New York: Riding the Subway

New York Leaving aside some concerns about smaller kids, the subway is the best way to get around the city, certainly for longer distances and especially for going up or down town. It is quite safe, pretty cheap and with some practice, easy to navigate. While these may not be your first thoughts when in the cars, the alternatives of buses or taxis still make the subway look like a great deal.

Subways and Kids

We might as well get the bad news out of the way early: the subway is not a very good option for small kids and especially for kids in strollers. There are a lot of steps, an endless variety of construction with rough surfaces and long walks when transferring. Most stations are hot and quite noisy, and unless you are really good at navigation, your trip underground will at first involve some errors and delays. During rush hours the trains are quite crowded, and toilets are pretty much non-existent. You all out there with infants may find yourselves spending a bit more on taxis than those with sturdier kiddies.

If your kids are old enough to handles stairs and walking on their own, the good news is that we found the subways very safe. People generally kept to themselves, and on a few occasions offered seats to our smaller child. Police presence was obvious, perhaps some small benefit from the terror threat. The cops were from all over and not every one knew his way around the subway system, so we still needed to use our maps. Kids who aren't tall enough to hang on to the straps overhead will need to stay near a parent, as the trains lurch and jerk a bit.

Paying for the Ride

There are no child fares per se, but up to three children 44 inches tall and under ride for free when accompanied by a fare paying adult. The fare otherwise for a subway or local bus ride is $2 as of late 2005.

If you enjoy using vending machines, you can pay for each ride each time you use the subway. This also means enjoying lining up with sweaty tourists each time, most of whom were not cool enough to check our web site in advance. Losers.

For the rest of us enlightened parents, the way to go is to use a MetroCard. This is a fare card with stored value on it that you can use to ride the subway or many buses.

Before you head out, check the link just below on the many all-you-can-ride flavors for MetroCards, including seven day passes. You can get most of this info at the subway station, but some guy will be impatiently waiting behind you as you read through screen after screen of options, so it is easier to decide now.

You can learn more right here

Entering the Subway System

On your first trip underground, buy your MetroCard at one of the many vending machines. The machines take cash or major credit cards. You already took our advice above and decided in advance how much value to put on the card, or whether to buy a week pass.

Now don't get right on the train. Instead, join that longish line at the information booth and ask for two of the excellent, free subway maps they hand out. These maps are larger, clearer versions of the online version and are about all you need to find your way around. I suggest getting two because the map will be folded and unfolded a bunch of times during your visit and you don't want to wait in line twice, right? One caution: the map is not to scale, meaning the distance between stations is not always as it is in real life-use another map for planning your walking.

You can take a look at the subway map online. They also have a PDF version there that prints out better.

With card and map in hand, proceed to the turnstiles. These are somewhat elaborate and cage-like, and hostile to strollers and small kids. Your card should slide through the slot and pop up; it would be easy for kids to forget to take it out with them. Our little one had a hard time getting through the turnstile alone so, being two parents, we sent Mom through to receive her and Dad went in behind her to facilitate the movement.

Which Train?

The New York subway system was built and is still being built over the last 100 years or so, so it is not the unified whole that more recent networks like Washington DC are. This means you'll need to pay a little attention to the map and think through your route ahead of time to avoid getting lost.

Here are some tips:

  • Trains generally go UP TOWN or DOWN TOWN, meaning roughly north or south but no one says that. At a minimum you'll need to know which direct you are headed.
  • There are LOCAL trains which stop at every station and EXPRESS trains which skip many stations. The stations are marked on the subway map. The trains are marked but not always so clearly, so watch closely. You can always take a local, but it will be slower than the express, duh.
  • There are many names for each train. The map shows that some have called out by numbers and some by letters. Many people instead refer to them by their old names, such as the IRT or the BMT lines. You'll need to ask for clarification.
  • Like with most mass transit systems, the trains are marked with the stop at the end of the line, so you might be directed to a “Number 1 Train for South Ferry.”
  • Speaking of the Number 1 Train to South Ferry, it is unique in New York in that at a certain point it is broken into two trains, one that zips off to Brooklyn and the other which is what you want to go to Battery Park to get on the boat for the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. There are signs posted in all the cars explaining what to do.
  • Though the maps show the lines in color, and the trains are marked in color, no one seems to refer to them that way. When I asked “Does the red line go to Times Square?” people just looked at me weirdly. Tourists, ya' know?
  • Sometimes the Uptown and Downtown trains are accessed via entrances on opposite sides of the street.

More Information

  • NYC Subway is an amazing site for anyone with more than a pedestrian interest in the subway system. Part history, part tour guide (there are photos of every station, and a station-by-station listing of art), this is not the place to really look to for info on how to get from Point A to Point B (see below) but more of a place to turn to to better enjoy and appreciate the ride. Check out the section on abandoned stations. Read it alongside www.forgotten-ny.com.
  • The New York Subway Finder is the place to figure out how to get from Point A to Point B. Sparse, clear and to-the-point, this site will allow you to figure out which train goes where. Use it with a decent map and you'll never get lost. Since the site is mostly text, it will work very well with your Wi-Fi PDA on the street.

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