Worried about driving in Chicago during your upcoming trip? It’s a common anxiety – Chicago is a big bustling city with tons of traffic and driving nuances, after all!
Driving here can be a challenge, but there are many options. Many visitors elect to exclusively use public transportation and taxis, but there are advantages to having your own vehicle. In my five years of living in Chicago, I’ve picked up some tips and tricks to make driving in Chicago way easier – and I’m here to spill the beans!
Of course, your experience driving in the city will heavily depend on where you’re staying, so bookmark my guide to where to stay in Chicago while you’re at it.
With that, let’s dive in!
Table of Contents
- Driving Laws and Rules in Chicago
- Illinois License Requirements
- Where to Rent a Car in Chicago
- Car Insurance Rules
- Traffic and Construction Zones in Downtown Chicago
- Driving in Chicago in Winter
- Finding Parking Garages and Options in Chicago
- 5 Driving Tips in Chicago
- FAQs About Driving in Chicago
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Driving Laws and Rules in Chicago
Driving in Chicago can be challenging; you’ll find many other drivers aggressive, some to the point of road rage. I recommend practicing defensive driving to protect yourself from other cars.
👉 Here are some things you should know about driving in Chicago:
- 📱 Using handheld mobile devices is illegal while driving in Illinois; use a hands-free device for phone calls.
- ↩️ You must use turn signals when turning and making lane changes.
- 🚑 When an emergency vehicle approaches, you must stop your car or pull it to the right side of the road.
- 🛣️ The speed limit is 30 mph unless otherwise posted; on highways it’s generally 70 mph. Police may use speeding devices.
- 🚦 You can make a right turn at a red light only after completely stopping (or unless otherwise posted).
- 🍷 A blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.08% makes you legally drunk in Illinois; driving with a BAC of more than 0.05% can get you arrested and prosecuted.
Illinois License Requirements
You must have a valid United States driver’s license to drive in the state of Illinois. Illinois does not recognize the official International Driver’s License, although you can use a driver’s license from another state or country for up to 90 days if you do not plan on becoming a permanent resident of Illinois.
Where to Rent a Car in Chicago
Using Discover Cars is a great way to rent a car in Chicago – they offer reviews and prices from multiple distributors to help you find the best rental deal possible.
I recommend booking a car rental as far in advance as possible – prices go up as you approach the date. When doing so, choose a car that fits your requirements, and know exactly what is required for the rental process to avoid surprises.
🚗 Rental Car Warning: Some airport services will not give you the car unless you show them a plane ticket.
Car Insurance Rules
Regardless of where you’re from, drivers in Illinois need to have liability coverage at the minimum, which will cover any injuries and damages for which you are at fault.
Drivers in Illinois need $25,000 of bodily injury liability coverage per person and $50,000 per accident. These same limits are required for uninsured motorist coverage, in addition to $20,000 of property damage coverage per accident.
Traffic and Construction Zones in Downtown Chicago
The big city of Chicago is notorious for traffic jams. Drivers should avoid the central business district downtown (The Loop) and major city highways, such as the Dan Ryan Expressway, during rush hour (6 a.m. to 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.).
Also remember that this is a major sports town. Baseball, basketball, football, and hockey games significantly increase traffic. Being close to Wrigley Field after the Chicago Cubs have played a home game will almost guarantee that you get stuck in traffic.
Always watch out for construction zones as well. Getting trapped in construction zone traffic can be incredibly frustrating, especially during rush hour. Have an alternate route planned to be able to steer clear of this traffic.
Driving in Chicago in Winter
It’s important to be extra alert when you drive in Chicago during the winter. You’ll need to drive more slowly and be aware that there could be black ice anywhere. Don’t drive unless it’s absolutely necessary – I actually recommend using public transit if you can.
If you have a smaller vehicle, there is a higher risk of getting stuck in the snow. Avoid driving on roads with a lot of visible snow. Traffic is often worse than usual.
Also, keep windows rolled up to stay warm, and make sure that you have a cell phone and a car charger at all times in case of emergency.
📚 Related Reading: Check out my guide on the best time to visit Chicago to see what the Windy City has to offer at all times of the year!
