Lots of people travel to New York, plop themselves down into Time Square, and never go anywhere else. They seem to fear venturing into neighborhoods that exist for purposes other than tourism.
You don’t have to be among them. By devoting just a few minutes to the basic geography of New York and its distinctive neighborhoods, you can immensely enhance your enjoyment of this multifaceted city. And once you absorb the highly logical organization of New York’s transportation system, you’ll find that you can zip from place to place with minimal fuss.
The Grid Plan of Manhattan
The city is comprised of five boroughs on four different pieces of land, only one of which is on the North American continent! When most people talk about “New York City”, however, they are referring to the borough of Manhattan, which is a long, narrow island between New Jersey and Long Island, bordered by the Hudson and East Rivers.
Finding your way around Manhattan is easier than in almost any other city because of the careful plan that was adopted for laying out the city’s avenues and streets. In the areas above 14th Street, the city fathers imposed a strict and unnatural grid upon Manhattan, leveling hills and tearing down existing homes to create straight, evenly spaced thoroughfares in all but a few places. The grid consists of numbered streets and avenues that cross each other at right angles. If you can count up to 100 you can get around this surprisingly compact island.
Streets in Manhattan are numbered and run from east to west. So if you’re on 23rd Street and wish to get to 42nd Street, you simply go 19 blocks north. To get from 80th Street to 75th Street walk 5 blocks south. The avenues of Manhattan run north to south with some bearing numbers and others names (which does complicate the picture but only a bit). Those that are numbered go from east to west with First Avenue being close to the East River and Twelfth Avenue on the far west side of the island. Interspersed between these numbered avenues are several named avenues, including (among others) Park, Lexington, and Madison. The named avenues live primarily on the east side between Fifth and Third Avenues in midtown and uptown. On the west side, Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth Avenues turn into Columbus Avenue, Central Park West, and Amsterdam Avenue above 59th Street.
The exceptions to the grid rule (all found below 14th Street) are the Financial District, Chinatown, Little Italy, the Lower East Side, Greenwich Village, Soho, and Tribeca. These southern parts of Manhattan were the first to be settled and therefore follow a haphazard non-system of the streets and alleys that curve and twist, sometimes doubling back on themselves (most famously in Greenwich Village where 4th Street collides with 4th Street). Because most of these southern section streets bear names rather than numbers (Delancey Street, Wall Street, Church Street), orientating yourself can be tricky. So it's important to carry a good map and to ask for directions when necessary. Even native New Yorkers can get lost down there.
Getting Around the City
Because most travelers confine themselves to Manhattan, I will, as well, in this section. Those traveling to the outer boroughs can be confident, however, that public transportation—subways, buses, ferries, or some combination of the three—can get you anywhere you wish to go in the city proper, whether it be the sandy shores of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, or Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. The city’s transportation network is run by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (aka the MTA); maps and schedules for NYC’s myriad transportation options can be found at www.mta.info.
I wish I could confine my transportation advice to just three words—"take the subway"—and be done with it. To my mind, the NYC subways are the single most efficient, rapid, easy, and affordable way to get just about anywhere you’d want to go in Manhattan,with the exception of going crosstown above 59th Street in Manhattan. It runs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and yes, it gets crowded at rush-hour (roughly from 8 to 9:30am and from 5 to 6:30pm on weekdays), but even then it’s still the fastest way to get from point A to point B.
But because of the starring role the subways have played in action films set in New York over the years, with squinty-eyed thugs menacing grandmothers on graffiti-riddled trains, many visitors are scared to go underground.
That fear is unwarranted. Not only is the graffiti gone, thanks to the persistent efforts of those invisible transit cops (you rarely see one, but there are 3,000 of them keeping order underground and on the buses, often in plain clothes), the subways are safer than ever.
Of course, that doesn’t make them Disneyland. Though the cars are heated in winter and air-conditioned in summer, the platforms are not, and they often feel 10 degrees colder than the city streets in winter, and 10 degrees hotter in summer. Pickpockets remain a problem, as they are in Paris, London, and every other city where large numbers of people jam together in small spaces. So remember to move your wallet to a place where you can keep track of it before boarding the train (if you’re wearing pants, the front pocket is usually best). And because of an ongoing feud between the Mayor of New York and the Governor of the state, the subways have been underfunded, which means they're often delayed, as much needed work is slow to be accomplished. (But even with maintenance problems, they're still faster than every other form of transportation in the city).
