CT-Eh? – Multiculturalism and Chicago Public Transit Culture

ctaPublic transportation in Chicago can give anyone a panoramic view of urban multiculturalism in action. Riding the Red Line to work, you might hear a woman on the phone speaking in Chinese, as a Polish man speaks to his young child in his native tongue. This smorgasbord of foreign cultures might seem comprehensive, but public transportation can be its own culture.

Realistically, there isn’t just one constant standard of etiquette when getting from A to B, but any newcomer to the environment of Chicago’s numerous train and bus routes should learn what to expect when interacting with the CTA.

For a non-native Chicagoan, the unwritten rules of CTA travelling can be unclear. Do you offer your seat up to the pregnant woman who just got on? How about the man with two grocery bags? It may not always be apparent what is expected of commuters on their way to where they’re going.

riding pub trans

During the CMWR’s weekly Conversation and Culture, one international student discussed that in his country, it was always traditional to offer one’s seat up to a woman if she were standing. In Chicago, that may not always be the norm. Unless it appears as though the person standing might clearly benefit from sitting down (i.e., they are elderly, pregnant, or with young children), then it is perfectly fine to keep your seat for yourself.

This is just one example of the multinational character of the CTA as it creates its own variation of American public transit culture. Another feature that is rather unique to Chicago is the etiquette concerning heat lamps on the outside el-train platforms. Americans tend to value their personal space, and it might be considered rude to squeeze up against someone, even in search of warmth. Sometimes though, the elements conspire against us, forcing all passengers to snuggle up to make the wait for the train bearable for all.

Some people might balk at the thought of bodily contact with multiple strangers, but folks from some other cultures might not bat an eye. The main idea of riding the train or bus everyday is to not make waves. Try not to bother anyone else, and do your best to make sure everyone can get to where they want to go. The less stressful you make the trip for yourself and everyone around you, the better your commute will be.

It may seem rude, but one of the best ways to coexist on the train is to avoid eye contact and to not engage with others. It is perfectly fine to ask a stranger for directions, but not everyone on the train may be in a good mood. If someone is rude, don’t hold it against them! Just go about your business like everyone else, and realize that CTA commuters come from all walks of life.


But isn’t that what makes Chicago special? What we learn from the CTA is that Chicago is full of people from across the globe. A single trip on the bus or train provides commuters with a snapshot of a vast array of cultures, backgrounds and unique stories. So even though navigating public transportation and abiding by its unwritten social rules may be overwhelming, remember that your personal background contributes to the multicultural mecca that is Chicago.

For more information on public transportation or city life, come to our workshop, “Out and About: A Short Guide to City Living.”

By: Emma K. and Daniel