New York is a bustling, global city. Among its many renowned features — its cultural institutions, its sports teams, its famous views, among many, many others — the New York City subway is one of the most iconic. However, although the transportation giant is essential to the daily business of the city, it can be more difficult to navigate than nearly anything else you might encounter in NYC.
For me personally, attending weekly New York International meetings means catching the subway from the Times Square station to the 116th Street stop on the 1 train. Usually that’s fine. I might enjoy (or not) the vocal stylings of whatever musician happens to jump onboard, but my subway commute is normally pretty simple.
However, leaving the 116th station last week, I noticed a few new posters plastered around declaring that from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., local trains would be skipping the station and acting instead as uptown expresses. Noting the hour (10:30 a.m. already), I was thankful I’d made it on time. There was no indication when I got on the train at Times Square that the schedule change was to occur, and I would have gone shooting past my destination had I been riding the train just half an hour later.
But I was the lucky one. Other New York International staff members found themselves unexpectedly whisked uptown past their stop by trains that showed no indication of any changes to service — at least not before it was too late.
For many New Yorkers, this story is nothing new. With a stoic shrug, they’ll compare stories of subway trains not stopping where they thought they ought to or stopping where they shouldn’t. I once ended up completely lost and confused in a different part of town from where I was trying to go, only learning later about the change of service from a street-side musician who’d taken it upon himself to sing the latest subway news as he strummed his guitar.
So let’s start with some basics and go from there.
The New York City subway is one of the most extensive public transportation systems in the world, with 468 stations in operation, 209 miles of routes, and 5.3 million rides on an average weekday. In 2011, it completed 1.64 billion rides in total, making it the seventh busiest rapid transit system in the world — and easily the busiest in the U.S.
Stations are located in Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. Staten Island is not part of the subway system, though the borough does have its own rail line: the Staten Island Railway.
Manhattan’s east side is noticeably underserved at present, so watch out for long walks to the nearest station. A new Second Avenue line will eventually ease this problem. However, there’s no real end date in sight yet: phase one of four is preliminarily slated to be complete by 2016.
Internationals new to New York City must face facts: You will need to ride the subway routinely, and getting a clear picture in your head of how the system works will save you from getting lost or being late for appointments and meetings.
The Basics: Things to Have and Things to Know
A subway map. Subway maps are available in the stations, and most trains will have a copy of the entire system in each car. Some will also have a breakdown of the specific line you’re on, useful for knowing how many stops you have to go before your destination. In addition, with a smartphone you can now download a New York City subway map to have with you at all times. Good maps for both the Android and the iPhone exist.
Finding the Subway. Subway station entrances are usually found at intersections, and most entrances are flanked by green or red globe lamposts. As you look down the steps of the entrances, look for large, black signs that will tell you the name of the station, the subway lines you will find there, and, if applicable, the direction in which the lines are traveling.
A MetroCard. You will need a MetroCard to enter any platform. You can purchase them from touchscreen machines in the stations with cash or with a debit or credit card. Once you have the card, you simply swipe it to get through the turnstiles to the platform. Unlike many other countries’ transportation systems, you don’t need a card to exit. When you’re leaving, the barriers will simply give way if you push through. A basic fare costs $2.50 and is valid for a single trip anywhere on the system. A quick $10 MetroCard is available for multiple journeys, and you’ll get a few cents extra for choosing this option. Monthly passes and various other saving options are also available. Check out the MTA’s website for a full breakdown.
Local or Express? The real danger for many new subway users lies in accidentally catching an express train. On the subway map, black circles are local stops. White circles serve both local and express trains. The sides of the train will often tell you which kind it is, as will the station signs and electronic displays (though these are not fitted in every station yet).
Right. So far, so good.
For internationals, the confusion often arises from the complex scheduling and changing service times. Schedule information is available online, and you can check planned service changes for specific lines on the MTA website. Service changes usually happen during the weekends, making the subway much more irregular than on weekdays.
Though the subway map appears tangled and confusing at first glance, the city’s grid system provides an obvious north/south and east/west pattern to follow. Just knowing whether you’re travelling uptown or downtown will make things simpler for you. The most commonly used lines are easy to remember and work out: the A, C, E, 1, 2 and 3 lines are on the west side (running north to south) and the 4, 5, and 6 lines are on the east side (running north to south).
The MTA also provides its own guide on how to ride the subway.
The colors of the different lines on the map do not have any particular meaning and aren’t used to describe the lines (i.e. “the Green Line”). Although many lines will share the same track for a while, they will often branch away at some point. It’s important to remember that different trains often have different end destinations, even if they share a track (the E line ends in Manhattan, for example, while the A and C lines continue into Brooklyn).
As previously mentioned, internationals should note that, unlike the London, Paris, or Tokyo systems, various NYC subway stations require you to enter via a particular side of the street in order to travel in a particular direction. Getting an uptown (north) train when you need to travel downtown (south) can be a time consuming delay, so be careful!
Extensive safety information on the subway is available, and as with all things, precaution and a few sensible choices can go a long way to keep you protected. As one of the few 24-hour service transportation systems in the country, the New York City subway is convenient throughout the night. However, in general, solo travelers should avoid the subway very late at night. Services are also limited in the later hours, and being left with no train to catch can put you in a dangerous position.
Pickpockets do operate on the often-crowded trains. Keeping your purse or bag closed and with you at all times is important. Wallets or phones should be kept in front pockets, rather than the more easily accessible and harder-to-protect back pockets.
If you’re unsure about your route, just take a few minutes to plan it out and make sure you know which line you need. Though it’s easy to change trains and correct any mistakes, doing so at rush hour or other peak times can be a crush.
The subway does have a colorful history, and crime continues to be a part of life in NYC. However, in general the system remains a safe and efficient way of getting around in the city.
No particular rules apply to the subway that you wouldn’t find anywhere else. There are special seats close to the doors marked as “priority,” and these should be given up to people with disabilities, young children, pregnant mothers, and the elderly.
Music played through headphones should ideally be kept at a low volume (though you’ll notice plenty of people who ignore this!), and although food and drinks are allowed on the train cars, it’s nicer for everyone if you don’t eat your food on the train.
During rush hour, you might have to push through a crowd to get to the exits, but rest assured, this is New York and no one really cares too much. However, when boarding the train from the platform, it is good practice to stand back and let other riders off before getting on.
You’ll also come across many performers on the subway. Taking advantage of a trapped audience, these singers, musicians, and preachers are either an entertaining quirk or an annoying bother, depending on your point of view. While performing on the subway remains illegal, there’s no real way to prevent these artists from bursting into song between station stops. However, tip or don’t tip as you like: the performers are rarely imposing and often quite talented — and always thankful for a spare dollar.
Exiting the station (particularly during rush hour), you will likely see plenty of commuters using the emergency exits, which sound an alarm when opened. Though technically this practice is frowned upon, in reality it’s become so common that station attendants rarely react. In general, though, it’s still best to use the exit turnstiles and barriers.
A quirk of the system you’ll notice in the summer is that, while the stations aren’t air-conditioned (creating sweltering temperatures), the trains themselves can be downright freezing. If you’re travelling the subway in summer, bring layers if the extremes in temperatures will bother you!
The truth about the New York City subway is that the more you use it, the easier it becomes. A few moments planning should be enough to make any journey simple, efficient, and cheap. Soon enough you’ll find yourself on the side of the New Yorkers, defending the subway with all your heart.
If you’d like to learn more about the history and culture of the subway, we suggest checking out the New York Transit Museum, open Tuesdays through Sundays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (11.a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekends).
Article updated November 20, 2014