A Brief NY Field Guide: The Subway

I am writing a series of posts about NY for people who are coming into town for BlogHer this August. My friend Jett suggested the idea and I ran with it. Today we’re going to talk about the subway.

While you’re in NY the quickest and cheapest way to get around town, besides walking, is the subway. The NY Subway, run by the MTA, is a wonderful system. Many people decide it is too confusing and scary – those people have, in many cases, never actually ridden the subway.

The NYC Subway system has 22 different lines running across all five boros. It is a huge, complex system that runs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and transports over 4.3 million people around the city each day. So if you need to go somewhere, chances are you can get there by train.

You will want to consult a map before riding the train, unless you have a friend who gives good directions and knows the subway system very well. There are also trip planners and other resources to help you get from A to B while riding the A and B.

Here’s one thing I want you to know off the bat though. Seriously, take this heart. Do not pay for a subway map. Oh, people will sell you maps but why in the world would you do that? Here is a link to the current subway map in PDF: See, it’s free. Also, if you have a smartphone there will be an application, a free one, with a subway map. Search for “Subway map” and you’re bound to find six or seven. Hell, my shower curtain is a subway map. Many times friends have gone into my bathroom to help plan trips. Which sounds a bit odd, I suppose, but there you have it. Anyway, if you want paper you can also go to any token booth in the system and ask for a map. They have them and are required to give them to you for free. As an added bonus every station has a few maps along the walls of each platform and every subway car has at least one map amongst the ads on the insides of the car. Maps are free. Do not spend money on them.

Now when you first look at the map it may seem like a bunch of colored lines going every which way in the world and just… well it’s a big jumble of hot mess, huh? Might seem that way but I swear it is easy to read. There are line indicators constantly along each line to tell you what you’re looking at. Dots indicate stops and are labeled with what the stop name is. The whole thing is overlaid on a (not to accurate scale) map of the city.

Now, since the main BlogHer hotel is on 53rd and 6th (sometimes called Avenue of the Americas – but don’t call it that, call it 6th ave) let’s take a look at the map around there, since chances are it will be the start and end point of your rides:

Yes I know it is fuzzy. Blowing it up did that. Apologies. But it is still readable so let us move on. There are a few stops that will be close to the hotel. On 49th and 7th you can catch the N, R, and W. At 53rd and 7th, just a block away, you can grab the B, D and E trains. Going up to 57th and 6th gets you and F train. You have a lot of options. I also swear the map is eaiser to use than it might seem here. No, really.

The MTA website (http://mta.info) has a set of maps per line located here and a trip planner located here. These are useful. Use them. Because while the map really isn’t that bad once you get used to it, and when you see it in person, it can be a bit confusing at first but really a few minutes and basic map reading skills and you’ll be a pro in no time. Take heart!

Also feel free to ask directions. So let’s say you know what station to head for to catch a train, what direction (uptown or downtown, etc) you are going and where to get off the train. Now what?

Well, you’ll need a Metrocard. You buy these, most easily, from a Metrocard machine located in a station. They look like this:

They take credit cards or cash and have easy directions. Now, you can buy an unlimited of various time lengths but chances are slim you’ll need one of those. So you would want to buy a number of rides. Each ride is $2.50 and you’ll want to buy a fare for each ride, so if you are going down to the village by train you would need two fares – one there and one back. I suggest always having two extra fares. Just in case. If you have no money, something happens, who knows, having the ability to get back via train can be a life saver.

Note that Metrocards are refillable. So if you buy 4 rides and then need more, you can refill your card at a Metrocard machine, and save a bit of plastic. They expire but not for a year or two, so don’t worry.

Once you’re in the system, you will need to find the platform your train is leaving from. There are signs. It’s kinda that easy. Signs. Follow them. Note that the platform you wait at may be host to more train lines than the one you are waiting for. The front of every train has a big indicator as to the line it is. This is an A Train:

It is different from the A-Team. Also along the outside of the cars there will be other indications of what train is stopping. Only get on the train you mean to. Otherwise you will probably end up lost. Not a big deal, people are friendly and will help you but it will delay you and cause some undo stress.

