Wednesday, October 27, 2010

NYC Subway Survival Guide (Part 3)

One of the oldest and most extensive underground mass rapid transportation systems in the world, the New York City subway can be a daunting task to navigate even for the most seasoned of straphangers. This is where I come in. I'm a New Yorker born and bred, having lived here for all 34 years of my life. Mine has been a continuous love/hate relationship with the labyrinthine rail system ever since I started riding it at the age of 9, and  I'm here to present my tips and observations to you, visitor and citizen alike of this great American metropolis.

The Subway Survival Guide is meant to keep you alive and well to live another day in New York City. Ignore its warnings at your own peril.

But before we get started on the next installment of this ongoing series, please check out these previous entries at your own leisure:

Part 1: Trust No One!
Part 2: Make Yourself Less of a Target.

And now, let us continue:

Part 3 - Getting Around.

New York is an amazing city, made even more evident by the fact that, unlike the Paris Metro or London Underground, our subways operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It's really quite phenomenal when you think about it, and rather apropos for the town that bills itself as being the "city that never sleeps." In fact, we New Yorkers take it for granted. I remember Lisa and I feeling quite put out when, while in Paris and after having a leisurely late dinner in the Les Halles neighborhood, we came to discover that the metro had shut down for the evening. What the hell? We were so not prepared for this, coming from New York and all. We ended up hailing a cab back to the hotel, so it was no big deal, but it really made us sit back and appreciate what we had back home.

This is not to imply that our subway system is perfect. Far from it. And in fact, its very large size and antiquated infrastructure can really make it a chore to navigate for non-natives. Hell, who am I kidding? Even an old hand like me can find himself turned around by sudden service disruptions that come with no warning or explanation whatsoever. It's happened a handful of times in my experience. Now imagine how chaotic our system must seem to tourists, then? Yikes!

But fear not. This is called the NYC Subway Survival Guide for a reason. Below you'll find helpful hints on how the make the best of navigating our convoluted, but invaluable, underground transportation network.

First off: find yourself a reliable and genuine NYC subway map. These can be found all over the city, not the least of which is inside most major subway stations -- they're usually provided for free outside the few remaining manned booth stations still in operation throughout the network. And if you're a tourist, chances are you either already have your own map, or have been provided one by your hotel's concierge or front desk. Now a warning: our subway map can be a bit intimidating to first-time visitors, to say the least. Just click on the thumbnail to the left to see a larger image and discover for yourself. Wow, right? It's simply CRAZY! But I'll show you a few cool interactive map options later for those of you who own smart phones. It can make the experience a lot less cardiac intensive.

Next, get yourself a MetroCard. Gone are the quaint days of standing in line for the booth clerk to transfer your cash into metallic entrance coins or "tokens." Nowadays New York has completely transitioned over to a magnetic card reader entrance system. We call ours a "MetroCard." Other rapid transit systems around the world have different names for virtually the same technology.

In this city, all you need to do is go up to a kiosk situated near every subway entrance and use the touchscreen to purchase a MetroCard in any language and in various denominations. My favorite MetroCard is the monthly unlimited ridership one. Once purchased, you can ride as often as you must, whenever you want, within a 30-day span. If you use the subway as much as I do (which goes well beyond the twice-daily to and from work), the savings of buying the monthly versus the pay-per-ride option really adds up! If you're a short-term visitor to the Big Apple, I would recommend the weekly unlimited card instead.

Lastly, learn your general directional points. In the subway, south is generally "downtown," while north is "uptown." If you ever end up asking a local for directions, they will use these terms 10 times out of 10. So it's worth knowing this before hand. Sometimes you'll hear station announcements which use the names of Boroughs instead, such as: "The next Brooklyn-bound train is now arriving" or "The Bronx bound 4 train is now one station away." If you're anywhere on the island of Manhattan when you hear this -- and let's be honest, you probably are -- then all you need to know is that Brooklyn is technically "downtown" and that the Bronx is "uptown," or south and north respectively. Very rarely you'll hear subway lines referred to by their terminal stations, such as the "Lefferts Blvd. 'A' train" or the "Pelham Parkway '6' train," to convey directionality. This is how you navigate the Metro system in Paris, for example. In this case, if you really don't know these terminal stations, simply look on the map and trace your finger to the end of the line of the train you're thinking of riding. If your finger is traveling in the opposite direction on the map from the landmark you want to go see, you're on the wrong side of the platform. Or you can simply look up at the sign hanging over your head. They usually tell you the same information.

Anywho . . . now that you know your directions, you've got your map and you're past the pay entrance -- or "turnstile" -- you simply walk to the platform and hop on the first thing smoking, right? Well hold on there, buddy! It gets a little more complicated than that. Like most major cities with underground rail systems, many New York subway stations service more than one line at a time. And before you can choose your train, you have to figure out where it is you intend to go. The destination is more important than your current location, as with this info you will determine the optimal course of action to get to your stop. Unfortunately, there is no one or easily identifiable solution in place to assist you in this feat. Subway signs can be a mess of seemingly conflicting information, and even the map itself cannot show you whether your line/route has been switched or delayed that morning due to track work or signaling errors.

