Complete Guide to New York City’s Subway System

 The appeal of New York City to tourists from around the United States and around the entire world is clear: the city is filled with something for everyone, with world-famous destinations such as the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty, world-class museums such as the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, world-class food, and a thriving nightlife. New York City is also famous for another, not-so-welcoming reason: it is one of the most unpleasant places to drive, with traffic jams simply a party of everyday life.

Fortunately, getting around the city is much easier by avoiding the above-ground mess of traffic and utilizing New York’s extensive subway network. New York City has the largest subway in the world in terms of numbers of stations and is the third most utilized subway system in the world, as well as by far the most utilized system in the United States. If there was a better way to get around the city, New Yorkers would be using it, and it only takes a trip on a crowded train during the AM or PM rush hours to see that isn’t the case.

While there’s no doubt the subway is the fastest, cheapest, and most reliable way to get around the city, the sheer size of the system, with 21 lines (not including three shuttles) and 468 stations, is incredibly intimidating to users not familiar with either the subway system or the city above. This guide will inform you how to use the subway, how to pay your fare, how to navigate the system, and transfer between lines.

Before diving into the underground, it’s worth looking at a map of above-ground New York to get an idea of how the city is planned. While lower Manhattan can be incredibly confusing without any clear grid structure, north of 14th st the city is very easy to navigate. Above 14th st, roads are organized clearly into Avenues and streets – Avenues run south/north, streets run east/west. The distance between avenues is almost always much greater than the distance between streets, so the walk between 7th and 8th avenues will be a lot longer than a walk between 42nd and 43rd st. The grid structure of upper Manhattan makes it very easy to find where you want to go; as long as you know what street/avenue you are on, where you want to go, and which direction you are facing, you pretty much can’t get lost. Street numbers increase as you go north, and avenue numbers increase as you go west.

Along the streets of New York, you will find the entrances to the 468 subway stations in the system – each station usually has several entrances, most of which are clearly visible. Sometimes the entrance will be in the side of a building or hard to find, but you will usually see an “M” sign or other sign showing where the entrance is. Note that, while it’s usually OK to enter any entrance to the station, certain times you must enter on a specific side of the street depending on which direction you are heading. This will be noted on the entrance, where the subway lines that stop at the station are also marked. The sign may say, “Uptown/Bronx only”. If you want to go downtown or to Brooklyn, then you will need to enter across the street. More will be including on directions in a bit.

Once you enter the station (be aware that the entrances are the same as the exits, so stay to the right) you will find the fare collection system (turnstiles) and several machines where you can purchase a Metrocard, which will be your key to the system. These machines are operated via touch screen, and assuming you will be travelling around quite a lot, you will want to purchase an unlimited Metrocard. Depending on how long your stay will be, you can purchase a 1-day ($8.25) , 7-day ($27.00) , 14-day ($51.50) , or 30-day ($89.00) unlimited Metrocard. These unlimited metrocards will allow you unlimited use of not only the subway, but also the New York City bus system, and Staten Island Railroad (Staten Island is a short (and free!) ferry ride away from Manhattan). A single subway ride costs $2.25, which can quickly add up – so if you are going to be travelling even 3-4 times per day, it becomes cheaper (and more convenient) to buy an unlimited card.

Once you have your Metrocard (you can pay with credit, debit, or cash – note that the same credit card can only be used 2 times per day at the Metrocard machines before the system will reject it) you are ready to enter the system. The Metrocard is swiped with the yellow Metrocard-side facing you. If you swipe the card correctly with the right speed, you will see “Go!” on the display. Swiping the card too fast or slow, however, and you’ll have to try again.

Once you get past the fare collection system, you will have to decide what line and what direction you will be travelling. Most subway stations are home to several subway lines. There will be directions within the station guiding you to where you need to go. It’s important to realize that every subway line operates in two directions, so you need to make sure you’re going the right way. For most lines, the choices (assuming you are in Manhattan) will be, “Uptown and the Bronx” or “Downtown and Brooklyn”. Uptown is north, downtown is south. So if you are at 33rd st and want to go to a station at 50th st, you know you need “Uptown”. If you want to go to 14th st, you need to go “Downtown.” Sometimes the uptown/downtown tracks will be right across from each other on the same platform, other times they are separated.

Because multiple subway lines exist at the same station, you can transfer between different lines free of charge – meaning that you can get anywhere in the city for the base $2.25 fare, even if getting there means taking 6 different lines. Sometimes a transfer is very easy, with the train you are transferring to being on the same track or across the platform, and other times the line will be in another station connected via an underground tunnel.

Once you are on the train (be sure to let those exiting the train exit before you get on), you may get a seat or you may have to stand, depending largely on what day/time you are travelling at (your chances of getting a seat at 5 PM on a weekday is virtually zero). If you are a healthy individual, be sure to remember that others may need a seat more than you, so don’t steal a seat from a pregnant woman or an elderly person. If you can’t get a seat, be sure to hold on to a pole or else you will be flying around once the train begins moving or stops.

The New York subway is made up of a number of different subway trains – some still dating to the 1960s and others only several years old. The newer trains have pre-recorded computer announcements which are easy to hear and clear, a digital map of the line so you can easily see where you are and going, and an LCD display showing the direction/next stop/time of day. Older trains are not quite as convenient, with the conductor’s announcements often not being clear and only a general NYC subway map in every car. Remember to exercise common sense while in the train: don’t be holding an expensive cell phone and your wallet in plain view, while sitting right next to the exit where you are looking very tempting for a thief. The system is generally very safe, but that doesn’t mean that small thefts don’t happen.

When you reach your stop and are exiting the train, note that each subway station has multiple exits. Depending on where you are going, you may want to exit at a particular exit. Paying attention to the location of the exit “ie. 34th and 8th NW corner” will allow you to orient yourself when above-ground.

While this guide has hopefully given you a clear look at how to use and navigate the NYC subway system, if you are new to the system it will be important to have a map or get directions from a service such as Google Maps, Hopstop, or MTA’s (Metropolitan Transit Authority) own website. You can get a subway map from the MTA website or at a station booth (do note that due to budget shortfalls, MTA has removed station attendants from nany stations, so there will not always be a subway employee at the station to answer questions.) If you already have a subway map, you may want to pick up a new one because several changes have been made effective June 27, 2010, and a new map is available.

Enjoy New York City, and have a safe trip on the subway!

Complete Guide to New York City’s Subway System

Neighborhood: Manhattan
New York, NY 10035
United States of America