How the CTA Map Got Its Colors | Sidetracks | Chicago by 'L'

Chicago 'L' map from 1913

Chicago’s ‘L’ maps looked very different in 1913, with Lake Michigan at the bottom of the map. Photo: Courtesy of the Chicago Transit Authority.

How the CTA Map Got Its Colors

Navigating Chicago used to be a lot less colorful – not in terms of the characters you might meet on the train or the art you can spot at many CTA stations, but with regard to the names of ‘L’ lines and their appearance on the map. The CTA adopted its current, color-coded system of train lines only in 1993, and the colors riders know so well today reached their recognizable state only in 2006.

That’s not to say that colors had never been used on maps of Chicago’s transit system. They had long been useful in distinguishing train lines on maps printed in color, but they weren’t used to refer to the lines themselves. Instead, branches were designated by their destinations (“Englewood,” “Ravenswood”) or the thoroughfare they ran along (“Dan Ryan,” “Lake”). Whole lines, then, were named by the direction they traveled (e.g., “North-South” for the Red Line) or the branches they consisted of (“Milwaukee-Congress-Douglas” for the Blue Line, which back then included a branch now subsumed into the Pink Line.)

Many of the colors Chicagoans recognize today were introduced around 1970, according to Graham Garfield, a CTA employee who runs the website and is one of the CTA’s unofficial historians. At that time, color maps began to show the North-South route in red, the West-South route in green, and the West-Northwest route in blue, similar to today’s designations. The Skokie Swift was orange or black, while the Evanston line was brown and the Ravenswood line was purple – the reverse of today.

Vintage CTA map

Before 1993, the colors of the southern portions of the Red and Green lines were swapped. Photo: Courtesy of the Chicago Transit Authority

That reversal took place on the 1985 edition of the train map. Whereas the city proper had previously been depicted in black and the suburbs in olive, the 1985 map showed the city in white and the suburbs in tan. Garfield speculates that this change led to the switch of colors for Evanston and Ravenswood: it would have been difficult to see a brown Evanston line against a tan background. In addition, Evanston is the home of Northwestern University, whose colors are purple and white, a fact that Garfield says probably factored at least partially in the CTA’s thinking when it changed the color of the Evanston Line to purple. Conversely, brown, being the color of wood, tied in neatly to Ravenswood, although this reported association may be apocryphal.

Many of the current colors were in place: red running north and south, green west and south, blue northwest and west, brown north then west, and purple in Evanston. But while the colors matched today, not all the lines did. After what we know as the Red Line passed through the Loop from the north, it ascended from the subway after Roosevelt and went on to Englewood and towards Cottage Grove and Jackson Park – what the south branches of the Green Line do today. And what we know as the Green Line went south down the middle of the Dan Ryan expressway after exiting the Loop, as the Red Line does today.

On February 21, 1993, the south part of the Green Line swapped with the Red Line, linking the Green Line’s west branch along Lake to the south branch towards Ashland and Cottage Grove. At that same time, the CTA officially adopted a color-coded system and in the process, created the Red Line we now know. The following year, the entire Green Line closed for a renovation project that lasted more than two years. Meanwhile, the Blue, Brown, and Purple lines officially became known as such, while the Skokie Swift became the Yellow Line.

Still lacking, however, were the Orange and Pink lines. The Orange Line arrived swiftly thereafter, though its construction was slower: a train line to Midway Airport had been announced in 1980, but was not completed and opened until October 31, 1993. (While it’s fun to imagine it was designated orange because it opened on Halloween, there’s no evidence to support that.)

Pink didn’t appear on the train map until the millennium. Train service west towards Cicero had been provided by a branch of the Blue Line that left the Congress branch between Racine and the Illinois Medical District stops. But in 2006 that branch was connected to the Lake Street branch of the Green Line via an old segment of track that had been unused by the public for decades, creating a new line distinct from the Blue Line. The line was often referred to as the Silver Line while in development, but the official name came from a student essay contest in which Pink, Gold, and Silver were the top three choices; Pink won. Maybe a Gold or Silver Line is still yet to come.