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The New York City subway, explained

A comprehensive guide to the subway’s history, unspoken rules of conduct, and more insider intel

It’s not an exaggeration to say that New York’s subway system is the lifeblood of this city. Every day, more than 5.5 million people use it to get around, and its annual ridership is more than 1.7 billion—significantly more than any other transit system in the United States. When the 115-year-old subway isn’t working properly, it paralyzes the city.

And there was a good deal of that happening in the past few years, with frequent service problems (delays, derailments, crumbling ceilings) increase, leading to public outcry and a constant stream of angry tweets about crappy commutes. (Perhaps you’ve been one of those frustrated straphangers?) After several years of declining ridership, the trend seems to be reversing, but plans to fully modernize the subway are still years in the making—and require funding that’s still TBD.

The subway can also be tricky to navigate if you’re new to NYC, given the sheer size of the system—there are 472 stations throughout the boroughs—and its quirks. But fear not: This primer has everything you need to know, from the history of the subway to how you should behave during a cramped rush-hour commute. If you’re looking for the latest subway news, we’ve got you covered, and scroll to the bottom for an overview of the current situation.

What is the MTA?

What is the MTA?

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, or MTA, is the statewide agency that oversees the various mass-transit systems within New York state—not just the NYC subway, but also the city bus system, commuter rail lines, bridges and tunnels, and the Staten Island Railway.

But to make matters more confusing, there are agencies within the MTA that oversee operations for those various transit systems; MTA New York City Transit, or NYCT, is the one responsible for the subway, along with many city buses. Originally, three separate transit systems operated their own subway lines; they merged in the 1940s (more on that later), but after mismanagement, NYCT was created in 1953 to oversee the day-to-day business of the subway. It still does that to this day, along with managing larger programs like Fast Forward (we’ll get to that in a bit). Andy Byford is currently the president of NYCT, having assumed the post at the beginning of 2018.

The MTA, which the governor of New York controls (despite our current governor’s insistence otherwise), was created in 1968 and is responsible for bigger-picture, all-agency issues—budgets, capital construction projects (the Second Avenue subway, for example), acquiring real estate for those projects, and things of that ilk. The MTA is controlled by a 17-person board, with members appointed by the governor and mayor, as well as a handful representing New York’s suburban counties.

Want to know more about the complex organization? The New York Times breaks it down.

NYC subway fares: How they work

NYC subway fares: How they work

When the New York City subway first began operating in 1904, a single ride cost 5 cents, and riders used a paper ticket to enter the system. Now, 115 years later, the fare has increased by 5,400 percent, and MetroCards—which were introduced in the 1990s—are soon to be phased out. (There’s an exhibit at the New York Transit Museum, titled “Ticket to Ride,” that offers a robust overview of fare collection, for those curious.)

Last year, the MTA also rolled out OMNY—aka One Metro New York—its new tap-to-pay fare collection system, which allows riders to use a contactless credit or debit card, or an app, to enter the subway. It’s expected to be in use at more than 150 stations by the end of January, and is currently available at some major hubs like Penn Station and Union Square.

At its simplest, the base fare for entering the subway (or an NYC bus that’s not an express bus) is $2.75. But there are many ways that fares can be collected; here’s a brief overview:

Pay-per-ride MetroCard: Self-explanatory; you fill a MetroCard with a certain amount of money, and each time you swipe to get on the subway, $2.75 is deducted. You can add up to $80 at a time. If you buy a new MetroCard rather than refilling an old one, you’ll be charged $1 for the new card.

Unlimited ride MetroCard: Pay a set amount—$33 for a week, or $127 for a month—and you can ride the subway as often as you like. There is a 18-minute waiting period to swipe again once you’ve entered a subway station or boarded a bus. If you take the subway more than a couple of times per day, this is likely to be the more cost-effective route. (The MTA also has a fare calculator to help you figure it out.) The $1 “new card” fee also applies here.

