Not For Tourists Guide to New York City - Not For Tourists (2016)
Punch List New York City
The New York City Subway
New York City Buses
Mailing Address: 2 Broadway, New York NY 10004
Call 511 for all Subway, Rail and Bus Information
From Outside New York State: 877-690-5116
International Callers: 212-878-7000
MTA Police: 212-878-1001
New York Transit Museum: 718-694-1600
New York City Paratransit Information: 877-337-2017
Twitter: @MTA or @NYCTSubwayScoop
Sometimes—often at rush hour, and especially if there is a murky “police investigation” or “train traffic ahead” or a “sick passenger” or even just some numbnut fellow straphanger clipping his nails—the New York City subway can unite people of all ethnicities, backgrounds and cultural heritages in a way not even Michael Jackson could dream of: We all hate the damn thing. And yet, as soon as we get to wherever it is we’re trying to go and we leave the station and exhale a deep sigh of relief (or depending on the clientele and time of year, simply exhale), we thank our lucky stars that New York City has the best subway, bus and commuter rail lines in the world. Which is to say, suck it up, cheese, and come celebrate with us this massive urban achievement.
For starters, trains run 24 hours a day, though some lines only operate during rush hours (look for the “express” diamond on the map). The system has 468 stations, and will soon have more when the Second Avenue Subway eventually comes on line. The bus system is also good, and downright essential in many outerborough neighborhoods. Although there are a handful of dedicated bus lanes on major thoroughfares, Manhattan buses are only as fast as traffic allows, and are perhaps best left to the elderly and infirm, especially during rush hour. Select Bus Service on certain routes, where riders pay fares at on-street machines before getting on (and receive receipts that are spot-checked), has sped up what for so long had been such a long and tedious journey up, down or across town.
Since the subway runs 24 hours a day—and let’s be clear, very few places provide 24-hour service—that means maintenance work must happen while riders are using the system. That also means you should be wary of track work and schedule changes, particularly late at night and on weekends. The MTA’s website, www.mta.info, always displays the current status of each line, and has a weekend planner (with a fancy retro-map look) that will help you navigate service changes; you can also subscribe to email and text alerts about specific lines. Look for posted signs and whiteboard scribblings at subway stations for changes, and for Pete’s sake, don’t hesitate to ask if you’re unsure: you have only yourself to blame if you meant to get off at Fulton Street and somehow ended up at Jay Street.
Folk wisdom dictates that a single subway fare costs roughly the same as a slice of pizza; depends where you get pizza, I guess. When considering raising fares, the MTA’s board walks a fine line balancing everything. The tyranny of the pizza index (and the headlines generated) mean that often money comes from raising fares in other areas: the prices of monthly or weekly passes, the types of passes available (not so long ago there were one-day passes), and even the cost of the MetroCards themselves ($1, just so you’re clear). Service cuts also prevent fare hikes; every so often the board will reveal a slew of draconian service cuts seemingly meant to soften the blow for wider acceptance of fare hikes; sometimes cuts even happen, such as reduced late-night service, certain trains or buses being cut altogether, and so on.
In recent years, the Authority has been making substantial gains in making the system more user friendly. For one, stations have been receiving significant upgrades to make the 100-plus year-old system ADA compliant—itself a massive undertaking. Other smaller yet important features include countdown clocks in stations, so you don’t have to read tea leaves to figure out when your train is coming or whether you should take the local arriving or wait for an express.
If you find yourself hankering for the old Lionel train set in your parents’ basement, or if the hair on the back of your neck stands up when you hear the sound of an old steam whistle, or if you just are interested in subway history, consider checking out the New York Transit Museum. Housed in a historic 1936 IND subway station in Brooklyn Heights, and easily accessible by subway, the museum is the largest museum in the United States devoted to urban public transportation history, and one of the premier institutions of its kind in the world. The museum explores the development of the greater New York metropolitan region through the presentation of exhibitions, tours, educational programs and workshops dealing with the cultural, social and technological history of public transportation. Go to www.mta.info for details of current exhibits and programs, or to shop the Museum’s online store.