Finding Parking Garages and Options in Chicago
Parking is often a challenge in Chicago. In the suburban areas, you will generally be able to utilize parking lots, however, this is rarely going to be the case in The Loop.
You’ll often have to pay to park in a garage when visiting popular Chicago attractions, such as the Millennium Lakeside Garages if you’re going to an event in Millennium Park, or the Grant Park North or Grant Park South Garages.
Sometimes, you’ll have to look at different garages to see which one is the cheapest. Though garage parking is the most common option in the city center, meter parking exists as well.
👉 Pro Tip: In some areas, you’ll have to pay attention to parking signs for street parking – if you’re parked there outside of certain hours without the proper permit, you’ll get a ticket.
5 Driving Tips in Chicago
Tip #1 – Be familiar with the layout of the streets
Driving in Chicago can be unpredictable. For example, an unexpected accident could close off your planned route – leaving you to re-route yourself.
Though using a maps app on your phone is great for navigation, it’s good to have a general idea of the orientation of the roads (knowing that Sheridan is north of Addison, for example). Knowing that you’re going in the right general direction is essential until you get back on track.
Roads here mostly follow a grid pattern, making this fairly straightforward.
📚 Related Reading: This epic Chicago packing list will help you prep with all the items you need for a comfortable trip!
Tip #2 – Watch for one-way streets
There are many one-way streets in Chicago. Make sure that you look out for street signs that signal these streets, as it can be difficult (and scary!) if you end up going the wrong way on one of them. This is particularly important to remember if you don’t have GPS to tell you where to turn.
Tip #3 – Be vigilant when watching for pedestrians and cyclists
There are many pedestrians and cyclists in the city of Chicago. When you see people walking on a crosswalk, you are required to yield to them.
Bicycle rentals are very common here. There are visible areas where people are picking them up and dropping them off – so be particularly careful at these locations to make sure you don’t hit anyone. E-scooters are also common in the Windy City.
Tip #4 – Learn how to use public transportation options
Driving here is more difficult than in most cities – especially in The Loop with all the traffic, one-way streets, pedestrians/cyclists, and the bridges over the Chicago River. Some find it overwhelming.
Chicago’s public transportation options here are quite extensive – many easily live here without a car. Familiarize yourself with the buses and trains (as well as taxis/rideshare options) that service your planned destinations, even just as a backup plan.
Tip #5 – Avoid toll roads if possible
If possible, reroute your GPS to avoid toll roads as you enter the city. If you can’t do this, you’ll have to make sure to pay the toll.
If you can’t pay your toll in cash at the lane on the Chicago Skyway, then an automated payment machine or toll collector in your lane can issue you a toll violation notice with payment instructions. You’ll have up to seven days to pay before additional fees are issued.
📚 Related Reading: This list of must-do Chicago activities will make sure you get the most out of your upcoming trip!
FAQs About Driving in Chicago
Is driving difficult in Chicago?
It is relatively difficult to drive in Chicago, particularly with the heavy traffic of rush hour and after sporting events. Also, there are pedestrians, cyclists, and many streets where you can only drive in one direction – particularly in The Loop. It gets easier as you drive away from downtown Chicago.
Is it safe to drive in Chicago?
As long as you watch your surroundings, driving in Chicago is safe. That being said, there’s a relatively high number of car crashes; in fact, it’s 25.2% more likely here than elsewhere. For most, it gets safer as they leave the heavy traffic of the city center and move into rural areas.
What is the best time of day to drive through Chicago?
The best times to drive here are during the slowest traffic – before 5 a.m., between 11 a.m. and 12 p.m., between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m., and after 7 p.m. Also, darker skies can cause you to miss things, so daytime may be better.
Is the L safe in Chicago?
The L train is generally safe. This is particularly true since the Chicago Transit Authority has spent the past five years installing 3,600 surveillance cameras on platforms and in train cars. However, if you can, you should avoid certain stops and riding the train late at night.
Driving in Chicago can be challenging, as it’s one of the world’s biggest cities. But it’s definitely doable for anyone who can be aware and vigilant behind the wheel.
And if you want a break from the Windy City roads during your vacation, feel free to look at our guide to the best day trips from Chicago!
Enjoy your drive!
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