Is it really a trip to a new destination if you don't spend a couple of hours hopping on and off the city's public transport? There's something distinctly charming about discovering a city you haven't been to before via its public transport. Walking around the city to locate a subway station or bus stand, asking locals for help, and even indulging in some frantic, last-minute research to identify the best route, the entire experience adds to the appeal of traveling in public transport. When you are in a massive and extremely well-planned and developed city like New York City, taking public transport is a no brainer. You can pretty much get anywhere in the city via public transport and save a lot of time and money in the process. Although, if we're being honest, New York City's public transport is pretty complex. Here's all you need to ace New York's Public transport network - the different modes, hacks on when to use what and a lot more to travel around NYC like a true New - Yorker!
New York Public Transportation - The Basics
New York City constitutes five administrative divisions, commonly referred to as boroughs - Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens and Staten Island. While these boroughs are separated by land and water, NYC's well-developed transport system ensures that you reach any corner of the city without much trouble. There are countless ways to travel in the city, from bus and subway to commuter rail and even ferry. The city 27 subway lines (that go to 472 stations) and 5,725 buses, both combined giving you access to every nook around the five boroughs. Given that New York is the most populous city in the world, you would be wondering if the city's transport system is equipped to deal with all that crowd on a regular basis. Well, the short answer is yes.
NYC features not only the largest subway network in the world but also the world's first mechanically ventilated vehicular tunnel. While there are many transport authorities responsible for specific modes of transport, like NJ Transit, PATH, Bombardier, and AECOM, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) is the primary one, handling two out of the three rapid transit systems, most of the buses, and two thirds of its commuter rail networks. Here's a handy list of transport options you can avail in NYC:
- Commuter Rail
- Aerial Tram
- Hop-on Hop-Off Bus
- Citi Bike
Getting To New York City From The Airport
There are three airports in New York City - John F Kennedy International Airport, LaGuardia Airport, and Newark Liberty International Airport. Here's how you can reach Manhattan from each of these airports:
John F Kennedy International Airport
Located around 16 miles away from Manhattan, JFK International Airport is the biggest in the city. The fastest way to get to Manhattan from the airport would be by hailing a taxi from any of the taxi stands outside each terminal. While hiring a taxi cab is the quickest way to get to the city, it's also the most expensive. If you're looking for the cheapest way to Manhattan, a combination of AirTrain and subway would be the perfect choice. However, this is time consuming and if you're short on time, we would suggest taking a cab.
Another option would be taking a bus all the way to Brooklyn and taking the subway to Manhattan from here. This again could be time consuming, but you won't regret having spent a bomb the minute landed in NYC!
Just 8 miles from Manhattan, LaGuardia Airport is the closest airport to midtown Manhattan. While there are very few international flights that land here, it's still a relatively busy airport. The best way to reach Manhattan from LaGuardia Airport is by taking the airport buses to the closest subway station. There are two buses, Q70 and M60, both of which begin from the airport and will drop you at the Jackson Heights Roosevelt Ave subway station and Harlem in Upper Manhattan, respectively.
Newark Liberty International Airport
Located around 17 miles away, Newark Liberty Airport lies farthest from Manhattan. If you're visiting NYC for the first time, opting for a taxi cab is the easiest option. You'll have to shell out anywhere between $50 to $75 depending on your destination in Manhattan. If you're looking for a cheaper alternative, there's the NYC Airport Shuttle service and the express bus service available at the airport. If you're short on time, opt for a combination of AirTrain and New Jersey transit train to reach your destination fastest.
Pro tip : If you're planning to take the bus from any of the airports, make sure you have quarters (coins) handy as the buses do not accept dollar bills.
NYC Public Transportation Deconstructed
With 472 stations, the New York Subway is by far the biggest subway network in the world and can best be described as the backbone of NYC's public transport system. Operated by the New York Transit Authority, a subsidiary of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), the NYC subway opened in 1904. Most routes of the subway are operational 24 hours a day all year round making it the most convenient option for people looking to explore the city without time limitations.
Since the MTA also operates the Staten Island Railway and MTA Bus, you can get a free transfer to and from the subway. Your MetroCard will also be accepted at PATH in Manhattan and New Jersey and the AirTrain JFK in Queens but transfers aren't free. The Roosevelt Island Tram, on the other hand, does allow free transfers to the MTA and bus systems.
Complex, yet so good!
To say that the NYC subway system is complex would honestly be an understatement. There are 27 train services in the network including three short shuttles. Each of these 27 routes has a unique color and a local designation representing the Manhattan trunk line of the route.
In a nutshell, this is what you must know. The 1, C, G, L, M, R, and W trains are fully local and make all stops while the 2, 3, 4, 5, A, B, D, E, F, N, and Q trains are partly made of express and local services. J, Z, 6, and 7 trains vary by day or time of day. The letter S is used for three shuttle services: Franklin Avenue Shuttle, Rockaway Park Shuttle, and 42nd Street Shuttle. With the NYC subway, you need to be aware of which station is closest to your destination and then figure out the easiest route to get there from your current location.
The best way to go about the NYC subway transit is to download the New York Subway MTA Map or simply feed your location and destination on Google Maps and choose the train route. The best part about using the app and maps is the live updates you'll have on closures and alternate routes which you may miss out on using a physical map/guide.
Under the MTA Regional Bus Operations, there are over 5710 buses currently plying in the city. These buses run 24/7 on around 238 local routes, 62 express routes, and 7 Select Bus service routes. MTA operates around 80% of the total buses and there are clean-air diesel hybrid bus fleet and compressed natural gas bus fleet in the city as well. Here's a helpful look at how the buses are labeled:
- Local buses are labeled with numbers and a prefix which identifies the five boroughs of New York City, including B for Brooklyn, S for Staten Island, Bx for the Bronx, Q for Queens, and M for Manhattan.