Unlimited cards are also where the city’s new “Fair Fares” program, which offers half-priced MetroCards for low-income New Yorkers, comes into play; it’s open to those already receiving cash assistance from the city. Applications for the program open this month.

Single-ride card: You can purchase a single subway fare on its own special card, but it costs $3, and is not refillable.

Transfers: If you pay per ride, you can transfer for free between subways and local buses up to two hours after your initial swipe. If you have an unlimited MetroCard, well, it’s unlimited—you don’t need to worry about free transfers.

Subway rules and etiquette

Subway rules and etiquette

There are the MTA’s actual, codified rules of conduct—things like not smoking on platforms, not riding in between (or on the roof of) subway cars, and not sexually harassing fellow riders—and then there are unspoken etiquette rules that seasoned subway riders know to adhere to (and that newcomers would do well to adopt ASAP). Both are important!

Here are some super-basic—and super-important—things to know right off the bat:

  • Let people off the train before you try and board it. (Yes, even when it’s not a crowded subway car.) This is the best way to ensure that everyone can get on and off the train with a minimum of fuss.
  • Are you toting your laptop, gym clothes, and your latest book club book around in a backpack? If you’re in a crowded car, take that backpack off and keep it on the ground. Same goes for large shopping bags, or any other cumbersome cargo you might be holding. (And for both your sanity and the sanity of those on the train, don’t bring on a bike during rush hour.)
  • Don’t manspread, don’t hug subway poles, and don’t take up more than one seat with your bags, feet, or other appendages. Spatial awareness is your friend on the subway, especially during very crowded commutes.
  • If you wouldn’t do it in mixed company, don’t do it on the subway. This includes, but is not limited to, clipping your nails, picking your nose, spitting, littering, falling asleep on someone, and farting.

And then some things that will make you a better subway rider and a better New Yorker:

  • If you have an unlimited MetroCard, pay it forward: If you’re leaving a station and someone asks to be swiped in, give them the swipe. It’s not illegal if you’re not charging for it, and it’s a huge help to the person who needs to get on the train.
  • It bears repeating: If you’re an able-bodied person sitting on the subway, and someone boards who might need a seat—be it a pregnant person, someone with a physical injury, or an elderly person—give them yours.
  • No matter what the MTA tells you, do not call 911 if you see a dog on the subway (with the exception, of course, that it’s hurting someone). They are supposed to be in carriers (or bags!), but not everyone adheres to that rule.
A brief history of the NYC subway

A brief history of the NYC subway

The subway system as we know it started running on October 27, 1904, but New York’s experiment with mass transit began 77 years earlier. In 1827, Abraham Brower began running a horse-drawn bus that could hold 12 people, which he called “Accommodation,” on Broadway.

Other attempts followed—including, famously, Alfred Ely Beach’s pneumatic tube that propelled people along a quarter-mile of track below City Hall—but it wasn’t until the 1870s, when the first elevated trains began running on the west side of Manhattan, that the city’s transit revolution truly began. (Though it was hardly the first city to construct an underground transit system: Boston’s debuted in 1897, and the earliest underground railway opened in London in 1863.)

The “el,” as it was known, “altered the look of New York so greatly that … it’s hard to envision how radically the streetscape of the city changed in such a short time,” as James Nevius writes in his history of the el. Other, less transformative modes of rapid transit, including electric trolleys and cable-power rail (one of those ran over the Brooklyn Bridge, and was captured on film by Thomas Edison), soon followed. The el also brought people into the outer boroughs, and thus had a hand in expanding development outside Manhattan.

But after the subway opened and city denizens grew accustomed to underground rail, the elevated trains—which were noisy, cast shadows on the street, and spewed dust into the air—became less popular, and they were all but dead by the mid-20th century. (Read Nevius’s full history of the el for more context.)

Three subway lines—the Interborough Rapid Transit company (IRT), the Brooklyn–Manhattan Transit Corporation (BMT), and the first city-run subway line, the Independent Subway System (IND)—operated independently from one another until 1940, when they were unified under the umbrella of the city’s Board of Transportation. NYCT was founded in 1953, the same year that tokens were first introduced. (Paper tickets were used prior to that.)

