chicago: living the grid

If you visit Chicago, and a local friend tells you to meet her at the Western "L" station, then either (a) she's not really your friend or (b) she isn't as local as she claims.  There are five stations called Western in the Chicago rapid transit network:

Five westerns

These duplicate names arise from naming stations solely after a cross street, without reference to the street or path the rail line is following.

But the secret language of Chicago transit desires is even more subtle.  If your friend tells you to meet her at Western Brown Line station, she's probably a local, but if she directs you to Western Blue Line station, you're still in trouble.  As you can see above, there are two.  This one is the more scenic, but note the absence of any signage that might distinguish it from the other one:


Although there are a small handful of duplicate station names in other New World gridded cities (one pair in Buenos Aires, four pairs in Cleveland, two pairs in Philadelphia), New York City is the only system I know of where you'll see the same naming style used in force. 

Nyc 23 st

Few agencies, however, would give the same name to two stations on the same line, as Chicago does.  Toronto, one of the few big cities that's as relentlessly gridded as Chicago, is obviously at pains to avoid it.  Their U-shaped north-south subway line crosses many main streets twice, and in each case they append "West" to the name of the more westerly of the two. 

Los Angeles, like Chicago, has a long Western Avenue that has two stations where different branches of a rail line cross it.  But they didn't call both stations "Western."  They used the full co-ordinates:  "Wilshire/Western" as opposed to "Hollywood/Western."

How do Chicagoans cope with all these duplicate names, even on the same line? No big deal, says Jeff Busby, a Chicago-sourced transit planner now at Vancouver's TransLink:

In partial answer to your question, I would observe that the grid is an overriding organizing element for Chicagoans.  Everyone knows that State and Madison is 0N/S & 0E/W and coordinates are powerful for knowing where you are and how to get somewhere else.  Station platform signs give the N/S & E/W coordinates.  Station names that reinforce their location in the grid are valuable.  I know that Ashland is 1600W and Western is 2400W so that new restaurant I’ve never been to at 2200W is probably closer to the Western station.

To minimize clutter on the system map, stations are generally named for the arterial that crosses perpendicular to the rail line, but in the local language (and the on-board announcements) they are known by both cross streets. For example, the Loop stations are known as State/Lake, Clark/Lake, Randolph/Wabash, Library-State/Van Buren, etc even though they are abbreviated on maps as State, Clark, Randolph and Library.

In this sense, having five "Western" stations is not as confusing at it might seem.  First, it immediately orients you to where they are — on Western Avenue, accessible by the 49-Western bus that travels from Berwyn (5300N) south to 79th (7900S), and a local suggesting that you meet at the “Western L station” would probably use a different term (from North to South):

  • Western (Brown Line) – Lincoln Square (after the neighborhood)
  • Western (O’Hare Blue Line) – Western/Milwaukee
  • Western (Forest Park Blue Line) – Western/Congress (or Eisenhower)
  • Western (Pink Line) – Western/Cermak
  • Western (Orange Line) – Probably Western – Orange Line as it’s not on a major E/W arterial

Indeed, the near universal repetition of grid number coordinates is a striking thing in Chicago.  You'll find them on every streetsign and every platform station name sign.


So it really is possible to ignore all the street names and navigate a city of co-ordinates, much as you would do in Utah cities where you'll encounter street names like "7200 South Street". 

Unique features of a transit system are often keys to the spirit of the city.  Grids were fundamental to the rapid settlement of the midwest and west, so for Chicago — a city built on commerce to and from those regions — the strong grid is an expression of the city's economic might.  All cities have street networks, but few cities attach such strong symbolic value to the nature of their street network, or celebrate it so explicitly. 

And its certainly true that if you ignore the street names and embrace Chicago's numerical grid, there's never any doubt where you are, but of course that implies a sense of "where" that is itself grid-defined.  I'm sure Parisians take pride in the complete gridlessness of their city, and would say that "Place de la Bastille" is a much more satisfying answer to the question "where?" than any grid coordinates would be.  But then, Paris wasn't built to conquer a frontier.


26 Responses to chicago: living the grid

  1. Julian June 22, 2011 at 12:44 pm #

    The Orange Line Western station actually serves Western Avenue and the immediate parallel but separate Western Boulevard and the station is not near any major cross street. Nevertheless it is well used stop serving industries and some residences near there as well as transfer point from bus lines. So with two streets with the exact same name it is no wonder Chicago’s L system has multiple named stations with the same name. If you live here, the neighborhood and the line name tell you which line to take. If you are a tourist, hopefully you ask or can read maps.

