How to rule the subway

If you've just landed on Planet New York, mastering the sprawling public transportation system can feel overwhelming. Don't worry: Even longtime residents can get confused on the subway or don't know bus routes. Follow our expert tips for hassle-free navigation.

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Before hitting the platform, memorize these tips from the pros (yeah, there are subway pros) to maximize your ride.

BE THE FIRST ONE IN THE DOOR
Look for black shoe scuffs on the yellow plastic coating that lines the subway platform, says Jim (just Jim) of subwayblogger.com. When the train arrives, those patches should line up with the doors.

KNOW THE WARNING SIGNS
Riders on the L know when their train’s coming, thanks to automated signs (theirs is the only line that operates with the computerized system; the numbered trains will be hooked up in 2009). But in the meantime, remember that red lights are bad. If you see them down the track, the trains are being held.

SCORE A SEAT
Profile and hover. That’s the advice from Randy Kennedy, author of Subwayland. Look for who might be getting off at the next stop—guys in suits at Wall Street, tourists in Times Square—and then get ready to pounce.

STATIONS TO LOVE— AND AVOID
We asked Kennedy, as he’s studied them all. “My favorite station is Union Square because it was cobbled together and they left a bunch of found architectural elements.” His worst: “Chambers Street on the J/M/Z looks like something from the war years or Escape from New York. That’s the place where I’ve seen the most rats.”

NO SUCH THING AS A FREE RIDE?
We asked Straphanger message board fans for their picks, but they’re pretty goody-two-shoesy. (One even told us, “Let’s not encourage holding the doors open!” when asked how best to prop them. Our suggestion: your foot.) But one did call out the bigger stations—Times Square, Penn Station—for easily following someone through the emergency gates.

KEEP IT CLEAN
As a rule, numbered lines are cleaner than lettered ones; the 2, 4, 5 and 6 are clean and the N, Q, R and D are dirty. But the L’s R160s are the finest, since they’re the newest.

FIND YOUR EXIT—FAST
“If you’re pulling into a station with multiple exits, such as Times Square, think about where you want to pop up aboveground,” says subwayblogger.com’s Jim. “So if you want to be closer to 40th Street, and you’re taking an uptown train, you want to get on the back end of that train. Then you’ll get off closer to the 40th Street exit. Riding at the front of the train will let you out near 43rd Street. The exact opposite is true if you’re riding downtown.”

CONQUER CARD RAGE
It’s bound to happen: You can’t believe your luck when a train pulls into the station just as you arrive. But after swiping your MetroCard, you’re painfully stopped by an unyielding turnstile, with the message please swipe again glaring back at you. Though hopping over to the next lane might be your instinct, we advise you to patiently try again. As far as the machine is concerned, there are many steps to “reading” a MetroCard, and the dread message appears only when the swiping process is incomplete. Because some steps have been completed, however, if you switch turnstiles, you run the risk of getting charged for both swipes. Even worse, if you have an unlimited-ride card, the second turnstile may read the swipe as occurring within the 17-minute blackout period immediately after use (designed to prevent card-sharing), and deny your entry for the next quarter-hour.

LATE SHOW
After 4am, most of the major train lines run every 20 minutes (as opposed to every four to eight during the day), except the 4, which you can pick up as frequently as every 12 minutes on the southbound track, and the 6, which runs every 15 minutes going south. (Warning: The B, C, V, W, Z, 3 and 5 have no late-night service.) At this hour, downtown and uptown trains usually run within five minutes of each other, so if you see one across the track, you know yours is on the way—or has just left. When a train comes, get on it, no matter what. “Late at night, if you’re at an express station, if the local comes first, take it,” says David Pirmann of fan site Nycsubway.org. “Or, if you’re already on the local, and you’re coming into an express station, stay on it—unless the express is already there. From experience, this doesn’t always bear fruit—getting passed by the express you could have been on is definitely annoying—but you never know; the next train could be 10, 15, 20 minutes away.”

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