We noticed that you're using an unsupported browser. The TripAdvisor website may not display properly.We support the following browsers:
Windows: Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome. Mac: Safari.

The Idiot's Guide to the Subway

New York City
Level Contributor
17,257 posts
3 reviews
The Idiot's Guide to the Subway

In another thread, a visitor asked for an "Idiot's Guide to the Subway". Having been a transit cop in this town for the past twenty years, this seemed right up my alley, and so I have produced the following. I am sorry for the length -- but I thought it might serve as a once-and-for-all useful post, to which other queries might be directed in the future. I hope some of you find it useful...

258 replies to this topic
New York City
Level Contributor
17,257 posts
3 reviews
1. Re: The Idiot's Guide to the Subway

Since you asked: here is “An Idiot’s Guide to using the New York City Subway” (and I apologize for the length – but this should serve as a fairly permanent post for future readers...

While the word “subway” suggests underground trains only, New Yorkers call all municipal rapid transit trains “the subway”, even though some of them run above ground. The term also refers only to the trains run by the New York City Transit Authority – it does not include suburban railroads, or the Port Authority’s Air Train to the airport and PATH trains to New Jersey.

The NYC subway system extends to four of the five boroughs of New York City: Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. It does not extend to Staten Island, and it also does not cross the city border anywhere.

The subway runs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. While some stations are sometimes closed for maintenance work or construction, even in those cases there will usually be shuttle buses provided to provide service to those locations. Unlike rapid transit elsewhere, the NYC subway NEVER closes.

The fare to ride the subway is presently $2.00 for a single ride 9there are discounts for multiple ride combinations, and also unlimited fare cards for set periods.) The subway system is made up of a number of different lines that go from one terminal to another (unlike London, there is no truly circular, looping route.) Where these lines cross in the same or connected stations, you may “transfer” between trains. It is free to transfer at such stations. Indeed, it does not matter how far you are riding, or how many times you change trains. If you have paid your fare, you are allowed to ride practically forever on that same single fare.

When you enter a subway station, you are in an area that is called the “mezzanine”. In the mezzanine can be found the turnstiles, and in most cases a “token booth.” There is also a large map of the entire subway system on the wall, along with a bus map and a neighborhood map. You will also find machines where you can purchase fare cards, called “MetroCards”. You can also buy MetroCards from the “railroad clerk” in the booth. If you want your own subway map or bus map, the clerk has these in the booth -- they are FREE, so ask for one!!!

Now, in some stations, certain less-busy entrances may be closed at some hours – but the main entrance will be open all the time. (By the way, the way you can tell if an entrance is open 24 hours is that there is a green light over it – entrances with red lights are either locked part of the time, or can be accessed only with MetroCards) You will always find a staffed token booth at the main entrance to the station, even if other entrances or booths are closed.

There are a variety of ways of buying MetroCards – you can either buy a card with a set dollar amount (which you can increase by giving the clerk more money as the car is used; she can add the value to the card electronically), or you can buy a card with unlimited use for a certain period of time. The cards with set values may be used my several riders -- for example, if you have $20.00 of value on a card, up to ten different people can enter the subway using that one card. However, if you have an “unlimited use” card, you will NOT be able to share that card. Once used, such a card cannot be reused for 18 minutes, to prevent people from passing the card back for reuse by someone else.

Once you have your MetroCard, walk over to the turnstile. There is an electronic device with a slot where you “swipe” your card, at which point the device will give you an electronic message. All turnstiles are “right-handed”; swipe in the device on the right side of the turnstile you are entering. The device will give you a message. If it says “go”, walk through the turnstile. If it says “swipe again”, do so – most first-time users have a tendency to swipe too slowly, and the machine cannot read that. Swipe the card again briskly. If ther eis a problem, see the clerk - she can help you, and even buzz you into the subway if there is a problem with the card. If you have an unlimited MetroCard, and swipe several times without success, and then the machine says “card used”, go see the clerk. Do NOT ever jump over the turnstile because the card did not work -- and I cannot stress this strongly enough. If you do that, you may be arrested, and I mean put in handcuffs, taken to a police station, fingerprinted, and possibly kept in a holding cell overnight until you can be arraigned in court. In addition, when you are at a station with a “high-wheel” turnstile, which is something like a revolving door, NEVER double-up on a single fare with anyone. BOTH people may be arrested for the crime of “theft of service”.