This is where, unfortunately, you MUST ask a New Yorker for help. I know, I know -- the HORROR! But, relax, we're not as bad as the movies or urban legends make us out to be. At least, most of us aren't. To be honest, I wish tourists would be a little more brave and asks questions. It breaks my heart sometimes to see an entire family from, say, the U.K. fretting over the subway map and trying to make sense of the garbled P.A. announcement telling them that their train has gone out of service. There have been moments when I'm standing right there and not one of them asks me for help, even though I'm probably the most knowledgeable New Yorker you can ever hope to run into when it comes to knowing the subway inside out.

But Batista, you ask, why don't you just offer up your assistance straight out? Heh, heh . . . do you honestly think I haven't tried that? Sorry, but I've been rebuked a few times by tourists that seem to regard me as someone who's about to mug them. So, no thanks. What I do now -- and sometimes it even works -- is I make what I hope is an open and approachable expression on my face so that they know I mean no harm. If they still don't want to risk asking this local for help, then I don't push the issue. More power to them.

If not me, then you should ask SOMEBODY for help. Don't try to go it alone. I've seen out-of-towners end up heading to Queens when all they really wanted to do was go to Battery Park. Needless to say they had a bad day in the ole city that time -- ouch!

However, fret not. If you don't exactly trust your chances in asking a friendly New Yorker for help, there's usually a cop or MTA employee somewhere about on the platform. Particularly near the turnstiles, that's your best bet. And if that option doesn't exist, you can always go the high-tech route. By now a lot of people have smart phones about them, such as Apple's iPhone or those new Android phones that seem to be all the rage. And with this technology comes lots of helpful little "apps" to guide you in your time of need on your underground adventure. I've used a few of these apps in other cities around the world, and to varying degrees of success. But below are 3 apps I highly recommend for New York City subway navigation in particular. Even though I almost never use these except to test them out, I still keep them on my iPhone "just in case." Hey, I was a Boy Scout -- I firmly believe in our motto, "Be Prepared."

All of these apps provide their own advantages over the plain old paper version of the NYC subway map:

iTrans NYC: This is an iPhone app that allows users to check on available schedules both online and off, find out the very latest service advisories, and plot the best and easiest routes between two stations. If out on the surface, the app will find your location and give you step-by-step directions to the nearest subway station. I've used it a handful of times since downloading it for $3.99 from the Apple app store last year, and I was personally impressed by the detailed and beautifully rendered map. The biggest selling point for this app is the currentness of its service advisories, as well as the surprising accuracy of its arrivals schedule. If you can only get one app for your subterranean travel in the Big Apple, make sure this is that app.

KICKMap: This, too is an iPhone app that has many of the same features of the above iTrans NYC, but with a few more added bells and whistles. For one, its version of the subway map is dynamic and will show you right on the display the exact station your particular train will stop at (and which ones it won't) depending on what time of day it is. As some of you may know, there can be a big difference on some of the lines depending on whether it is rush hour or late night. You don't want to get stranded at 3 in the morning on a train that looked like it was stopping at your station on a paper map, but in fact skips the station during late night hours. This app, which sells for $2.99, will also detail which stations allow you to cross over to the opposite moving track without having to leave the station and pay again to re-enter from the other side of the street. Still, even given all of the above PLUS the lower price, I personally prefer iTrans NYC more. Chalk it up to personal experience as a New Yorker. One of the down sides of this app is that it doesn't provide walking directions like iTrans does, and also sometimes the schedules are not as up to date, either. Still a great secondary app to have around.

Tube New York: This app presents a very odd dilemma. See, the "Tube" series of apps is created by Visual IT Ltd., and are available on a variety of mobile platforms -- not just the iPhone. The first app was the "Tube London" one, and I've heard that it is a brilliant piece of software at that. I myself swear by the "Tube Paris" version, and end up using it almost exclusively when we travel to that city. Like those apps, Tube New York is most handy for operating offline as a route calculator when you are underground and can't get a signal. It does this, however, by being rather bare bones. You can plot between two stations, and the app will give you detailed instructions on how to get there, including where and how to catch any connecting trains. For some reason, however, I almost never use the New York version of this app. It's pricey at $4.99, and because I know the subways so well I really don't have much use for a route calculator. Still, it's utilitarian interface and matter-of-fact presentation might be appealing to some travelers.

So, which one should you get? If you're like me, you'll probably want to own all three of these of apps. You know, like I said before: "just in case!"

In the end, as I hope this guide has shown, getting around the New York City subway system can be a breeze -- if you come prepared. Equipped with the right tools and knowledge, it's amazing how simple and convenient traveling underground here can be.

Now, how do you go about getting a seat once you're on board a train? Well, let's just say that takes a more advanced approach. One which I hope to cover in a future installment of this guide.

'Till then, travel safely!

(To continue on to Part 4 of the NYC Subway Survival Guide, CLICK HERE.)

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