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The ‘L’ Became Color-Coded 30 Years Ago. Some Chicagoans Are Still Getting Used To It

Before the "L" lines were named after colors, trains were known by a relatively random series of names that corresponded to streets and neighborhoods.

A CTA Red Line train passes through the 79th Street station on Aug. 9, 2022.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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CHICAGO — Thirty years ago Tuesday, the CTA tapped into the power of the rainbow to make the “L” easier to navigate. 

Before the system’s routes were assigned the colors used today, the “L” lines were named after streets and neighborhoods with no particular system, said Graham Garfield, who manages an online archive of CTA history. 

“Different things and different people would refer to lines differently and the other issue was that it wasn’t consistent,” Garfield said. “Some of the names referred to streets or neighborhoods, but it wasn’t always where the last station was. What was called the Ravenswood line actually ended in Albany Park.”

The CTA began labeling train lines by color Feb. 20, 1993. But before then, nobody was picturing the color red when hopping aboard the old Howard-Englewood-Jackson Park Line. 

That Howard-Englewood-Jackson Park Line, which became part of the Red Line, was also known as the North-South Route depending on who you talked to. 

The lack of a consistent naming system made public transportation harder to navigate, especially for travelers, Garfield said.

“If you lived here your whole life and just knew the names of the lines, it was fine,” Garfield said. “But if you were a new rider, a tourist or a resident unfamiliar with the system, there wasn’t a real logic to it, and they wanted to make the system more user-friendly.” 

The color-coded system was announced the same day the CTA unveiled reconfigured North-South and West-South routes in response to the way ridership had changed over time. 

And the Red Line as it is today was born — from the connection of three train lines amid the upheaval of the anything-goes naming system.

Red was used to mark the previous North-South routes on transit maps dating back to the ’70s, but the color also represents the train’s popularity and fame. Officials chose the color red so it would stand out on the map since it’s the most used, according to the CTA’s website.

In addition to transporting the most commuters of any line in the city, the Red Line is the only train route in the country that connects two major league ballparks: Wrigley Field and Sox Park.

The other lines got their colors from those used to identify them on transit maps dating back to the ’70s, according to the CTA’s website. In 2006, the Pink Line was named by a student who won an essay contest arguing for the color.

Renaming the lines with colors was intended to make public transportation easier to navigate through neutral names that share a consistent theme and double as a visual aid, Garfield said.

“With hues of colors, you can tie trains to a visual way-finding system in a way you couldn’t with names,” Garfield said. “That’s helpful, especially for new users, because it helps reinforce you’re in the right place even if you’re not familiar with the city or if English isn’t your first language.” 

The change wasn’t “really designed for native Chicagoans” who “grumbled” about giving up the routes they were familiar with and continued using the old names for years to come, Garfield said.

“A lot of longtime Chicagoans were kind of resistant to the idea because people are usually against changing the things they’re used to and that feel second nature or uniquely Chicago to them,” Garfield said.

Even after 30 years, you might still catch a longtime city dweller lovingly refer to the Red Line by one of her old aliases. 

“It’s like how people don’t want to call the Sears Tower the Willis Tower,” Garfield said. “There was some of that resistance, but it has eased over time.” 

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