Helpful Tips For Riding The NYC Subway

L Train

The New York City Subway

The New York City Subway is one of the most complex and busiest subway systems in the world, up there with Paris, London, Tokyo, Shanghai, and Moscow. How do we New Yorkers do it every day? (Well, most of us anyway)  Well, this post aims to sum up some of the more common tips and tricks in navigating the subway as well as some more obscure tips, such as those that railfans know about.  Included here are some pet peeves of most New Yorkers, railfan or not, with the idea that this will help you in your travels and not necessarily make fun of you in your travels.

  • No one ever calls the subway corridors by their colors.  It’s the 4, 5, and 6 trains, not the Green Line.  Yes, the 4, 5, and 6 are green on the map and on signage, but that is only to show that all 3 of these lines are in the same corridor in Manhattan.  Every subway line has a color associated with its respective corridor.
    • Green = Lexington Avenue Corridor 4/5/6
    • Red = 7th Avenue Corridor 1/2/3
    • Orange = Avenue of the Americas (6th Avenue) Corridor B/D/F/M
    • Blue = 8th Avenue Corridor A/C/E
    • Yellow = Broadway Corridor N/Q/R
    • Brown = Nassau Street Corridor J/Z
    • Purple = Flushing Line 7
    • Neon Green = Crosstown Line G
    • Grey = 14th Street Line L
    • Black = Shuttles, although they are shown in the same grey as the L line

 (Note that each corridor has a name which is in reference to the principal street it runs under, even though the physical tunnels are underneath numerous streets.  The Lexington Avenue corridor is generally from 125th Street to Brooklyn Bridge, but only the half north of Grand Central is actually underneath Lexington Avenue.  The half south of Grand Central is underneath Park Avenue South, 4th Avenue, Lafayette Street, and Centre Street for various segments.)