  2. Beta Magellan June 22, 2011 at 1:10 pm #

    Typically locals will specify the line color (or, if they’re older, the old line names) if it’s unclear which Western (or other such station) is being talked about. So in practice Chicago station names are really closest to the “Western-Orange line” example.
    Still doesn’t help for the Blue Line, of course–my first time on the Blue Line I was headed for Western/Milwaukee, but started my journey in the other direction.

  3. Alan Robinson June 22, 2011 at 1:48 pm #

    Or, we could take the 6 from the corner of Hyde Park Boulevard.

  4. anonymouse June 22, 2011 at 2:01 pm #

    NYC has plenty of stations with two of the same name on the same line! There’s 7th Avenue on the B, 36th Street on the R, and 23rd Street on the E and V (with the E and V going to different 23rd Street stations on one end). That’s because NYC has not one but several grids, generally divided by boroughs. And Brooklyn has its own crazy system, with a 7th Street, a North 7th Street, a South 7th Street, a West 7th Street, an East 7th Street, a 7th Avenue, and a Brighton 7th Street (but no Bay 7th Street, those start from 8).
    On another grid-related note, in Salt Lake City, there are no street names at all, only grid coordinates. So a street address would be given as 457 East 3200 South, and that’s it.

  5. Al Dimond June 22, 2011 at 2:18 pm #

    As a former Chicagoan, I think clarification would be helpful in a few places where a single line crosses a street twice. I also think some of the existing clarifications could go away. I don’t like the “Chinatown” designation of the Cermak stop; almost no other neighborhood names are mentioned in stop names, which is probably correct in a city where neighborhoods move, change their names, and change demographics so fluidly. I bet Chinatown businesses love it, though. I also don’t like the Red Line’s “Sox/35th” and the Green Line’s “35th/Bronzeville/IIT”. The two stops are so close to eachother that which one you use is more likely to be dictated by where you’re coming from (if you’re going from the north side to IIT there’s not much point transferring to the Green Line, and vice-versa if you’re coming from the west side to a Sox game).
    And then Metra (commuter rail) just opened a third stop on a third different line right between the two called “35th/’Lou’ Jones/Bronzeville”. Which is interesting (Metra sometimes uses neighborhood names and often suburb names, which probably makes sense at its scale, but the commemorative name doesn’t really help anyone figure out where they are going).

  6. Brent June 22, 2011 at 5:45 pm #

    Toronto’s practice of not duplicating names likely stems from the fact that its first extension was the University end of the downtown loop, only two or three blocks west of Yonge, and stopping at all the same major cross streets. In that case it was critical to come up with different names for the University stops at King, Queen, Dundas etc.
    The “west” custom started with Dundas West on the Bloor line, where a modern-day rider would probably consider that another “Dundas” station would be a little more acceptable. But, back when the Bloor line was built, the TTC intended that the Bloor and Yonge/University subways would be interlined (every other train would divert down University and then continue up Yonge) — hence the need for “west” to distinguish from the station at Yonge and Dundas.

  7. Angus Grieve-Smith June 22, 2011 at 7:26 pm #

    Paris actually does it the other way – there are lots of tiny streets, and plenty of long streets that change names every few blocks. For example, many people don’t know where the Rue Saint Nicolas is.
    For this reason, it is common to give a Metro station name (e.g. Ledru Rollin) as part of an address, even if the person isn’t traveling by Metro, so that they have a general sense of what part of Paris the place is in.

  8. buddy June 22, 2011 at 9:33 pm #

    enjoyed this!

  9. Alon Levy June 23, 2011 at 1:05 am #

    What Anonymouse said: in New York there are several places at which a line has two stations of the same name. However, in every single case those two stations are located in different boroughs. Borough divisions in New York are as fundamental as grid positions in Chicago or within Manhattan.
    Repetition of street names on different north-south lines in Manhattan is extremely common, and locals universally say “Take the 1/2/3 to 14th”; if they give you the intersection street and avenue instead, it means they expect you to figure subway directions yourself.

  10. Matt June 23, 2011 at 1:26 am #

    You Americans are crazy.
    The Australian system of naming train stations after the suburbs they’re in makes more sense (to me). And most Australian adults probably know all the names of all the suburbs in their own city, and most suburb names in all cities in Australia. There aren’t that many cities after all. Epping, Brighton and Richmond feature in more than one city though.
    There’s probably 100 suburb names in a decent size city, and wholly within the grasp of an adult brain.
    I’d need a mathematics degree to get around Salt Lake City.

