Ask any New Yorker what they think of the MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) and you will probably be reciprocated with, at least, a sigh and an eye roll. The frustrations and annoyances of the company is a hot topic of conversation for the residents. Because of it’s budget deficit, which apparently New Yorkers are paying for, the subways are run-down and ‘crumbling’ (a word used by Cynthia Nixon – Yes, Miranda from ‘Sex And The City’ – in her campaign manifesto for becoming the new governor of New York).
Widespread delays and station closures mean some stations are closed for long periods of time, over night or on weekends. Some lines stop being Local trains (stopping at every station on the line) and become Express trains (stopping at less, more popular stations) meaning planning and taking a journey can become difficult and time-consuming.
Some lines close completely, like the L train that runs from 8th Avenue in Manhattan to Canarsie-Rockaway Parkway in east Brooklyn. It will be completely closed for a suspected 15 months starting in April 2019 and will be a huge problem for anybody living in the highly sort after Williamsburg and Bushwick areas who need to commute. Rumour has it, people are even planning on moving neighbourhoods to avoid the disruptions.
Whatever way, if you look on the service status of subway lines on the MTA website or mobile app, you will rarely see less than 2 or 3 routes under ‘planned works’.
You must give the MTA some credit, however – they run the subways and transportation around the city 24/7, 365 days a year (something other cities around the world cannot boast,) so their only option is to close certain stations or routes in order to complete vital work on the lines. Which it needs.
The MTA run campaigns, including the Safety Campaign of “See Something, Say Something.” This is somewhat of an international thing, with the U.K. have a very similar sort of motto on public transport. I recently went to a stand up comedy club in Bushwick, in which one woman had a whole set of jokes based on the MTA. One fun anecdote poked fun at this campaign, but more so the New Yorker attitude: a man got onto a train she was sat on, dropped his large bag into the middle of the train and hopped off again, leaving it to depart with her and her fellow commuters. Everyone on the train looked at it for a while and then looked at each other (‘See Something, Say Something’?). One woman across from her turned to her friend and said: “That was weird.” And then everyone went back to reading, chatting, staring at phones. (Kind of more: ‘See Something, Kind of Say Something To A Friend And Get Back To Your Business’)
I personally love the subway system. It has something about it that the London Underground doesn’t seem to have. A certain colourfullness and personality.
If you are staying for any period of time it’s worth getting an Unlimited Pass for a week or a month. One ride is $2.75 for any kind of distance, be it from east Brooklyn to the top of Manhattan or just riding to the next station. So if you’re a tourist, and presumably taking many subway trips in one day, you could be loading up your normal single-ride Metrocard with a lot of dollar. Using the Unlimited Pass means you can ride the subways as many times as you want in a day. Although you can’t swipe through the barriers and ride again within fifteen minutes of the last swipe.
Most, if not all, stations have access to the opposite track running the other way after the turnstiles. So if you miss your stop or get lost, you can find your way back without hanging around outside the station for fifteen minutes.
New York summers are hot and sticky. Waiting for a train underground, is hotter and stickier – prepare to sweat profusely. The trains are air-conditioned, which is a relief if you’ve been waiting for the train a while. But is a problem when your wet, sweaty skin dries quickly, only to condense again when you leave the train.
And the winter? The weather is extremely cold. So naturally the MTA heat the trains – meaning you sweat profusely again under your large, puffy layers of clothes. There is no winning.
Be prepared for a huge variety of people, and for lack of a better word, a huge variety of ‘interesting’ people. The main being homeless people getting on with a cup and a sad story (debatably true or not) hoping for some cash.
I’ve learnt to keep my gaze slightly down, or on my phone – as not to give any opportunity for eye contact. It’s not that I don’t feel bad for the true stories, I just can’t afford to give a dollar to every person that comes on, because it’s almost every time. Again, don’t worry though, most commuters don’t give any money, and the ‘beggar’ gets off the train at the next station (working only a small area of the line).
For all the weirdos on the subway, there are equal amounts of amazing people. I have seen lots of heart-warming and heart-wrenching moments on my commutes around the city already. Some highlights of mine:
- A Vietnam Veteran singing brilliantly (for money).
- A woman reading to her children a bedtime novel.
- A smartly dressed guy, smoothly and silently dancing to the music from his earphones, holding a single red rose.
- A dog with little booties on.
Coming out of the subway
On the way out of the turnstiles, you might have someone ask for a ‘swipe’. They basically want a free ride. If you have an unlimited Metrocard, and you’re not planning to ride again for 15 minutes, you might as well swipe them through. I do, and it makes me feel like I have done a good deed. Besides, I don’t really want to face saying no and making them angry.
Once on the street, it can be confusing where you are – and Google maps isn’t always reliable on which direction you’re facing. Find the exit you need and the round about corner you need (NW, NE, SW, SE), then use the traffic on the streets to help. If you end up on a main avenue running north to south in Manhattan, I have a neat trick: on the west side of Central Park, odd avenues’ traffic runs south, and even avenues’ traffic run north. The east side of the park gets a little messier with Madison, Park and Lexington Avenues substituting 4th Avenue and kind of switches traffic directions.
And Finally, Smells
Get ready for the smells of the subway and streets: food, sweat, hot garbage, weed, urine. You do get used to it.