Compared to other American cities, the public transportation system in New York City is phenomenal. Very few New York City residents own cars, so the massive public transportation system isn’t just an eco-friendly afterthought, it’s how this giant city gets around every day.
For information on getting to and from the airports, see the Airports page.
For public transportation in New York City you have two main options. They work on the same system with the same tickets so you can combine the two for the same price.
- The subway
— This is almost always the fastest way to get anywhere, except late at night when taxis can, and do, fly through the city streets.
- The bus system — These aren’t used often by visitors to the city, but in certain cases they can really come in handy. Particularly for going up and down the avenues, or for people who can’t deal with lots of stairs, these can be a helpful option.
This famous subway system first opened in 1904, making it one of the oldest in the world. And with 26 lines, 468 stations, and 842 miles of track, it’s the largest in the world as well. On the average weekday over 5 million people ride the New York City subways alone, and for visitors the system can be as thrilling as it is useful. It’s one of the few systems in the world that runs 24 hours a day, every day of the year.
For many decades the New York City subway system had a reputation for being dirty and dangerous. The famous graffiti is long gone, but the stations and carriages sometimes still do suffer from people unable to find the abundant station trashcans.
The bigger issue is safety, and fortunately there is good news there as well. The amount of crime reported throughout the system is way down from its peak, but that’s not to say you shouldn’t be cautious.
Since the subway runs all night it’s natural to assume that riding after midnight would pose the most danger. That might be true in the Outer Boroughs, but in Manhattan you might be shocked to find that the carriages and platforms tend to be jammed with people late at night. The bars close at 4 a.m. and many stations are crowded until then too. This cuts down on risk, but in another way it helps potential pickpockets. You should obviously be careful, but the stories of rampant underground crime from the 1970s are relics at this point.
Riding the subway
This system is a bit intimidating at first, and the locals really do rush around so you might feel the pressure of someone right behind you in line getting ever more impatient, but the locals are actually used to visitors and newcomers, so don’t worry too much.
The old tokens are long gone and each rider needs a MetroCard to pass through a turnstile. You can buy MetroCards from machines in each subway station, or from the attended booths in most stations. They accept cash, debit, and credit cards, and the people in the booths are usually surly, but this is New York City.
To enter you have to swipe your MetroCard through a reader and then wait for the display to say, “go.” Unfortunately, this isn’t as easy as it sounds at times. It can be kind of tricky at first, but if you can’t seem to get it working you are not alone. Just watch other people and do what they do.
The New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority (NYC MTA) runs the subways and buses. They have a terrible website, but they do have a decent (and well-hidden) page that explains how to use the subway in greater detail.
A ride costs $2 per person with unlimited transfers. Up to 3 children 44 inches (1.12 meters) tall and under can ride for free with one fare-paying adult. There are reduced fare programs for children riding alone and seniors, but they are only available to residents through city agencies.
When you are inside the subway system you can transfer lines for free as long as you don’t go through an exit, and you can also transfer to buses within two hours of the original swipe of your MetroCard.
Discounts on multiple rides
If you buy a MetroCard for at least $10 you get one ride free for each $10 you buy. In other words, for $10 you get 6 rides, for $20 you get 12 rides, and so on.
Unlimited ride cards
1-day pass (good until 3 a.m. on the day after you first used it) – $7
7-day pass – $24
If you aren’t familiar with large subway systems, this one is a little confusing at first. You can get a free map from most attended booths in the subway and you can also find subway maps all over the internet, including on the MTA website.
As mentioned above, tourists don’t often use the bus system, but it can come in handy. The buses obviously have to deal with the infamous traffic in Manhattan, and sometimes they don’t seem much faster than walking. You can find bus maps on the MTA website, and chances are you’ll only need the Manhattan map.