Navigating the Subway

Travel Tips, What's New — By sarahpruitt on August 26, 2010 at 3:27 pm

With some 1.5 billion annual rides, the sprawling New York City subway system (first opened in 1904 and now open 24 hours a day, seven days a week) is one of the biggest and most heavily used public transportation systems in the world. As of 2009, only Tokyo, Moscow and Seoul had busier subway systems; the second-most-used American subway, in Washington, D.C., racked up only 215.3 million annual rides.

14th St-Union Square is Manhattan's 4th busiest subway station (behind Times Square-42nd Street, Grand Central-42nd St and 34th St-Herald Square).

Despite these impressive statistics, however, the NYC subway often gets a bad rap – it’s crowded, it’s dirty and smelly, it can be highly confusing and it can even be dangerous (although nowhere near as dangerous as in past years). For a new visitor to the city, the subway can certainly be intimidating, but don’t give up hope! It can also be your most powerful tool in getting the most of what this amazing city has to offer during your trip, especially if you arm yourself with a few useful tips.

Signage

Subway system maps are posted near most subway station entrances, on the platform, and inside every car.

The newer subway trains running on some of the more heavily trafficked lines (N, 4/5, 2/3 etc.) boast LED signs showing the stops that the train is making.

Image by See-ming Lee via flickr

These signs, posted in subway stations and trains by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) provide important safety information as well as security advisories.

How To Pay
Those charming old subway tokens are a thing of the past – the only way to buy a trip or multiple trips on a New York City subway (or bus) is by purchasing a MetroCard. With recent budget cuts, many stations have fewer agents working in them, so the easiest way to purchase a MetroCard and ride the subway is by following the steps below:

  1. Find a MetroCard vending machine (located near many subway station entrances/exits).
  2. Touch the Start button on the touch-screen and select which language you need and the option to buy a new MetroCard.
  3. Decide which kind of card you wish to purchase: the three main kinds are SingleRide, Pay-Per-Ride and Unlimited.*
    SingleRide – Just what it sounds like; costs $2.25 and you get a piece of paper instead of a card.
    Pay-Per-Ride – Choose a specific amount of money to put on the card; buying 8 rides or more at a time will earn you bonus rides ($45 gets you a $51.75 MetroCard, or three bonus rides).
    Unlimited – Get an unlimited number of rides for one day, week or month. Do the math—if you plan to take more than three subway (or bus) rides in a day, the 1-Day Fun Pass is a good deal at $8.25. 7-Day Unlimited is $27.
    *Pay-Per-Ride cards can be refilled; SingleRide and Unlimited cards cannot.
  4. Use cash or a debit/credit card to pay for your MetroCard.
  5. Take your new MetroCard out of the slot to the far right, and your receipt (optional) and change (coins only) from the slot near the bottom of the machine.
  6. Approach the turnstiles near the entrance and swipe your MetroCard through the long narrow slot to the right of the turnstile. Try to swipe in one even motion, not really fast or really slow. The machine may tell you to swipe again if it wasn’t able to read your card. When you see the green arrow on the turnstile light up, congratulations, you’re good to go!

How to Ride

  • Before you go, you can map your trip using a convenient online trip planner tool such as HopStop or the MTA’s own Trip Planner.
  • A group of people (up to 4) can use the same Pay-Per-Ride MetroCard to ride the subway. Unlimited cards cannot be shared.
  • Know which direction you want to go. In Manhattan lines are usually marked Uptown or Downtown but sometimes with the name of the last stop in each direction. You also need to determine whether you should be taking the Local or Express train (which often arrive on opposite sides of the same platform).
  • Be sure to pay attention to Service Change signs, which include important info on which trains aren’t running, which are running local/express (especially during late night or weekend hours) and other changes. You can also find service change info on the MTA website.
  • Often the middle of the platform and the areas around stairways and other entrances are particularly crowded (as are the middle cars of the train once it arrives). Try to move towards the far ends of the platform to get some breathing room, and a better chance at a seat once you board the train.
  • It’s tempting to peek down the tracks to see if that train is coming, but be sure to back from the edge of the platform for your safety (especially when the train is approaching the station) It can get extremely crowded on the train platform during rush hours, and you don’t want to get pushed forward and lose your balance.
  • If you’re not able to find a seat, be sure to hang onto the handrails or steady yourself against the closed doors (just be careful when they’re about to open!) in case of sudden stops.

    Subway car at rush hour, by Annie Mole via flickr

  • Once you’re on the train, the conductor will announce the stops, but it’s often hard to hear. Be aware of where you are by looking at the signage at each station stop and the maps posted in each car, and move towards the door when you’re ready to get off the train.
  • The NYC subway is definitely a lot safer than in the past, but you should still be alert and aware of your surroundings at all times, and be careful when taking the subway late at night (after midnight), especially on weeknights and in less heavily trafficked areas of the city. This goes especially for women riding alone.

Subway Etiquette – Do’s and Don’ts

  • Do step aside from the exit door to let the people on the train get off first when you’re waiting to board.
  • Don’t hold the doors open to push let your friends run down the stairs and get on the train. It holds the trains up and prevents everyone else from getting where they need to go.
  • Do offer your seat to pregnant women, seniors or people with disabilities. There is priority seating designated at the end of each car for elderly or disabled people, but even if you’re seated elsewhere in the car, you should be prepared to give up your seat to someone who needs it more.

    Image by jenschapter3 via flickr

  • Don’t occupy more than one seat. (This isn’t strictly a question of etiquette: a friend of mine once got a fine for having her bag on the seat next to her, even though there were empty seats available in the car.) In a crowded car, this rule is even more important.
  • Don’t carry on any liquid in an open container. This is a very frequently broken rule but it is included in the MTA rules of conduct and following it might help prevent those messy spills and mysterious liquids you’ll often find lurking on the subway seats or floor.

Now you’re ready to ride!

(Unless otherwise noted, all photos by Sarah Pruitt)

Tags: getting around, info, manhattan, metrocard, MTA, public transportation, Subway, travel