In the 1970s, the subway entered a period of decline thanks to deferred maintenance, service cuts, a rise in crime (depicted in Death Wish, The Warriors, and The Taking of Pelham 123), and declining ridership. It took political will and many years to undo those issues. By the 1990s, ridership had stabilized—it hasn’t gone below 1 billion annual riders since 1994—and began steadily rising after the MetroCard was introduced in 1997. But the MTA never really recovered financially; the agency is expected to carry $1 billion in debt by 2022.

In recent years, there have been several high-profile additions to the NYC subway system. The 7 line extension, a capital construction project tied to the redevelopment of Hudson Yards, opened in 2015, connecting Manhattan’s far west side to the rest of the subway. And on the first day of 2017, the first phase of the Second Avenue subway—which was first proposed in the 1920s—finally opened (though the status of its next few phases is unclear).

The NYC subway today, and in the future

The NYC subway today, and in the future

Today, the subway is slowly recovering from a bad few years. Problems that were years in the making—namely the effect of deferred maintenance on an aging system, and political leaders diverting funds away from the MTA—came to a head in 2017, when service began to get measurably worse, leading to regularly extended travel times and overly crowded trains.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency for the subway in late June of that year, and the MTA implemented a Subway Action Plan soon thereafter, with the goal of getting the major problems plaguing the system—such as slow trains and major delays—under control. Now, a year and a half later, there have been modest improvements: On-time performance is up, and delays are down, albeit by only a small percentage.

Another wrench was thrown into the MTA’s short-terms plans at the beginning of 2019, when Cuomo deemed the L train shutdown plans unnecessary, and proceeded with a new plan to fix the tunnel without stopping service. Now, the MTA says the project is ahead of schedule (and claims it’s under budget), and will be wrapping up by the spring of 2020.

There are also other fixes in the works; the MTA’s new SPEED unit is working to make notoriously slow subway trains go faster, for example. But, as transit advocates emphasized to Curbed last summer, “the temporary fixes that have been made since [Cuomo declared a state of emergency] will be meaningless without a concerted effort to modernize the subway system.”

Much of the subway’s future success depends on the implementation of Fast Forward, NYCT president Andy Byford’s ambitious plan to essentially remake the system from the ground up. The plan calls for overhauling ancient signals—replacing the old, crumbling ones with communication-based train control (CBTC), which is more reliable—within 10 to 15 years, improving accessibility in subway stations, replacing old subway cars, and more. These repairs are necessary, but won’t come cheap; the estimated cost is $30 billion, a figure that could rise in the future.

Officials are looking at various methods to fund the plan, including vehicular congestion pricing, which would impose a surcharge on vehicles driving into Manhattan’s central business district at certain times of day. A congestion pricing plan was approved in 2019, and will go into effect in 2021. At the beginning of 2020, the MTA’s capital plan for the next five years (covering up to 2024) was also approved, and represents the biggest investment in the agency’s history.

The New York Transit Museum

The New York Transit Museum

True subway geeks should make a point of visiting the New York Transit Museum, which was established in 1976 in a decommissioned Brooklyn subway stop. It’s home to all kinds of nerdy subway ephemera: old token booths, vintage signage, and—best of all—now out-of-use subway cars from decades ago that you can explore. (There’s also a smaller annex within Grand Central Terminal that’s home to the MTA’s annual holiday train show.)

The Transit Museum also leads tours of far-flung subway locales—including the majestic, normally off-limits old City Hall station hidden beneath lower Manhattan. The catch? You have to be a museum member to participate.

Want to learn more?

Want to learn more?

To take your subway knowledge to the next level, bookmark Second Ave. Sagas, the long-running blog written by Curbed contributor Benjamin Kabak, and Streetsblog NYC, which covers transportation from all angles. And then, check out these articles: