When the New York Transit Museum debuted on July 4, 1976, it was only supposed to be a temporary installation, opened to coincide with a larger celebration of America’s bicentennial.
But the museum was a hit, and it eventually became a permanent New York City fixture; now, it’s the best place to see the history of the city’s transit system, and gain an understanding of how it came to be.
If you’re not familiar with this underrated gem, allow us to take you on a tour.
If you’re not exactly sure what you are looking for, the Transit Museum could be a little hard to find at first—the uninitiated could mistake its entrance for the actual entrance into the subway. And that’s not entirely wrong: it’s located in Downtown Brooklyn’s decommissioned Court Street subway station, which stopped being operational as an actual subway stop in 1946.
In the years since, it’s served as a film set for several movies, most notably the 1974 film The Taking of Pelham One Two Three and the 2009 remake starring Denzel Washington. Though the station itself is not in commission, everything from its control room to its tracks is still fully functional.
These days, the museum occupies a full block underground and packs in everything from a stock of permanent and rotating exhibits to a collection of historic turnstiles to a gift shop with all things transit.
One thing to know right away: Your experience here won’t be like visiting a typical “please don’t touch” museum—almost everything is hands-on because what good would it be otherwise?
One of the first exhibits that greets you upon entering the museum is “Steel, Stone & Backbone: Building New York’s Subways,” a thorough look at how the city’s first subway line was built at the turn of the 20th century. Wander through and you’ll learn about the technology (or lack thereof) that was used to build the system and the dangers that workers faced in the process. (Don’t miss the installation that allows you to get a view of what the street above the museum’s host station looks like through the subway’s ceiling.)
As you venture further inside the museum and you will find a collection of both vintage and modern-day turnstiles that documents how fare collection has evolved over time, from paper tickets to tokens to MetroCards. The space is shared by an adjacent temporary exhibition that explains how both the city and transit officials responded to unexpected disasters like the blackout of 2003, the terrorist attacks on 9/11, and Hurricane Sandy.
Toward the opposite end of the platform is “On the Streets: New York’s Trolleys and Buses,” which looks at how street cars, trolleys, and buses have morphed from the 1800s to the present. Several small replicas give a glimpse of what above-ground traffic once looked like and compare it to what we have today. For added fun, you can sit behind the wheel of an actual MTA bus (of course it’s been optimized for safety which means the wheels have been removed, but still a hoot—and generally overrun by small children).
And while those permanent and temporary installations are fascinating, the lower level is the Transit Museum’s true gem—on the decommissioned platform, you’ll find a fleet of vintage subway cars, ranging from ones that date back to the early 20th century to more modern Redbirds. The trains offer a firsthand look at how the city’s subway cars have transformed over time; and since they’re open for exploration, you can walk through, sit in the old-timey seats (some of which actually have cushions), and marvel at replicated subway ads of the period.
Each one of the different subway models come with an informational panel in front of it so you know what you’re looking at. It makes learning about the history of the car, including when and why it was introduced and the how the car functioned over its life span, way more fun than learning about it in a more conventional way.
Every now and then the MTA takes these cars out for a ride, both for special events (Yankees and Mets games) and for guided tours. During the holidays you can catch a ride on one for the price of a single subway ride when the MTA rolls out its vintage fleet, which travels from the Second Ave station to Queens along the F line.
The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday with varied hours. Admission is $10 for adults, $5 for children and $5 for seniors but if you’re an MTA employee, admission is free. There are different tiers of memberships that are available for purchase and some of the perks include free membership and access to special events.
The museum also has a smaller annex at Grand Central Terminal, which is home to the museum’s annual train show as well as its own exhibits; the most recent one, “7 Train: Minutes To Midtown,” showcases historic photos that document that line’s existence, and is currently on display until October 29. A new museum shop also recently opened near Bowling Green in lower Manhattan.
And for those who want a seasoned transit guru to explain what exactly they are looking at, there are guided tours that happen on a regular basis.