Over 5 million people take the New York City subway every weekday. I’m one of them.
With over 400 stations, the NYC subway system, run by the MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) is one of the most complex in the world. This sentence from a TimeOut NYC article sums up my feelings about the NYC subway perfectly: “New Yorkers like to boast that the NYC subway system is the best in the world (even as we complain about how crummy it is in the very next breath)”. If you want to get a feel of the ‘real’ New York City, taking the public transport is a must.
But how do you actually use the subway? What are the dos and don’ts? This NYC Subway Guide has the answers, local tips and more.
Feel free to use the table of contents at the left when you need to quickly jump to a part of the guide.
NYC Subway Guide Contents
- Finding Your Way Around: How to Navigate the NYC Subway
- Subway Map
- Express Trains and Local Trains
- Best NYC Subway App and Other Resources
- Subway Fares
- Etiquette and Unspoken Rules
- Safety: How not to fall onto the tracks and die & not get mugged by random crazy people
- How To Look Like a Local on the Subway
- Bathrooms in the Subway
- WiFi and Cell Phone Reception
- Train Lines and Their Reputations
- Wheelchair Accessibility
- Interesting Things To See In the Subway
- Subway Fun Facts
- Download a Printable Version
Navigation Basics: Finding Your Way Around
There are lots of complex methods for navigating the subway, but the easiest thing to do is simply downloading an app. But there are a ton of apps. NYC Subway by Mapway is the one I personally use, and the one which I think is the best. One crucial benefit is that it works perfectly while offline.
Using it is simple. When you first view the app you are shown a NYC subway map which you can zoom in on.
By tapping on a station, you are brought up a screen with information about the station including what trains stop there.
Tap on the word “Route”, to route your trip – select a starting station, then select the station of your final destination. The app will then tell you if and where you need to transfer, how many stops it takes and approximately how long the trip will take.
Paying money for a subway app is unnecessary – most of the good ones are completely free. There are ads within the app, which can be annoying, but they don’t work when you’re offline.
It occasionally gives you alerts when there are service changes or MTA travel alerts.
Things to keep in mind:
- Although the train colors might be the same, they can go completely different places. For example: the R and Q trains are both yellow lines, but the R train goes to Queens while the Q train doesn’t.
- On the weekends, most trains are inconsistent, slower and more annoying in general because of repair work.
- While the subway is technically operational 24/7, at night some trains don’t run or are very infrequent
- When transferring, look up at the signs. There are arrows pointing you towards where you’ll need to go and where the subway line you’re looking for is.
- Remember to make sure if you know you’re going Uptown or Downtown
New York City Subway Map
With an app, like Mapway, you don’t need to download the subway map.
The subway map is the most essential item for navigating the subway. If you’re not familiar with the stops, it’s almost impossible to get anywhere without it. Even I, as a local, still need to refer to the subway map often since there are so many stops and there are many train lines which I almost never take.
There are subway maps within every train car, but only the confused tourists look at them. After reading this guide, you shouldn’t be one of them.
In addition to the official subway map published by the MTA, there are several visually appealing map design spinoffs. If you want to keep it simple, stick to the official MTA version, but for those interested here’s our list of the Best New York City Subway Map Designs.
Express vs Local Trains
Express trains – only stop at express stops, which show up at on the subway map as black circles with white centers
Local trains – stop more often, slower, but will take you to the exact stop, smaller stations
Best NYC Subway Apps and Resources to Use
MTA.info – latest information about train delays
Mapway NYC – subway app as mentioned earlier.
Subway Fares and Prices
The MTA is rundown and pretty low tech. In order to use the subway you need to buy a Metrocard, which is like a credit card but a lot thinner. In order to get into the subway, you have to swipe your card at the turnstile.
Unlike in London, there are no zones for tracking how far you went. You the pay the same fare once, regardless of how far you go.
- Subway (single fare)……………………………………………..$2.75
- Unlimited Ride MetroCard (30 days)…………………..$121.00
- Unlimited Ride MetroCard (7 days)……………………..$32.00
(The MTA offers some other packages, but they’re more complex and you will most likely not need them.)
As of March 19, 2017, the Metrocard fare for unlimited rides was increased. They’re always slowly increasing their fares. Visit the MTA website for more information.
The MTA manages the New York City bus system as well as the subway system. They are somewhat interconnected and you can use the same Metrocard to pay for the bus as you do the subway. The bus is another complicated system which we won’t divulge into in this subway guide.
If you pay your fare with MetroCard, you may transfer free from local bus-to-subway, subway-to-local bus or local bus-to-local bus within two hours of the time you paid your fare. Unlimited Ride MetroCard includes all transfers free of charge. (MTA)
There is a $1 fee for each new MetroCard purchase (on top of the fare). Metrocards expire after 1 year.
Which should you buy?
If you’re staying in New York City for a week (or even 5 or 6 days) and want to see all the tourist attractions, I’d recommend buying the $32 unlimited. Think you can cheat the system and share an unlimited card? The MTA is pretty dumb, but not that dumb.
[Unlimited MetroCards] Cannot be used again at the same subway station or the same bus route for at least 18 minutes. Cannot be used by or transferred to another person until the completion of a trip for which entry was obtained.
If you aren’t sure how many times you’re going to take the subway, then get the pay-per-ride option. Since there’s a $1 fee per new MetroCard, if you’re traveling as a family or group, simply buy one MetroCard then share it.