There’s a single $2.75 fare for riding the subway and most buses as far as you want. Some buses are “express,” meaning they make fewer stops and get you where you’re going faster for $6.50. The MetroCard, a magnetic farecard, is the method for paying the subway fare and the primary method for paying the public bus fare (buses also accept coins but not paper bills). MetroCards may be purchased at many locations and used at all subway stations and on all public buses within New York City, with a 11 percent pay-per-ride bonus for amounts over $5.50. MetroCard vending machines that accept cash and credit and debit cards can be found at most subway stations. If you use a MetroCard, you can transfer for free within two hours between subway and bus, bus and subway, and bus to bus. Seven - and 30-day unlimited ride MetroCards are also available. Under the current pricing plan (including the pay-per-ride bonus), seven-day unlimited ride cards are worth it if you enter the subway more than 12 times a week. The cost-effective cutoff for 30-day unlimited cards is 48 rides, meaning to and from work five days a week and then a handful of trips in addition to regular commuting. In other words, if you use the subway each day, then it’s usually worth it (especially if you get a transit benefit through work). The MetroCards themselves now cost $1, but are able to handle both unlimited-ride and pay-per-ride options.
There are half-price reduced fare cards available for customers 65 years and over and people with a qualified disability. You must apply for, and be approved to receive it; applications and further information can be found at the MTA’s website. Up to three children under 44 inches tall may ride for free with a fare-paying adult on subways and on local buses.
Some handy hints on how to use your MetroCard: A steady, even swiping motion is best. If you’re told to swipe your card again in the same turnstile, do it, or you will lose your fare (or be forced to find a booth agent to let you in). The turnstiles are programmed not to let you use an unlimited MetroCard twice in less than 18 minutes at the same station (even at different entrances). When going through the tall gated turnstiles, it’s not necessary to wait until the person ahead of you is completely through to swipe your card—it will be read as long as they have started to push through.
A free copy of the subway map is available at any subway station booth, and although it should go without saying, we feel compelled to say that while the maps and all this information in general is current as of press time, everything is subject to change; current maps and information are always available at the MTA’s website, www.mta.info.
You can transfer from a downtown to an uptown train on the same line at all express stations, major junctions, and some local stations. Any trains that roll into the same station, or into stations that are connected on the map by a black line, allow free transfers. Free transfers are also allowed between the train and bus, bus and train, and bus and bus, as long as you make the transfer within 2 hours of paying your fare. If you use coins to pay for the bus, ask the driver for a transfer card (valid only on other buses).
As a result of most of the system being built by three competing companies in the 40 or so years after 1904, the coverage isn’t exactly logical or complete. Going north-south is pretty easy, as almost all of the lines do this. Getting cross town and to the edges of the map is difficult—whole neighborhoods in the outer boroughs are completely ignored. The Straphangers Campaign rates the lines in a variety of categories every year, including regularity of service, chance of getting a seat, and cleanliness. They post their results on their website at www.straphangers.org. According to unscientific “research” by NFT staff, the A-C-E trains take forever to arrive, the 4-5-6 are always clean but crowded, the 1 has pretty frequent train arrivals, hardly anyone rides the J-M, and you can finish War and Peace while waiting for the G.
Rules (written and unwritten)
✵ If you’re standing next to the door when it gets to the station, try to get out of the way as much as possible.
✵ Don’t hug, lean on, practice your exotic dance moves, or do anything except hold onto the poles.
✵ Never pull the emergency brake unless the train’s going to run someone over.
✵ No one living in NY calls them the “blue train” or the “red train.” Use the numbers or letters, and group them if necessary (“I took the N-R to get here.”).
✵ Wait ‘til everyone leaves the train before you start moving in. Of course, many people ignore this rule. Feel free to practice your football moves if you’re still trying to exit the train.
✵ You’re allowed to take your bike on the train, but do it at non-rush hour times and towards the less-crowded front and back of the train. Use the service gate to enter and exit the station—don’t use any of the turnstiles or high gates. The lettered trains are easier to fit a bike onto because they have roomier cars.
✵ Don’t lean against the door. (Apparently this is a rule.)
✵ Don’t walk between trains. (Try to put up with the urine smell or the off-key do-wop group until the next stop.)
✵ Don’t hold the door. (Hold it if your friend is actually running to catch the train, not when they’re still getting their MetroCard or can’t figure out how to swipe it.)
✵ Even if the train is empty, you can still get ticketed by undercover subway police for putting your bags or feet on an empty seat.
✵ Everybody does it, but you can get ticketed for eating or drinking on the train. (But, apparently, applying make-up and deodorant is still okay.)
✵ Stand away from the curb!
✵ Have your card out before you step into the bus.
✵ Hold the back door when you exit so it doesn’t slam in the next person’s face.
✵ Between 10 pm and 5 am, you can ask the bus driver to make stops at non-bus stop places along the route, provided he/she can safely do it. Good luck with that endeavor!