Laws of the underground from a New Yorker
Traveling to the Big Apple this summer? It may be your first time visiting this chaotic yet charismatic metropolis, or perhaps your last trip was in 1986, when you were propositioned by a prostitute and got lost on the subway. I can’t promise either of those won’t happen again, but if you’ve never taken New York’s public transit, you may ask, “What are the rules?” Or possibly, “How do I learn to use the trains?”
The New York subway system is complex and overwhelming for some. But once you figure it out, it’s the most efficient way to navigate the city. After about six months of living in Manhattan, I became a veteran straphanger. But as a tourist or a newcomer, you may need time to adjust. Here are my personal suggestions.
1. Get a subway map. This is the best investment to learn the lines, and it’s only about $10. It’s color-coded like subway riding for dummies. If I could learn it, so can you. My laminated map is now in several pieces because it has been unfolded and folded so often. Keep it with you at all times, and don’t be afraid to use it, even if you look like you don’t have a clue where you are going. Many native New Yorkers still don’t have a clue where they are going.
2. If you are lost or confused, ask someone. New Yorkers are typically happy to assist if they can. But don’t be alarmed if you approach the wrong person. It’s a big city. Not everyone who lives here knows every train line. I can get most anywhere in Manhattan, but when it comes to the outer boroughs, I know almost nothing.
3. Be patient. Trains and stations are crowded, and this includes the stairs. Wait your turn, and don’t try to run over the slowpokes. They are entitled to take their sweet old time and make you late for the theater. Don’t worry! You will see the second act.
4. When waiting for the train to come, stand to the side of where the doors actually open. Wait your turn to board, but if it’s been longer than ten seconds and passengers are still exiting, feel free to plow over them. Otherwise, if the train is on a tight schedule with another directly in back of it, the train conductor may close the doors on your orange linen blazer, catching your arm and not reopening them. You will then require assistance from a stranger, who will pry the doors open while the train is preparing to leave the station. This is not recommended—and by the way—it happened to me.
5. Don’t act like a New Yorker by blocking the doors, or refusing to move into the train so others cannot get on. Make space and stand as close to people as possible, so that it’s uncomfortable for all parties. If you aren’t spooning, you aren’t close enough. Be sure to use mouthwash and deodorant.
6. Musicians often attempt to entertain on the major train lines in Manhattan. The Mariachi Band is one of the most popular. Tipping is appreciated but not required. If you don’t want to listen, put your headphones on and zone out, but be careful, don’t miss your stop.
7. If you do miss your stop, don’t panic. Get off at the next stop, and take a train going in the opposite direction. If you happen to be at a major hub like Grand Central or Times Square, you may want to take advantage of the mistake and use the time to shop, then return to the train. I highly recommend shopping, but please take note–this will cost you an additional subway fare if you leave the station.
8. If you realize that you are not on the right train, get off immediately. Some of the lines will run local and then run express, and vice versa. You may get stuck on the train for multiple stops and end up in an outer borough. Often trains running into Manhattan may be under construction or they are not running at all. You will then need to take a bus back into the city or find another train line, which could be quite a distance. This may take hours.
9. I don’t recommend using the subway on weekends. Many of the lines are under construction and you may be delayed or get confused, as trains don’t follow their normal routes. Bring extra cash for taxis, or wear comfortable shoes in case you need to walk.
Always be prepared for rain and wind. Have an umbrella handy, a scarf, and a jacket in your bag. I suggest carrying a large, heavy bag that resembles a small piece of luggage. You should be able to fit all of the above items plus the obvious, like wallet, hotel keys, makeup, sunglasses, sunscreen, emergency medications, dental floss, change of clothes, etc. It’s best to always be prepared for an emergency in New York, be it transit-related or other. If the bag isn’t heavy, you don’t have enough in it.
10. Feel free to visit the MTA’s web site for service updates and other information. Don’t expect it to be accurate. They do the best they can, but keep in mind the number of trains and the volume of straphangers. Delays are inevitable and schedules will change. You can also visit the station and check signage. It may be more up-to-date than the website if you can understand it.
One more thing— I don’t recommend using the subway if you have a fear of rodents. Buses may be more your style, unless of course you dislike the smell of urine. There’s always a rickshaw if weather permits.
Whatever happens, enjoy your stay in the New York City. It truly is the greatest city in the world.