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Sussing out the Subway

Because my team and I were working at various locations in New York, we needed to use the Subway to get around. I was, perhaps naively, expecting it to be very similar to the London Underground – but I was wrong. It was much more complicated and we all found it challenging.

There were some aspects that were much better than the Tube. It was significantly cheaper, for a start, with any journey costing $2.75, no matter how long it was or where in the city it started. There was no concept of “zones”, just a flat rate, so a trip to the far end of Brooklyn, which took nearly an hour from our hotel, cost the same as going just one or two stops. And you could get a weekly season ticket for unlimited travel over 7 consecutive days for $33, which is pretty good.

But the Subway system seemed to have been starved of cash and investment compared to London. The transit authority was just beginning to roll out a contactless payment card, and only a few lines had it. Whereas London has had Oyster cards for years. Instead, the MetroCards were just thin bits of card with a magnetic strip on them. They were refillable, but easily damaged – mine got bent so much in two weeks of use that it it was no longer usable. And it would be really hard to use the Subway if you had luggage; there were very few escalators or lifts, just lots of stairs, and I didn’t see any wide entrance/exit gates for people with luggage/pushchairs, just narrow turnstiles. I decided it would be much easier to get a taxi back to the airport on my final day, rather than wrestle my case down the multiple flights of steps and then struggle to get it through the turnstiles on the subway.

But it was the labelling of the stations and trains that really confused us. There are multiple stations with the same name, but on different lines and many blocks apart. There are three different stations called “Canal Street”, for example, serving five lines, but several blocks away from each other. And as well as several stations sharing one name, one station could have two different names! The closest metro station to my hotel was on the corner of Delancey St and Essex Street, and was called by either of those two names, apparently at random.

Once you’d found the right station, it was then a case of getting on a train going where you wanted. That was easier said than done. You would have thought that some maps or graphics would be helpful, showing which stations were served from which platform. Instead, you had to quickly develop a mental map the boroughs of New York. Did you want to go to “Uptown and Queens” or “Downtown and Brooklyn”? The trains seemed to have both their origin and their destination written on the side, so you couldn’t use that to work out which way it was headed. Then there was the whole issue of whether the next train was a “local” or an “express”. The latter doesn’t stop at all stations, but we never worked out how to tell which ones it was missing out. Some trains had electronic boards inside saying what the next station was, but many didn’t. And some stations had helpful electronic boards giving the next few trains and how soon they would arrive, but again many didn’t.

The upshot of all this was that we all took a while getting used to how the subway operated. Several of us got on trains heading in the wrong direction, or failed to get on the correct train because we weren’t convinced it was right, and one of my colleagues had an unanticipated trip to the Bronx, after unwittingly getting on an express train rather than a stopping service. We all ended up downloading an interactive Subway Map app onto our phones, which helped a bit. We would have been even more confused without that!