Where to buy a MetroCard
Buy your MetroCard inside the subway station, before entering the turnstile, either from the vending machines or the person who works inside the booth. They accept cash or credit.
The art of the Metrocard swipe
Learn the skill well. You might need it when you’re running for president.
“With the MetroCard name facing toward you, quickly swipe your MetroCard through the turnstile in one smooth move.” – MTA
The subway. The transportation mode of choice for New York City’s mortals is accessible via one and only one method: the MetroCard swipe. Although seemingly straight forward, when pulling back the curtain it is revealed that swiping a MetroCard is more than a method of payment – it is an art. Something that can be done a right way and a wrong way. So how exactly do you properly execute this nuanced task?
According to NYC locals, the perfect swipe falls in line with the characteristics most valued in this city: speed and efficiency. “People should swipe while walking. You shouldn’t have to stop, swipe, then walk. No one has time for that”, notes Susan, a public relations executive in Manhattan. “I’ve already got to commute for an hour from Williamsburg. Let’s make this quick for all of us.” Walk, swipe and pass the turnstile – all in one motion. Now let’s move on to the next task.
Subway Etiquette and Unspoken Rules
Eating in the subway is fine, but just don’t be annoying about it. Don’t eat anything that smells bad or is messy.
Is the subway safe? Yes. I’ve seen elementary aged children riding the subway by themselves.
Safety in the subway can be broken up into two parts: (1) safety from the train/tracks and (2) safety from people within the train.
The MTA is one of the oldest subway systems in the world and hasn’t been updated in ages. Unlike the subway systems in St. Petersburg or London, the tracks are completely open, and there are no barriers. If you aren’t careful, it’s very possible to fall off the platform onto the tracks. Gawker (RIP) has a useful piece on what to do if you fall onto the subway tracks.
As for safety from other people, in a city of over 8 million, there are bound to be a number of crazies. In the event that you’re traveling at night, don’t be stupid. Try to go in train cars where there are people and choose train cars either in the middle, or where the conductor is.
More likely than getting mugged by random people or getting hit by a train is getting sick from the subway. Most stations are almost 100 years old, so the subway is a pretty nasty, grimy place.
There’s usually a lot of trash and stagnant water along the tracks. It’s not uncommon to see rats scurrying around either. As for keeping the stations clean, the MTA staff do an ok job, but there are just so many humans that its impossible to always keep clean. I once saw a MTA worker pouring bleach directly onto the tracks. Prepare to encounter smells ranging from the bizarre to repugnant.
NBC News reported a while back on just how dirty the NYC subway is. Here’s an excerpt from the article, referring to public bus handrails, but the same applies for those in the subway:
Gerba [a microbiologist at the University of Arizona] found e-coli (a bacterium often responsible for food poisoning); MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, a staph infection that’s resistant to most first-line antibiotics); and fecal matter on handrails.
A study from Weill Cornell Medical College came to the conclusion that the NYC subway has an ecosystem of microbes but at the end of the day, “[t]here is no reason to be alarmed” and “[t]he majority of the things there are harmless”.
Basic but essential tip: Wash your hands well after getting out of the subway. Also, bring hand sanitizer with you.
Looking Like a Local
Please refer to our NYC Packing List Guide for tips on how to blend in.
Bathrooms in the Subway
Out of NYC’s 468 subway stations, only 129 of them claim to have restrooms. With the help of YouTube user Eron Watt, we’ve verified that only 48 of these lavatories were unlocked.
WiFi and Cell Phone Reception
The subway has a network called “TransitWirelessWiFi”. The WiFi is only available within stations, so once the train leaves the station, you won’t have any more WiFi. It’s pretty annoying. I usually get cellphone reception in the stations, but not between stations while on the train. I believe it depends on your carrier.
Train Lines and Their Reputations
These are based off of personal observations and general stereotypes. Take them with a grain of salt.
- 7 Train – very packed, passes through mainly Hispanic and Asian neighborhoods, so that is the primary train rider demographic
- E Train – smells bad
- 6, 5 and 4 Trains – always packed, the train cars slightly narrower than those on other lines
- R Train – usually uses the old trains with orange seats
- A Train – the longest
The New Yorker compiled and organized data on median household income from the U.S. Census Bureau to create this very cool interactive infographic. The infographic displays the income inequality within New York City according to the average income at each subway stop.
As you can see from the screenshot of the infographic above, the median income rises as the B train enters Manhattan from Brooklyn, then falls as it enters the Bronx.
There are 469 MTA subway stations according to the official MTA website, however only just over 100 of those are wheelchair accessible.
In 2015, Matthew Ahn, a lawyer and the guy who “holds the Guinness World Record for fastest time to travel to all New York City Subway stations” published an article with an image of what the New York City subway system would look like with only the stations that are wheelchair accessible (in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act).
What the NYC subway map looks like to a disabled person:
Scroll up to our ‘Subway Map’ section to compare this map to how the subway map looks normally.
Interesting Things To See In the NYC Subway
- Churro sellers
- Subway performers from all over the world
- Murals along the walls of some stations
- Abandoned City Hall Station
- The A train is the longest train line, spanning 31 miles according to the New York Times
MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) Facts
- Subway Ridership Facts http://web.mta.info/nyct/facts/ridership/
- New York City Transit History http://web.mta.info/nyct/facts/ffhist.htm
- Subway Facts http://web.mta.info/nyct/facts/ffsubway.htm
Have any questions? What do you think of the NYC Subway? Leave a comment below.
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