Mileage mystery: what does “90 miles outside Chicago” actually mean?


Photo by Eric Stuve.

[This is a variation of a piece that also runs in Time Out Chicago magazine.]

Q: When a highway sign tells us Chicago is a certain number of miles away, from what point in the city is it measuring: the outermost boundary line or from, say, State and Madison, the zero point of the street grid?

A: Good question. The first lines from the 1999 earworm “Someday We’ll Know” by New Radicals have always bugged us: “90 miles outside Chicago / Can’t stop driving / I don’t know why.” Is the singer talking about the distance to the city limits or downtown? Illinois Department of Transportation spokesman Josh Kauffman says it’s the latter. “Highway signage typically refers to the distance to the main business district of city,” he says. “So in Chicago that would be the center of Loop.”

Kauffman couldn’t pinpoint exactly what intersection IDOT considers to be Chicago’s epicenter, but Amy Krouse, spokeswoman for Skokie-based Rand McNally, says mileage between cities is usually calculated from one city hall to another. Accordingly, both Rand McNally’s online mapping service and locate their Chicago pushpins at LaSalle and Randolph, spitting distance from Rahm’s office. Now we know exactly what Elwood Blues meant when he said, “It’s 106 miles to Chicago, we got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark… and we’re wearing sunglasses.”

Mileage measurements are important to bicycle touring: when you see a sign that your destination town is X miles away, you want to know if that’s to the city center or the edge of town, because every mile counts when you’re pedaling.

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John Greenfield

John has lived in Chicago since 1989 and has worked a number of bicycle jobs, from messenger to mechanic to managing the Chicago Department of Transportation's bicycle parking program, arranging the installation of over 3,700 bike racks. He writes regularly for Time Out Chicago, Newcity, Momentum and Urban Velo magazines and works at Boulevard Bikes in Logan Square.

5 thoughts on “Mileage mystery: what does “90 miles outside Chicago” actually mean?”

  1. The Blues Brothers drove through Daley Center to get to the front door of the Cook County Assessor’s office so they were only off by half a block. The City of Chicago grid system uses State and Madison as the 0N/S and 0E/W markers for the grid system which is less than a half mile from what the mapmakers use.

  2. So…in cities where they build a new city hall that’s on the edge of town–this is common in many fast-growing suburb-type places–do they change the mileage to reflect that?

    1. Good question. I would guess not for printed maps where distances are listed in a matrix as the cities didn’t actually move further apart or closer together. For online maps, I’d say yes because it’s probably an easier task but it’s still kind of arbitrary. We get house to house directions from online routing applications, so the location of city halls isn’t meaningful.

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