  • Uptown and Downtown are second nature to New Yorkers.  “Uptown” and “Downtown” are used when referring to a particular direction in relation to Manhattan.  Being that most Manhattan cross-streets are numbered, “Uptown” is referred to the direction in which the street numbers increase, while “Downtown” is when the street numbers decrease.  So, if you are on the A train and you left 14th Street and just pulled into 34th Street-Penn Station, you would be headed “Uptown” since 34 is greater than 14.  If you were on an A train at 59th Street-Columbus Circle and your train entered 42nd Street-Port Authority Bus Terminal, you are headed “Downtown.”  “Crosstown” is a word we use when we are headed east or west along a numbered cross street.  Most of the avenues in Manhattan are numbered too, so if the numbers are increasing (5th Avenue, 6th Avenue, 7th Avenue, etc.), you are headed west, and if they decrease, you are headed east.
  • Sometimes, it’s actually better to take the local.  People think that express trains are faster because they make less stops.  Yes, theoretically, but some corridors have express service for a different purpose.  The Lexington Avenue and 7th Avenue Corridors have local stops every 6-10 short city blocks, with express and local stations every third or fourth local stop.  The express services there are built for speed, and they allow someone from Uptown to reach Midtown and Lower Manhattan in half the time it would take on a local train.  In some corridors, such as 8th Avenue, express stations are relatively close together and were built this way not so much for speed but for better crowd control.  In other words, let the express train take some of the work off the local train but still do the same work.  Between 59th Street-Columbus Circle and Canal Street, the A train skips a whopping three stops:  50th Street, 23rd Street, and Spring Street.  All because the C and E cannot handle the loads by itself.  The A allows for access to many stops in Midtown, Chelsea, Tribeca, and Lower Manhattan without having to switch for the local train.  You don’t necessarily have to take the A from Midtown to Lower Manhattan, especially if you live or work along the C line.  Besides, for safety reasons, the express tracks have special signals to slow trains down to avoid bypassing stations at high speeds when the next local station is also an express station.
  • The subway map only shows what runs during the busiest times of the day.  During the weekdays and between rush hour periods, most of the 24 subway lines operate the way they are shown on the map.  Anytime outside of those hours, the subway system changes.  Some trains operate to different places or make different stops, while others stop running altogether.  The B train only runs Monday through Friday from 6am to 10pm, and the C train runs seven days a week from 5:30am to 10:30pm.  When the B and C aren’t running, the A train goes from running express to running local, and the D and Q trains are by themselves in the Bronx and Brooklyn, respectively.  The M and R trains run all day from about 5am to 11pm, but run as shuttles late at night on their Brooklyn or Queens ends of the line where they operate by themselves (the M from Myrtle/Broadway to Metropolitan Avenue, the R from 36th Street to 95th Street in Bay Ridge).  When the M and R stop running to Queens, the E train runs local along Queens Blvd.  After midnight, the #3 train only runs as far south as Times Square; anything south of Times Square is covered by the #2 train down to Franklin Avenue and the #4 train the rest of the way.  The #5 train only runs as far south as Bowling Green after 8pm on weekdays and all day on weekends, but between midnight and 5am, only runs from Dyre Avenue to East 180th Street.  The #2 and #4 trains run local during late night hours instead of running express to provide the Lexington Avenue and 7th Avenue corridors with 10-minute intervals between trains.  This is to complement #1 and #6 service which is already local.  Most of these service changes are described in the service notes part of the map but aren’t displayed  in the lines on the map, mainly to avoid a huge tangle of colors with explanations next to them.
  • There are services that aren’t even advertised on the subway map.  Even though the subway shows general weekday services, there are some trips that aren’t shown on the map to avoid any confusion for occasional riders such as tourists or new residents.  Due to a capacity constraints and the location of a major yard for train storage, some #2 and #5 trains terminate at New Lots Avenue on the #3 line.  Long story short, Flatbush Avenue is too small and poorly built (it wasn’t originally built as a terminal) so not all #2 and #5 trains can serve the Nostrand Avenue tunnel, so trains are redirected to New Lots Avenue (some #5 trains even terminate at Utica Avenue).  Livonia Yard is just past New Lots Avenue Station, so most #3 trains and some #2, #4, and #5 trains are stored there for the following rush hour close to the Brooklyn terminals of those lines.  It makes it easier to run extra trains during the rush hours.  There are also E trains that operate to and from 179th Street on the F line for those traveling to many working family communities in western Nassau county who rely on NICE buses (particularly the N6 and N22 lines).  E trains run on 8th Avenue while F trains are on 6th Avenue, so people who work near the Port Authority Bus Terminal or Madison Square Garden have direct access to Hillside Avenue bus service without having to transfer to the F along Queens Blvd.
  • Know your options.  I cannot stress this enough.  Knowing how to get somewhere is important, but knowing your alternatives in case of an emergency or other reason is paramount.  If you are travelling from Midtown to the Bronx Zoo, taking the #2 or #5 trains would be your first guess.  The #2 train runs along Broadway and 7th Avenue, while the #5 train runs along Lexington Avenue.  They both take you to the West Farms Square-East Tremont Avenue Station, where you can walk up Boston Road to one of the three entrances to the Bronx Zoo.  On a normal day, depending on which side of Midtown you are located, those options wold work just fine.  But what if there was signal troubles on the entire Lexington Avenue corridor, causing trains to be snarled and overcrowded all the way uptown?  What if there was a “police investigation” somewhere on Lenox Avenue preventing #2 trains from getting uptown?  Sometimes, when these things happen, #5 trains get rerouted to the #2 line from Brooklyn, and vice versa.  But what if the problem is in The Bronx and both trains are not running?  During summer months, when the zoo is busiest, there is another option:  the BxM11 Express bus.  Yes, it costs $6.50 to ride, and yes, you have to use a Pay-Per-Ride Metrocard or coins (standard Unlimited-Ride Metrocards are not accepted on Express buses), but at least you won’t be stuck on a #2 or #5 train trying to get to the zoo.  Or, if spending extra money isn’t for you, you can grab a #6 train and take it to the Parkchester-East 177th Street Station and grab a Q44 bus.  Or, take the #3 train to 145th Street and grab the Bx19 bus, which is a much longer ride, but at least it will get you there.  The point is, know your options.  Do not commit yourself to one way to get around the city, especially if there are other options, even those less attractive due to travel time or acceptable form of payment.  You might be late to a commitment or appointment, but at least you won’t be totally stuck.

More soon.

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This entry was posted in Blog Series, Making Sense of the NYC Subway and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Helpful Tips For Riding The NYC Subway

  1. ajedrez says:

    Actually, the BxM11 runs 365 days a year. It serves the Bronx Zoo en route to Wakefield (serving Pelham Parkway & Williamsbridge along the way). There’s also the BxM10 by the East 180th Street station. But still point taken about knowing your options.

    • C. Walton says:

      I am aware that the BxM11 operates 356 Days a year, but the bus stop in front of the Bronx Zoo entrance isn’t always available outside of summer months, unless that had changed.

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