Once you have entered the turnstile, you continue to the “platform”. In most cases, this is further downstairs -- although it may be directly in front of you. Keep in mind that some stations are large complexes, and have more platform areas than one – just because you found a platform it does NOT mean it is the one you are looking for!!! Look at the signs that show what lines stop there, and also whether that platform is for “uptown” or “downtown” trains. Keep in mind that in Manhattan, “uptown” means NORTH of where you are standing, and “downtown” means SOUTH. This is important – to get to 81st Street from 125th Street, you are going south, and want a downtown train. However, to get to 81st Street from Pennsylvania Station, you are going north, and so to go to that same station from a different starting point you want an uptown train.

The colors of the lines just refer to the streets in midtown Manhattan under which they travel, in order to keep the map from being too confusing. Call the trains by their names or numbers, NOT their colors!!! There is no “blue line”, for example, and trains with the same color may end up in very different places when they leave midtown Manhattan. If you are heading uptown to Columbus Circle from 42nd Street and you board the blue-sign-carrying E train because you think “the blue line goes to Columbus Circle”, you will never get to your destination, and will instead find yourself heading off for Jamaica in Queens! Look for A, or D, or #6, not “blue”, “Orange”, or “green” trains.

Because Manhattan – where the subway was first built – is a long and narrow island, the subway was designed to carry people faster over longer distances than other city’s rapid transit systems were. As a result, unlike just about every other rapid transit system in the world, the NYC subway has both local trains that stop at every station, and express trains that use a different track and that skip many stations, just stopping at certain major stations. Sometimes people mistake one for the other – for example, someone who wishes to travel up Central Park West from Columbus Circle to the Museum of Natural History at 81st Street – which has its own station – might board a northbound train, only to discover to his surprise that the next stop is not 72nd Street, as he thought it was, but is instead 125th Street in Harlem. How did that happen? Well, the rider clearly did not realize that several lines may use the same station, and instead of boarding the local “C” train, he took the express “A” instead.

How do you know what train stops at the platform? Look overhead – there are signs hanging from the ceiling that tell you whether the train is “uptown” or “downtown”, or whether the E and C trains stop there, and at what hours - and so on. All right, we know the E and C stop at this station – how do you know which one is pulling in now? Look at the front of the train – there will be a big lighted sign that gives the train’s letter or number. In addition, on the side of each car there is another sign that tells you what train it is – for example “A /Eighth Avenue Express/ to 207th Street.”

The train has two crew members – the person driving the train is called the “train operator” or “motorman”, and he rides in the very first car. In one of the two central cars is the “conductor”, who opens and closes the doors at each station. Unlike other cities, doors on NYC trains are opened by the conductor only – if there is a pause before the doors open when you get to a station, just wait, and don’t look for buttons or levers. If you would like to ask the conductor a question, or you feel more secure riding with him, you can position yourself on the platform to be where the conductor’s car will be when the train arrives. You can do this by looking for the “conductor boards”, which are black-and-white or black-and-yellow diagonally striped boards hanging from the ceiling in the center of the platform. Stand there and then just board that car when the train arrives.

Never jump onto the tracks – while it looks shallow, the roadbed is four feet from the lip of the platform, and it is NOT easy for most people to climb up that distance using just their arms!! In addition, the subway works with a “third rail” system, and even if you are not killed by being hit by an oncoming train, you can be electrocuted. If you drop anything accidentally onto the tracks, go tell the clerk in the booth or any member of the stain crew – a trackworker will be summoned to get the item for you.