Paying Your Way
A SingleRide subway fare (available only at vending machines) is $3 (half price for seniors and those with disabilities), and children under 44 inches tall ride free (up to three per adult). To that, you’ll need to add a $1 fee for the subway card itself (add time or money onto your card and there will be no additional fee). Once you’re in the system, you can transfer freely to any subway line that you can reach without exiting your station. MetroCards also allow you a free transfer between bus and subway within a 2-hour period.
MetroCards are usually purchased at the ATM-style vending machines now located in every subway station, which accept cash, credit cards, and debit cards; from a MetroCard merchant, including corner delis and drugstores; Hudson News, at Penn Station and Grand Central Terminal; or at the MTA information desk at the Times Square Information Center, 1560 Broadway, between 46th and 47th streets.
MetroCards come in a few different configurations:
Pay-Per-Ride MetroCards can be used for up to four people by swiping up to four times (bring the entire family). You can put any amount from $5 (for two rides) to $100 on your card. Every time you put $8 or more on your Pay-Per-Ride MetroCard, it’s automatically credited 15 percent—in other words, spend $20 and you get a free ride, plus a 50 cent balance. You can refill your card at any time until the expiration date on the card, usually about a year from the date of purchase, at any subway station.
Unlimited-Ride MetroCards, which can’t be used for more than one person at a time or more frequently than at 18-minute intervals, are available in two values: the 7-Day MetroCard, which allows you 7 days’ worth of unlimited subway and bus rides for $32; and the 30-Day MetroCard, for $121. They go into effect the first time you use them—so if you buy a card on Monday and don’t begin to use it until Wednesday, Wednesday is when the clock starts ticking on your MetroCard. Seven- and 30-day MetroCards run out at midnight on the last day. Unlimited-ride MetroCards cannot be refilled.
Tips for using your MetroCard: The MetroCard swiping mechanisms at turnstiles are the source of much grousing among subway riders. If you swipe too fast or too slow, the turnstile will ask you to swipe again. If this happens, do not move to a different turnstile, or you may end up paying twice. If you’ve tried repeatedly and really can’t make your MetroCard work, tell the token booth clerk; chances are good, that you’ll get the movement down after a couple of uses.
If you’re not sure how much money you have left on your MetroCard, or what day it expires, use the station’s MetroCard Reader, usually located near the station entrance or the token booth (on buses, the fare box also will display this information).
Note: The city is testing a new system to allow other forms of payment, but as we go to press it’s unclear how widespread those “readers” will be in late 2019 and 2020. Metrocards will still be in use, everywhere, until 2023.
Using the System
In Manhattan, the subway system basically mimics the lay of the land above ground, with most lines in Manhattan running north and south, like the avenues, and a few lines east and west, like the streets.
To go up and down the east side of Manhattan (and to the Bronx and Brooklyn), take the 4, 5, or 6 train.
To travel up and down the West Side (and also to the Bronx and Brooklyn), take the 1, 2, or 3 line; the A, C, E, or F line; or the B or D line.
The N, R, and W lines first cut diagonally across town from east to west and then snake under Seventh Avenue before shooting out to Queens. The Q line, also known as the Second Avenue Subway doesn't go to Queens, but instead serves the Upper East Side, heading east at 57th street and making stops at 72nd,
The crosstown S line, called the Shuttle, runs back and forth between Times Square and Grand Central Terminal. The 7 train also cuts across town, ending up at 34th Street near the Hudson Yards development. Farther downtown, across 14th Street, the L line works its own crosstown magic.
Express trains often skip about three stops for each one they make; express stops are indicated on subway maps with a white (rather than solid) circle. Local stops are usually about nine blocks apart.
Directions are almost always indicated using “uptown” (northbound) and “downtown” (southbound), so be sure to know what direction you want to head in. The outsides of some subway entrances are marked uptown only or downtown only; read carefully, as it’s easy to head in the wrong direction or get stuck on the wrong platform.
Since buses can get stuck in traffic and stop every couple of blocks, rather than the eight or nine blocks that local subways traverse between stops (unless you catch a “Limited” bus), they’re much less useful than the subway. I recommend using them only if you have to travel east to west; note that you can combine a bus ride with a subway ride at no additional cost (the transfer has to take place within 2 hours of the time you first boarded either the subway or the train).
Paying Your Way & Using the System
Like the subway fare, a SingleRide bus fare is $2.75, half price for seniors and riders with disabilities, and free for children under 44 inches (up to three per adult). The fare is payable with a MetroCard or exact change (excluding pennies). And they do mean change: Bus drivers don’t make change, and fare boxes don’t accept dollar bills or pennies. You can’t purchase MetroCards on the bus, so have them ready before you board.
