Optimizing NYC Life: Your Guide to the NYC Subway System

Despite its constant delays and construction, the New York MTA subway system is by far the most convenient mode of transportation in the city; as Barnard and Columbia students with our own subway stop on 116th and Broadway, it’s ostensibly very easy to hop on the 1 Train and get anywhere we want to go.

But navigating the subway can seem intimidating if you’re new to the city, and that’s perfectly okay! I’ve got a few tips to help you on your way, and you’ll be ready to get around the city in no time.

1. M(app) it out


Like I said in my previous article, you should try to figure out a destination in advance. Once you know the name or address, you can download an app or two that helps you figure out what train to take. (If you want, you can do it the old-fashioned way and just look at the MTA subway map, but all those intersecting and overlapping lines can be overwhelming.) I recommend Transit for its simplicity: just type in where you want to go, tap “Directions to Here,” and it will tell you everything you need to know - what train(s) to take and where to transfer if you need to, how many stops come before yours, what time you’ll arrive to your destination, and even how many minutes you can wait before leaving for the station and still make it on time.

Another app I recommend is Exit Strategy. It’s a bit outdated, but when you’re waiting for your train, you can look it up on the app and it’ll tell you where on the platform the doors will open, so you know where to stand. That way you can make sure you’re not at the back of a huge crowd that might prevent you from getting onto the train.

Another app, perhaps the most well-known, is Google Maps. It serves pretty much the same purpose as Transit, but I also use it for walking directions, both to the nearest station and to your destination once you get aboveground again.


2. Listen, Look, and Learn


When you’re on the actual train, you want to make sure you don’t miss your stop; when the trains are crowded (especially during rush hour), it’s not so easy to peek out the window and see which stop you’re at. Transit can help with this - if you look up the specific train you’re on, it will list out all the stops the train makes.  It can be easier to just listen to the conductor, who will announce where the train is headed (for example, the “South Ferry-bound 1” is the train Barnard students would use to get downtown), what stop you’re currently at, and which stop is next. The app will also tell you if any stops are being skipped because of maintenance, and how to get to the skipped stops if you need to get off there; it’s important to pay attention so you don’t end up lost.

Then, once you get off the train, there will always be a ton of signs pointing out where to transfer to other trains or where all the exits are. If you can’t figure out the signs, watching and following the crowds can be helpful, too.

Know that there are multiple exits at every subway stop, and they sometimes lead to different streets or parts of the area. That’s when it’s helpful to know the address of your destination, so you can choose the exit closest to where you’re headed and you won’t end up all twisted around.


3. Know the Best Type of MetroCard to Buy


Riding the subway is unfortunately expensive - it’s $2.75 a swipe, no matter how far you’re going. In order to avoid spending more than you need to, you should choose the best MetroCard for your subway habits.

If you’re like me and plan on going out only on the weekends, it’s probably best to get the standard Pay-Per-Ride MetroCard, which you can refill whenever you need to. However, if you plan on riding the subway every single day, whether for work, visiting NYU friends, or anything else, you might be better off getting a 30-Day Unlimited MetroCard. This is pretty self-explanatory - you pay $121 for unlimited rides throughout the month. That seems like a lot of money, but at $2.75 a ride, you’d only be getting about 44 rides for the same price with a Pay-Per-Ride card, so it’s more cost-effective for the daily traveler.

There’s also a 7-Day Unlimited MetroCard for $59.50, so if you know you have one week that requires going somewhere in the city every day, you can look into that as well.


4. Going to the East Side? When in doubt, get off at Times Square


Throughout most of the city, many of the subway lines stick to either the West or East Side (this includes the 1 Train). If you want to cross over and explore the other half of the city, depending on where you’re headed, I’d recommend getting off at the Times Square-42nd Street stop. From there, you can either take the N, Q, R, or W, which all crossover, or take the 7 Train or a shuttle to get to Grand Central, which is on the East Side. The 4, 5, and 6 trains all stop at Grand Central, and they’re like the East Side equivalent to the West Side’s 1, 2, and 3.

However, there are also buses that can take you across town, so if you’re going from the Upper West Side to the Upper East Side, that’s a less time-consuming option than going all the way down to Times Square and back up again.


I hope this info subsided some of your worries about riding the subway in the city. Riding the subway gets easier the more you do it, and soon enough it’ll be second nature. And once you have this part down, the whole city is just minutes away!