And if you are lost -- ASK people. New Yorkers love to give directions, and will give you all kind s of advice. Transit Authority employees are more reliable sources of information than other passengers -- but they are often busy (being a railroad clerk, for example, can be a very hectic job) and may not give you the full answer you want. Your best always is to ask a Police Officer assigned to the NYPD Transit Bureau (look for a TB on his right collar point), and he will be happy to assist you.

And don’t worry about crime – the subway has almost NO crime, and is the daily choice of more than 4 million paying riders.

New York City, New...
Destination Expert
for New York City
Level Contributor
105,253 posts
13 reviews
2. Re: The Idiot's Guide to the Subway

I haven't read it all (yet) GWB, but you're a saint. What a great idea!

New York City, New...
Level Contributor
6,926 posts
1 review
3. Re: The Idiot's Guide to the Subway

GWB--Great guide to the subway.

Boston
Destination Expert
for Boston
Level Contributor
6,527 posts
60 reviews
4. Re: The Idiot's Guide to the Subway

wow! no apologies necessary. thanks much for demystifying.

Florida
8 posts
5. Re: The Idiot's Guide to the Subway

How do you know when to get off the train? Does the conductor announce each stop or are signs posted? I was thinking about walking everywhere, but after reading this guide, I am going to give the subway a try!

Cornwall, England
Level Contributor
612 posts
14 reviews
6. Re: The Idiot's Guide to the Subway

Thanks GreenWhiteBlue, I am going to print this now and save in my NYC file for ever.

I think the NYC subway is similar to London (and possibly all subways) in that if you give it ago and try to get the hang if it, you do get there and when you do, it is worth it. We liked the coaches, being air conditoned etc. Something I would also suggest to first timers is to try it out at quiet times (we thought midday), so you don't feel you are holding anyone up whilst you work out howmuch money you need to put on and find the correct speed to get your metrocard through!

The tip about the express trains made me smile, we had gone downtown from the Nat History Museum (81st?)on our 1st subway venture down to the Rockefeller Centre. When we wanted to go back we jumped on the first train on the northbound platform, I know now we came down on B, I know now we went back on D, there we were chatting to ourselves about where it would be best to get off, we knew there was a station before our hotel (76th) but we also thought we could get off where we got on. After a while, my husband mentioned to me that the train had not yet stopped, I looked around and noticed that everyone else looked settled for a journey, even worse (and I hate to admit this) when we did get off at 125st we immediately jumped straight on a B train, but as GWB mentiones, we hadn't changed platforms so of course were going the same way (and we think in general we know what we are doing!). When we finally got to 142nd street,we came up for air, crossed the road, went down and waited for a B train, which then stopped where we expected. We had a good laugh about it after and on recalling our tales back here, have found others who have done same so don't feel so bad now.

New York City, New...
Destination Expert
for New York City
Level Contributor
105,253 posts
13 reviews
7. Re: The Idiot's Guide to the Subway

jaredchris, they do make announcements on what the station is but it's often unintelligible. The name of the stop is posted on the wall as the trains rolls into the station. It's also a good idea to have a general idea of how many stops you're going. If you have a map, you should be able to count.

New York City, New...
Destination Expert
for New York City
Level Contributor
105,253 posts
13 reviews
8. Re: The Idiot's Guide to the Subway

In addition to the station name being on the tile wall of the station,

http://www.nycsubway.org/perl/show?39597 it's often on vertical poles on the platform.

http://www.nycsubway.org/perl/show?39572

Level Contributor
25 posts
2 reviews
9. Re: The Idiot's Guide to the Subway

GWB - you are a diamond. I have been reading up on various threads and all have left me wanting to ask more...I think you have covered absolutely everything. I am sure I will still do something wrong - somehow it's all part of the experience, but with your guidance now safely printed and stored for when I visit in March, I now have the confidence to give it a go to put it right! thanks a million.

New York City, New...
Level Contributor
2,416 posts
3 reviews
10. Re: The Idiot's Guide to the Subway

Talk about an invaluable post.....I want to run right out and get it published in hardcover!

Thanks!

Reply to: The Idiot's Guide to the Subway
Get notified by e-mail when a reply is posted