  11. Alex June 23, 2011 at 6:55 am #

    I’m sure that Chicago natives that are geography buffs or transit nerds have no problem with the repetitive naming, but likely the majority of natives find it confusing and have gotten lost because of it at least once.
    That said, when I lived in Chicago it was never a problem, probably because the only time I ever heard someone refer to a place relative to the L it was because the place was directly under the tracks. Otherwise people used the nearest major intersection (and yes I did know some native Chicagoans).
    Rather than a strong grid being “an expression of the city’s economic might,” the example of Chicago shows that a strong grid is a product of being more concerned with real estate speculation than with livability. There’s a reason that the American West is more known for its natural features than its cities.

  12. Andrew June 23, 2011 at 8:13 am #

    @Matt: Do you mean suburbs, in the sense of municipalities independent of the major cities or neighborhoods within city limits? I’m a bit confused because it seems to me that this system of naming implies that there is only one train station per municipality, so for example there is one train station in Epping and it’s called Epping.
    Otherwise it seems to me it’s not always clear how to name a station. I can’t imagine that all the train stations within Sydney are named “Sydney,” and if they’re named by neighborhood, it seems like you could get into a lot of trouble because of disagreements over what neighborhood a station is “really” in, or if a neighborhood has more than two stations, etc. The DC Metro seems to exemplify the problems with this approach, for example.

  13. Noah June 23, 2011 at 9:38 am #

    New York has another confusing set of subway stations. The West 4th Street station has no entrance on West 4th Street at all, there are two entrances: one on West 3rd St and one on West 8th St. The confusion comes from another station with the name West 8th St, on the same line though they’re quite far apart.
    There are also three 59th Street and three 86th street stations in two different boroughs.

  14. Danny Howard June 23, 2011 at 10:07 am #

    The other advantage of Chicago’s grid is in riding the bus. Every major street has a bus, intersecting the other major streets, so you just go down and across.
    The CTA info line told me to take the North Western (49B) bus to the Western bus (49) to the Armitage bus to get to my high school, until a classmate pointed out that I could just take the 49B to Western Brown line to Armitage and walk to school.
    Or, sometimes I would ride from Howard, transfer at Fullerton . . . I was spoiled growing up on the CTA!
    Thank you for inspiring some nostalgia.

  15. Elizabeth June 23, 2011 at 10:23 am #

    Huh! I lived in Chicago for seven years and never once got the two Western blue line stations confused. But I guess the grid did have a pretty strong impact on me. I did hear about people taking the green line to 63rd and Ashland instead of Ashland and Lake–also two very different stations.

  16. Richard June 23, 2011 at 12:01 pm #

    In Cologne, Germany, U-Bahn line-13 has 11 stops called “Gürtel” (as the route effectively travels down the outer “Belt” road of the city).
    The distinguishing feature of each station stop is that the crossing street is given in the name, for instance “Amsterdammer Strasse / Gürtel”.
    As Cologne isn’t a city planned to a grid format this extra naming format is a necessity as co-ordinates aren’t an option. However the lesson for Chicago is that a little extra info goes a long way.
    Obviously if you’re planning on living in a city long-term you probably make a point of learning the map of the transit company. For tourists who don’t expect to have to “cram up” (and I’m guessing Chicago gets a few) it must be frustrating, but perhaps a boon for taxi drivers?!

  17. Alan Robinson June 23, 2011 at 1:49 pm #

    @ Matt,
    “There’s probably 100 suburb names in a decent size city, and wholly within the grasp of an adult brain.”
    Not in Chicagoland. If you come here, there are hundreds of suburbs, including:
    Forest Park
    Forest Glenn
    Forest View
    Forest Lake
    Park Forest
    Oak Forest
    River Forest
    Lake Forest
    Not easy at all to keep you’re head around.

  18. Al Dimond June 23, 2011 at 3:00 pm #

    FYI: In some countries outside of the USA the term “suburb” is used to mean what we USans call “neighborhoods”: sub-parts of a large city. I don’t know which countries exactly follow this and which don’t.
    As far as the size of one’s head goes… let’s say you live in a city called Gridland. Gridland has a major street every mile and a secondary street halfway between each major street in both directions (smaller neighborhood streets also exist). Neighborhoods are bounded by the one-mile major streets. Grid-land is 20 miles high and about 10 miles wide.
    Thus grid-land has 41 E-W major and secondary streets, 21 N-S major and secondary streets, for a total of 62 important streets, which never move much and rarely change names. Also, a bunch of the E-W streets are numbered, so you don’t have to think much about them. And it has 200 neighborhoods, which change names and boundaries every now and then. In Gridland, getting around by reference to the important streets is a whole lot easier than getting around by reference to the neighborhoods. As Gridland expands (and Gridland loves to expand) the number of important streets grow as O(h+w), or O(sqrt(a)). The number of neighborhoods grow as O(h*w), or O(a). That’s a fancy math/comp-sci way of saying that, in Gridland, navigation by grid scales better. You could also, rather than thinking of the city expanding, think of your knowledge of the city expanding. In the beginning it’s easier to remember where a few neighborhoods are, but once you start to cram the whole city into your head the street names start to take less space.
    Chicago, for better or worse, is basically like Gridland.