When the train pulls into the station and you want to get on do the world a favor. Stand to the left or right of the doors before they open. Don’t stand in front of them. If you block the doors how can people get off the train? They can not. So they will have to shove you out of the way. It will be your own fault. Do not block the doors. Why would you do that? Why?

Don’t.

And that’s about it. The map is the hardest part but with a trip planner and a map and people in the station, including the guy in the booth you’ll get there just fine. Seriously. The subway is awesome. Tomorrow, though, we’ll talk about cabs. In case you’d rather not deal with trains.

Plus, don’t forget – leave any NY questions in comments and come Friday I’ll do a post answering them.


Other posts in the A Brief NY Field Guide series: General Stuff | Walking | Cabs | The rest

You can also find information , theoretically, about things to do in New York City at UpTake, a site that speciifcally asked me to link to them, and sorta-bribed me to do so. They might even be useful! Who knows!

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Adam P. Knave

Eisner and Harvey award winning editor, writer and tired person. Novelist, comic writer, cat owner, NY'er.

9 thoughts on “A Brief NY Field Guide: The Subway”

  1. Loving these posts. Wish there were some way to politely leave them lying around every time I have visitors. Especially regular visitors who still stop in the middle of the freakin’ sidewalk all the damn time.

    That’s right, Mom. I’m talking about YOU.

  2. You can mail links to people with subtle notes. “Saw this and thought, hey you visit a lot, maybe something here for YOU!” and then hope.

  3. The MTA workers in the booths? Amazingly patient and helpful, considering that they have to answer the same set(s) of questions from touristy yokels every single day. My advice to people is to be bold about approaching them; they know their stuff and are polite to a fault.

    I put Maxim in charge of navigation this last trip, just so he could learn the city and get comfortable, and I noticed that oftentimes if he looked even slightly perplexed a local would step into our field of awareness and offer their assistance without having been asked. That was stupidly cool. On previous trips I’ve been there with a local, so that sort of thing didn’t even crop up, making the helpful gestures a big pleasant surprise this past trip.

    We bought the $27 unlimited ride (buses and trains) version of the MetroCard (one for each of us, don’t try to scam the system because they have a failsafe for that) and it was well worth the money, because we waxed the crap out of those things. It will probably be a wise investment for those arriving early to/staying later than the conference for touristy endeavors. Helpful hint: The machines at the airport where we planned on getting ours did not take cash; credit cards only, and the news stands where we could have paid cash were all sold out. So if you are arriving late in the day, don’t plan on scoring your transit card via machine if you want to pay cash for it and know that you are taking a gamble with the newsies. We had a day or two left on each of our cards when we left for home, so we found incoming tourists at the airport and gifted them with our still-usable cards.

    Do not block the doors. Why would you do that? Why?
    HA! People are notorious about doing this with elevators, too. Duh, stupid, you’re not getting on this fucker if I’m not getting off it!

  4. Locals LIKE to help. Less lost frustrated people makes for a better city, and also it lets us feel smart and who doesn’t like that?

  5. Re: paying for a map – I don’t know, when I first moved to NYC (three years ago), one of my first purchases was a small pocket-sized subway map at Barnes & Noble. Very good investment, I felt. It’s a lot easier to whip it out of my backpack instead of trying to read the maps they have on the trains. A lot less unwieldy and bulky than your average-sized map, too.

    I’ve had people ask me for directions before, and when I consult my pocket map, they’re all fascinated and ask where they can get one.

    (You can also get such maps at the Strand, if you hate B&N.)

  6. The train maps tend to be bigger. I dunno, I’ve never seen the point, though I do buy the NTF (and seriously, if you live in NY, buy an NFT) – I buy them for any friend that moves to NY, actually.

  7. My gf and I attempted to leave Little Italy via the MTA going back to our hotel near Times Square. We ended up going far far away to the American Museum of Natural History. We were finally able to get off and turn around. It was a shit show! I plan to redeem myself on the Subway during this trip.

    Thanks for the link. I’m going to do some trip planning now. As in, when I get off the Bolt Bus at 33rd and 7th how do I get to the Hotel on 6th.

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