As the third most-populous metro area in the United States, Chicago has an amount of automobile traffic rivaled by few. Fortunately, the city is home to an incredibly expansive commuter rail network. Metra has its flaws, as any regular rider can tell you. But having a credible alternative to hours of bumper-to-bumper traffic (the reality in many American cities), even from some of the most far-flung suburbs, is better than not. In fact, some of Chicago’s suburban communities top the list when it comes to the best transit alternatives.
This home to Northwestern University and tree-lined streets is proximal to the city, but that comes with a caveat: no direct expressway access. Evanston is in the unique position of having both Metra and CTA rail access (not unlike Oak Park). While driving to downtown Chicago can easily take an hour, taking Metra from downtown Evanston can take as little as 20 minutes.
Chicago Transit Authority trains take longer, but they might be the better option depending on your destination: while all Metra trains terminate in the West Loop, the Purple and Red Lines provide much more direct access to major employment centers like the Gold Coast, Mag Mile, River North, and the Merchandise Mart. Purple Line trains run express into the city during rush hour, minimizing time lost vs Metra.
Naperville & Downers Grove
Despite their considerable distance from the city, these two can feel much closer thanks to what are essentially dedicated express trains on the Metra BNSF line, running nonstop from here into the city.
And the time savings can be staggering: a 60-90 minute drive into the city, versus a 26-minute (Downers Grove) or 34-minute (Naperville) train ride. It’s no coincidence that Naperville’s two Metra stations rank No. 1 and No. 2 in ridership, followed at No. 3 by — you guessed it — Downers Grove.
There aren’t many places in the suburbs where a Metra station is served by multiple lines. But when that happens, it can make a world of difference. If you’re an off-peak hour commuter, you can be sure there won’t be the one- or even two-hour gap between trains there would be with a single line serving the station.
A few other places like this include Joliet, Blue Island, and Franklin Park, but Libertyville’s Prairie Crossing station takes the cake: one of its two lines, the North Central Service, provides little-known (albeit infrequent) service to O’Hare, connected directly to the terminals via the people mover, which will reopen later this year.
Harvey, Homewood, Flossmoor, and Richton Park
Truly anywhere along the Metra Electric line, which runs straight through the south suburbs, gets bonus points here. It runs the most trains of any line, and with more frequent service comes greater flexibility.
However, the bonus points are really awarded for commute reliability. Many Metra lines have to share tracks with freight trains, and that often causes delays. But Metra has full control over the Electric line’s tracks, resulting in the best on-time performance on the system: over 97 percent in each of the last five years.