  19. John June 23, 2011 at 4:18 pm #

    Both Edmonton and Calgary use almost exclusively street / avenue numbers, with few named streets, but with a key difference between the two:
    In Edmonton, the “center” of the grid (downtown) is 100 St and 100 Ave (with streets always running north-south and avenues always running east-west). Numbers increase the further west or north you go. So, most Edmonton addresses would be like: 10750 75th ave, meaning the address is on 75th ave, just west of 107th street. (Incidentally, there’s a problem when you get down to 1st ave and 1st street in the far southeast of the city, now solved by designating the entire city “NW” and adding SW, SE and NE as needed)
    Calgary uses a similar system, except that the grid starts at 1st ave and street downtown, and thus the city is composed of 4 quadrants (NW, NE, SW, SE). Thus, there are four intersections of 15th ave and 20th street, and the quadrant is always given with the address.
    (As a note, the vast majority of cities/towns in Western Canada, and I assume much of the US as well, use numbered and not named streets – with the exception of new suburbs which are often named)

  20. Anonymouse June 24, 2011 at 12:47 am #

    In Australia, suburbs are postal districts in cities. Their borders are defined and they most often have their own postcode, but sometimes share them with other suburbs. This is why train stations are named after suburbs. Still, some suburbs have more than one train station within their boundaries, in which case other names are used, like local creeks and other landmarks. For example, see Merri, Darebin, Westgarth and Northcote train stations all in the Melbourne suburb of Northcote.
    If you live in a suburb, it is implicit that you also live in a city. Otherwise, you live in a town.

  21. Mike Orr June 24, 2011 at 2:47 pm #

    This just highlights the differences in how cities are defined. In Australia (so I’m told), a city is the entire metropolitan area, and the city government automatically has authority over the expanding edges as they are built up. In the US, a city has an arbitrary geographic boundary, and it can expand only by formally annexing peripheral areas. Annexations were routine until the 1950s, then the “local control” movement took hold and peripheral areas (whether suburbs or vague sprawl) refused to be annexed.

  22. Jarrett at June 24, 2011 at 2:52 pm #

    Mike Orr. No, in Australia state govts handle metropolitan issues.
    Cities are small areas within metros, with few powers. Canberra is
    the only exception; it's a city state like DC.

  23. Melburnian June 24, 2011 at 10:22 pm #

    Correct. In Melbourne, for example, there are 31 local government areas (LGAs), mostly defined legally as ‘cities’ but also with five ‘shires’ on the outskirts ( There is actually no legal difference between a ‘city’ and a ‘shire’; ‘shires’ have urban and rural areas within their borders, and ‘cities’ are urban. The central one in Melbourne, including the Central Business District (or ‘downtown’), is the City of Melbourne, which itself has about 10 suburbs in it. If you live in the other 30, you tell people you live in Melbourne, not your actual ‘city’, which is no real city anyway. In any case, people identify with their suburb more than their LGA, as the LGAs are legal fictions.
    Local government is known for the three Rs, rates, roads and rubbish. Otherwise, they have little power to effect anything of substance because the state government holds all these powers. This is because local government is a creation of the state government and has no constitutional basis. In reality, in Australia, local government is just the local branch of the state government.
    Of course, no one would admit that.

  24. Joe Clark June 26, 2011 at 12:41 pm #

    Toronto has Lawrence, Lawrence West, Lawrence East; Dundas, Dundas West; and, in a few years, Finch, Finch West and Sheppard(“–Yonge”), Sheppard West. Steeles West will be built without a corresponding Steeles.

  25. EJ July 4, 2011 at 8:35 pm #

    I guess the opposite is DC’s name-creep, but for all the absurdity of “U St/African-American Civil War Memorial/Cardozo” there’s no confusion over station locations. Indeed some have given names to the neighborhoods they are located in (Van Ness).
    Though Fairfax County seems to want the worst of both worlds for the Silver Line:

  26. Ryan Keefe October 16, 2011 at 9:18 pm #

    EJ as a dc resident you are completely right about our name creep, though everyone only knows the stations by the shortest names such as “U Street” or Woodley Park. One other thing, although you are right about the neighborhoods in general Van Ness is not one of these, I have lived several blocks north of there for the last 12 years and the correct name for the neighborhood is Forest Hills