Avoid taking detours, as this may lead to more traffic.
- Consider using public transportation. Traffic congestion in Chicago isn’t going away any time soon. If you want to avoid spending hours in traffic daily, consider taking public transport to and from work. It’s also best to avoid driving in the city during game days, holidays, and other days when more drivers are on the road. The ‘L’ rapid transit trains operated by the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) are the easiest way to get around the city center.
- Try cycling: Bicycle rentals are readily available in the city center. Consider cycling instead of driving your car in Chicago.
Parking in Chicago
Finding parking in one of the biggest cities in Illinois can be incredibly frustrating. Here are some tips to help your parking experience go much smoother:
- Find parking garages in advance. Garage parking is common around popular attractions. You will be able to find garages near major venues, such as the Millennium Lakeside Garages near Millennium Park and the Grand Park South or Grant Park North Garages. Book parking in advance, especially on game day or a holiday.
- Pay attention to street parking signs. Read parking signs carefully, especially if you’re in a metropolitan area. Parking outside of certain hours can get you a ticket.
- Prepare your parking budget. Meter parking outside the Loop costs around $2 per hour, $4.50 per hour in the central business district, and $7 per hour in the Loop. Some meters may only take credit cards or apps for payment.
- Consider valet service: If you don’t mind spending extra cash for a parking spot, enlist valet services at restaurants, theaters, and hotels, especially in downtown Chicago.
Driving in Chicago During Winter
Chicago winters are harsh. If it’s your first time driving in Chicago in winter, take note of the following tips:
- Leave early. Many Chicago drivers leave at least 30 minutes earlier in the winter to account for slower driving and less visibility due to snow.
- Stay warm. Turn up the heat, drive with your windows rolled up, and wear multiple layers for maximum warmth. These precautions can save your life if you get stuck in the snow.
- Be extra vigilant. Darker skies in winter make roads more dangerous, especially in rural areas with fewer lights.
- Slow down. Slick and icy roads are more prone to accidents. Slow down and increase your following distance to avoid crashing into an object or vehicle.
Other Useful Tips for Driving in Chicago
Driving in Chicago is relatively safe and doable despite the city’s traffic problem. Now that you have a general idea of what it’s like to drive in one of the busiest cities in Illinois, here are other valuable tips to keep in mind:
- Familiarize yourself with road layouts. Most Chicago roads follow a grid pattern, making navigation reasonably straightforward. However, unexpected accidents or roadwork can close your planned route. In case you have to find another way to your destination, it helps to be familiar with the orientation of the streets so you can quickly get back on track.
- Be mindful of one-way streets. There are many one-way roads in the city of Chicago. Always be on the lookout for signs lest you drive the wrong way and risk an accident.
- Watch out for pedestrians and cyclists. Many residents walk or cycle in the city of Chicago. Watch out for people walking on the crosswalk, cyclists crossing the road on their bikes, and e-scooters sharing the road with you.
- Always pay toll fees. If you must drive through Chicago tollways, always remember to pay your tolls. You have seven days to settle an unpaid toll online or via mail before you incur additional fees.
- Buy good car insurance. Although drivers must have auto insurance, buying just any insurance policy may not suffice. Ensure you have enough coverage in case you get into an accident.
Stay Safe While Driving in Chicago
City traffic congestions vary depending on the time, location, and season. Usually, there are more drivers on the road between 6 to 8 in the morning and 4 to 6 in the evening. You should also expect traffic jams along busy expressways and during holidays and game days.
Follow the tips mentioned above, and driving in the city should be more manageable than expected. Try cycling, walking, and public transportation if you want to avoid road hassles.