Almost every major avenue has its own bus route. They run either north or south: downtown on Fifth, uptown on Madison, downtown on Lexington, uptown on Third, and so on. There are crosstown buses at strategic locations all around town: 14th, 23rd, 34th, and 42nd (east- and westbound); 49th (westbound); 50th (eastbound); 57th (east- and westbound); 66th (eastbound across the West Side on 65th St., through the park, and then north on Madison, continuing east on 68th to York Ave.); 67th (westbound on the East Side to Fifth Ave., and then south on Fifth, continuing west on 66th St., through the park and across the west side to West End Ave.); and 79th, 86th, 96th, 116th, and 125th (east- and westbound). Some bus routes, however, are erratic: The M104, for example, turns at Eighth Avenue and 41st St. and goes up Broadway to West 129th St.
Most routes operate 24 hours a day, but service is infrequent at night. During rush hour, main routes have “Limited” buses, identifiable by the red card in the front window; they stop only at major cross streets.
In 2011, the MTA also added new Select Bus Service (“SBS”) on the M15 line, heading north on First Avenue and south on Second Avenue, as well as the M34 across 34th Street. For the first time, these buses let passengers save time by paying at the bus shelter before boarding, with inspectors on board verifying tickets. The stops are at the same 9 or 10 block intervals as Limited lines (more at www.mta.info/nyct/sbs).
Most city buses are equipped with wheelchair lifts, making buses the city’s most accessible mode of public transportation. Buses also “kneel,” lowering down to the curb to make boarding easier.
By TaxiCabs can be hailed on any street, provided you find an empty one—often simple, yet nearly impossible at 5pm when the taxi drivers change shifts. They’re pricey, but can be convenient if you’re tired or are not sure how to find an address. Don’t assume they’ll be quicker than the subway or walking, though. In traffic-clogged Midtown at midday, you can often walk to where you’re going more quickly.
Most official New York City taxis, licensed by the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC), are yellow, with the rates printed on the door and a light with a medallion number on the roof. But those that operate primarily in the outer boroughs and upper Manhattan are apple-green and are governed by slightly different rules. Like yellow cabs, they’re hailable, but unlike the yellow ones they are not allowed to pick up passengers in Manhattan below West 110th Street or East 96th Street (though they are allowed to drop off passengers there).
The base fare on entering the cab is $2.50, plus a $2.50 congestion charge if you’re driving below 96th street in Manhattan, and .80 in state fees. The cost is 50 cents for every 1/5 mile and for every 60 seconds in stopped or slow-moving traffic (or for waiting time). There’s no extra charge for each passenger or for luggage. However, you must pay bridge or tunnel tolls. You’ll also pay a $1 surcharge between 4 and 8pm, and a 50 cent surcharge between 8pm and 6am. A 15% to 20% tip is customary. All taxis are now equipped with a device that allows you to pay by credit card.
Drivers are required by law to take you anywhere in the five boroughs, to Nassau or Westchester counties, and to the major airports. They are supposed to know how to get to any address in the city. They are also required to provide A/C and turn off the radio on demand. Smoking in the cab is not allowed.
You are allowed to dictate the route that is taken. It’s a good idea to look at a map before you get in a taxi. Taxi drivers have been known to jack up the fare on visitors who don’t know better by taking a circuitous route between points A and B. Don’t be afraid to speak up.
On the other hand, listen to drivers who propose an alternate route. These guys spend 8 or 10 hours a day on these streets, and they know where the worst traffic is, or where Con Ed has dug up an intersection that should be avoided.
Another important tip: Always make sure the meter is turned on at the start of the ride. You’ll see the red LED readout register the initial $2.50 and start calculating the fare as you go. I’ve seen unscrupulous drivers buzz visitors around the city with the meter off, then overcharge them at drop-off.
For all driver complaints, including the one above, and to report lost property, call tel. 311 (or 212/NEW-YORK [212/639-9675] outside the metro area).
Taxi-Hailing Tips: When you’re waiting on the street for an available taxi, look at the medallion light on the top of the coming cabs. If the light is out, the taxi is in use. When the center part (the number) is lit, the taxi is available—this is when you raise your hand to flag the cab. If all the lights are on, the driver is off-duty. Taxi regulations limit the number of people permitted to take a cab to four, so split up if your group is larger.
