Observations about the New York subway

I have often complained about the transport system in London; how packed it is, and the length of time it takes to get anywhere. However, I will not be complaining about it any more. In comparison to New York; London has a super modern and efficient transport system.

One thing I do enjoy, when I visit some place new, is getting to navigate my way around the city, and I think that a city with an underground/subway/metro system is one of the best ways to do it, I have managed in Dusseldorf, Berlin, Paris, Singapore and Bangkok pretty easily. The system in Seoul, South Korea was a little trickier. 

New York, as a city was easy to navigate on foot. I loved how many street names were numbered, such as 5th Avenue or North 10th Street. This made it easy when walking toward somewhere, and knowing if you were going in the right direction.  For example if you were on 53rd street and knew something was on the corner of 59th street and Madison Avenue, and you got to 52nd street, you knew you were going in the wrong direction.

This way of describing streets and blocks, reminded me of how New Zealanders give directions to places, by saying “on the corner of ..”

It is a good system.

Before I travelled to New York, I looked into the subway system and it looked quite simple on paper. It seemed that a one week MTA card, costing $31 would be the best way to use both subways and buses to get around. The lines didn’t seem to complex, and I believed that New York, which appears to be quite a modern city, would have an easy transport system.

It wasn’t easy.

The new york subway map, downloaded from www.mta.com

When we arrived at JFK airport, we wandered around to the Air train platform to get our tickets to Howard Beach station, that would connect us to Brooklyn and the city.

After getting down onto the platform, we noticed that there was very little information. No maps or digital display boards to tell us when the next train was. So we stood and waited.

We waited for about 20 minutes before our train came to take us into Broadway Avenue, where we would change for our L line train to Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Bedford Avenue on the L line; our local station, whilst staying in Brooklyn.

Inside the train, again there were very little coherent announcements or a map to let you know what line you were on and what the stops were. Luckily we had a subway map and followed this to our relevant stop.

Whats wrong with the NY subway?

  1. paper tickets

An air train ticket and a metro card for the week
An air train ticket and a metro card for the week

Tickets, as shown above are made from card, they can be topped up (much like an Oyster card, in London), but have to be swiped through the barrier. Often the barrier doesn’t read it correctly, and you are standing there getting frustrated.

This reminded me of the days before the Oyster card system in London; were you had to use a paper ticket and get a travel pass. You put it in and out of the ticket barrier and away you went. Sometimes it did spit it out at you, and you had to try again, but it always seemed smoother, as you didn’t have to physically swipe.

In London, they are doing away with these paper style tickets (only having them for mainland rail services), and encouraging visitors to get an Oyster card.

So in short, this system in New York, drove me insane.

         2. It has the same in and out barriers/exits 


Although this wasn’t always the case; in many (perhaps smaller) stations, the barriers that you swiped through to go down into the platforms, were the same ones people who were coming up to the street level, were coming out of.

During busier periods, such as after work, this got quite difficult to manage, although New Yorkers didn’t seem annoyed with this, often if you were the only person coming in, they would give you right of way, and were very friendly and considerate.

Londoners would not cope with this system!

         3. Very little amounts of escalators or elevators (lifts) to platforms or street level

Jess subway
My sister, struggling with her suitcase down some stairs in a subway station, in New York

The World will never be fully accessible to all peoples. Even in London, not all underground stations have level access platforms, or lifts (elevators) to assist people in wheelchairs, or with luggage, but we found virtually every station we went to all had stairs, with the exception of Howard Beach station to the airport, and Broadway Avenue, where we changed. This made carrying suitcases a pain in the ass (which reminded me why I normally carry a rucksack when I travel).

         4. Virtually no information on the platforms

Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg was one of the very few stations that had a digital display board on the platform.


Apart from at Penn Station, Grand Central and a select few stations we got to, there was no information, digital display boards or maps on the platform.

Seriously New York, how do you live like this?!

Sometimes there will be announcements up on the main ticket hall area that a train is coming in so many minutes time, but often, we stood there – wondering when the train will be arriving.

Londonders would die if the underground was like this.

Perhaps New Yorkers have a subway app on there phones, or are just used to this system?

         5. Different trains go on the same line


Local and express trains, as they are known as in New York, run on the same platform, and it took me a little while to figure out what this meant; basically express trains will run to a destination and miss out a few stops, and a local train will stop everywhere – sort of makes sense. However, unless you know the train route well (I think), there is no information anywhere to say what stops it will be calling at. Sometimes, there will be an announcement (which is difficult to hear and understand), but little information on the trains.

As well as this, different train lines will also use the same platform, which we found confusing.

        6. Where is the Subway?

The New York Subway; characterised by green paint on the railings, and very little else to make it stand out, or easy to find.

The last thing we found really frustrating was the fact that a subway station was really hard to find. Unlike in London, where there is a big red and white circular advert, brightly lit and easily recgonsible. In New York, you’ll be walking around for ages, and then come across a narrow set of stairs leading you to the subway.

Luckily the GPS on my phone was able to navigate us to the nearest metro, which I was really thankful for.

Safety on the Metro

Overall, for a big city, we felt quite safe using the subway, although on one occasion where we were in the city until 1am, we missed our last L train, and had to go via another part of Brooklyn. We met some interesting and creepy characters, but I guess it is like that in any city; keep your wits about you at all times, and watch your belongings.

Metrocard scam

Point to note – I read up on this online before travelling to New York, but when you arrive at Howard Beach station, from JFK; buy your metro card from the vending machine, or there is a small news stand, which works out cheaper as the vending machine will ask you to pay for an air train ticket and a single journey, so if you are in the city for a long period of time, its best to go to the news stand and pay $5 for the air train card and $31 for your weekly pass. Rather than $7.75, then buying a new card later on.

When you get to Howard beach, you will meet some shady looking guys, who will offer to sell you a metro card (DON’T buy this!). What they do is they target tourists coming back to JFK, and ask if they have their metro card, and whether they are done with it, as it is likely that there will be some money left on it, or days of a travel pass. We saw a number of unsuspecting tourists give up there cards.

These cards are then sold on, and often if you buy them, they may have no money or very little on there for what you need.

We had 2 days left on our card, and if you have some days left too, you’re better off giving your card to a traveller at the terminal who is travelling into the city.

Have I formed a good judgement of New York’s transport system? Are native New Yorkers better at navigating? I’d love to give it another go again, and try not to get so confused and frustrated.




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