By Uber, Lyft & VIA
These three services have become so ubiquitous that the value of a taxi medallion (the official license necessary to own a yellow cab) plummeted from several hundred thousand dollars to well under half that amount in recent years. All three are accessible through apps one downloads to a smartphone. With Lyft and Uber, you key in your pick-up and drop-off locations and receive a price for the ride. They are often cheaper than a taxi, though when “surge pricing” takes effect, rates can increase threefold. The credit card that you register when you get the app is charged for the ride; no tipping necessary.
Via is a ride-sharing service. As with the other two, you input your desired pick-up and drop-off, but because you’ll be sharing the van with others, you may have to trek a few blocks to an appointed spot to catch the ride (and you may be dropped a few blocks from where you’re going). Because of this, few tourists are using Via (perhaps because they’re nervous about finding their way to and from the van), but boy is it affordable. Usually a segment will cost under $3 (it varies by neighborhood and length of ride). Note: Uber and Lyft also have ride-sharing features (though I’ve never been able to make them work; usually the waiting time is just too long). I only recommend using Uber or Lyft when they give you a wait time of 4 minutes or less. When the wait is longer, except in the most deserted areas of town, it will likely be more convenient to simply hail a taxi. Via might be worth the wait, as it will be significantly cheaper for long distances.
Believe it or not, New York is a great bicycling city. The city provides a number of designated bike routes and lanes, including some major protected bike lanes painted green, divided from traffic by parked cars, and with their own traffic signals.
And thanks to the Citibike system (http://citibikenyc.com) anyone can easily get around on two wheels. Following the successful examples set by cities like Paris, Montreal, and Washington D.C., the city’s program charges $12 a day ($24 for three days), with unlimited free trips that clock in at less than 30 minutes (beyond that, a half-hourly rate kicks in). The freestanding, solar-powered racks dot many streets across the five boroughs, each holding around a dozen sturdy bikes outfitted with lights and tough tires. It’s been a huge success.
For a current map of the ever-expanding city bike-lane network, visit www.nycbikemaps.com. Alas, helmets are not provided at these stands; it’s a smart idea to bring your own.
In recent years, new ferry services debuted to take passengers between Wall Street, East 34th Street in Manhattan, several stops off the FDR Drive and the Lower East Side, and a number of different parts of the Bronx, Brooklyn, Astoria, Queens, and Roosevelt Island. The cost is the same as the subway ($2.75) and for those traveling to the very edges of the city, this method of travel is convenient, and very scenic. To see the routes, go to www.ferry.nyc.
Forget driving yourself around the city. It’s not worth the headache. Traffic is horrendous, and parking even more problematic.
If you do arrive in New York City by car, park it in a garage (expect to pay at least $25–$55 per day) and leave it there for the duration of your stay. If you drive a rental car in, return it as soon as you arrive and rent another when you leave.
Just about all of the major car-rental companies have multiple Manhattan locations.
Frankly, Manhattan’s transportation systems are a marvel. It’s simply miraculous that so many people can gather on this little island and move around it. For the most part, you can get where you’re going pretty quickly and easily using some combination of subways, buses, and cabs; this section will tell you how to do just that. But between traffic gridlock and subway delays, sometimes you just can’t get there from here—unless you walk. Walking can sometimes be the fastest way to navigate the island. During rush hours, you’ll easily beat car traffic while on foot, as taxis and buses stop and groan at gridlocked corners (don’t even try going crosstown in a cab or bus in Midtown at midday). You’ll also see a lot more by walking than you will if you ride beneath the street in the subway or fly by in a cab. So pack your most comfortable shoes and hit the pavement—it’s the best, cheapest, and most appealing way to experience the city.
What’s the primary means New Yorkers use for getting around town? The subway? Buses? Taxis? Nope. Walking. They stride across wide, crowded pavements without any regard for traffic lights, weaving through crowds at high speeds, dodging taxis and buses whose drivers are forced to interrupt the normal flow of traffic to avoid flattening them. Never take your walking cues from the locals. Wait for walk signals and always use crosswalks—don’t cross in the middle of the block. Do otherwise and you could quickly end up as a flattened statistic (or at least get a ticket for jaywalking).
Always pay attention to the traffic flow. Walk as though you’re driving, staying to the right. Pay attention to what’s happening in the street, even if you have the right of way. At intersections, keep an eye out for drivers who don’t yield, turn without looking, or think a yellow traffic light means “Hurry up!” as you cross. Unfortunately, most bicyclists seem to think that the traffic laws don’t apply to them; they’ll often blithely fly through red lights and dash the wrong way on one-way streets, so be on your guard.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.