- Express bus routes operated by the MTA New York City Bus use the letter X while the express bus routes handled by MTA Bus use a two-letter system with an M at the end of each initial letter for the boroughs, for instance, BM, QM, BxM, or SIM.
To further assist travelers with seamless transport, MTA provides exact bus arrival time using QR codes located at each stop. Arrival times are also indicated in certain bus through digital panels.
Private bus companies Hampton Luxury Liner and Hampton Jitney run daily, year-round service from locations on the east side of Manhattan to the villages and towns of Long Island's east end. Hampton Jitney also runs a limited service to and from Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn.
Featuring over 259 stations and 20 rail lines, NYC's commuter rail network is the biggest in the United States and serves upwards of 150 million patrons annually. There are two primary operators for commuter rain in the suburbs, the MTA and the New Jersey Transit. While the MTA operates the Long Island Rail Road on Long Island and the Metro-North Railroad in the Hudson Valley and Connecticut, New Jersey Transit is in charge of handling the rail network west of the Hudson River. Both these rail systems meet at two train stations, Penn Station and Grand Station, making them the two busiest stations in the US.
There are additional connections available to neighboring commuter rail systems including the Southeast Pennsylvania's SEPTA in Trenton, New Jersey and Southeast Connecticut's Shore Line East in New Haven. To improve connectivity with northeast Pennsylvania, service is being considered as far as Scranton in Pennsylvania.
Tickets for Commuter Rail
Like everywhere else in the world, you can get individual journey tickets for any station in the commuter rail network at any train station. An e-ticketing app, eTix is also available for users to wish to buy tickets on their phone. Routes available in the app include Metro-North Railroad or Long Island Rail Road. Please note that fares will vary depending on the route you take.
PATH (Port Authority Trans-Hudson)
One of the primary rapid transit systems in the city, the Port Authority Trans-Hudson (PATH) connects Manhattan to Newark, New Jersey, Hoboken, Jersey City, and Harrison. Featuring four lines, the PATH transit is considered the primary transit link between Manhattan and New Jersey and carries around 24,000 passengers every day. Since PATH is a separate entity from MTA, there are no free transfers to subway stations in New York City, even though some OATH stations are right adjacent to subway stations in the city.
The PATH transit system is spread over13.8 miles (22.2 km) of route mileage, not including track overlap. To make travel in the city more convenient for you, PATH operates 24 hours a day. Opened in 1908 as the Hudson and Manhattan Railroad, a privately owned corporation, PATH since 1962 has been operated by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
Why use PATH?
While the NYC subway is generally considered the more feasible transport option for travel within the city, the PATH rapid transport network is perfect for those times when you want to travel to neighboring cities and wish to take a means of transport which is efficient and reasonably priced.
New York Ferry
New York is surrounded by a lot of water and there are channels of water that run through the city, allowing for waterways to be considered a serious mode of transportation in the city. Some of the popular ways that boats are used as public transport are the NYC Ferry and Staten Island Ferry. A new addition to the city's public transport system, the NYC Ferry was launched in 2017 and offers four lines, with two more lines in the pipeline. The NYC Ferry has 21 terminals and 23 boats in operation which connect Manhattan with Brooklyn and Queens.
There are also seasonal excursions available to the Yankee Stadium and Gateway National Recreation Area beaches. You can also head to Ellis Island and Liberty Island using the State Island Ferry. For tourists looking to explore Upper New York Bay or Manhattan, there are Circle Line Downtown and Circle Line Sightseeing routes available as well. The Ferry services are a popular means of transport in the city and you can explore the beautiful waters of the city.
A pedicab, also known as a rickshaw, is a manually driver, open carriage-type vehicle that will take you on a fun journey in and around a specific area of New York. Usually seen around popular tourist areas like Central Park and Times Square, a pedicab is perfect when you have a lot of time in hand and want to go on a leisurely trip across the city. Only recommended for short distance sightseeing tours, a pedicab is a great, unique way to explore the city.
There are a lot of pedicab tours available in all the popular attractions in the city and each tour ranges from 1 to 4 hours. A single pedicab can fit 2-3 people and given the leisurely speed, allows for plenty of photo opportunities! While you can't really rely on a pedicab if you're short on time and wish to cover a long distance, taking some time off to relax on the back of this cute vehicle is a great option!
You would have seen the now iconic yellow taxi cab in countless movies and TV shows set in New York. The taxi cab here is just as important a part of New York as the Empire State Building and you can make your trip even more memorable by hailing on a NYC taxi, even if it's for a short ride. Outside of the whole experience of hailing a cab, the taxi is in reality a great way to travel in the city.
A little something about the NYC Taxis
NYC has a massive fleet of taxis, with the number touching the 13000 mark! These cabs make an estimated 175 million trips annually, a clear indication of just how popular this mode of transport is. The base fare for the taxi cab is $2.50 and it increases by $0.40 every half mile. When you're looking to hail a taxi cab, stand at the edge of the curb stick your hand out in the air and try and make eye contact with the driver. If you want a smoother process, just shoot a loud whistle to grab the nearest cab driver's attention. It goes without saying that taking a taxi cab in New York is more about the experience than anything else but if you're traveling a short distance, a cab works out to be the better option.
If you're unable to find a yellow taxi in the city, there are many reliable, app-based ride sharing services, like Uber and Lyft.
Roosevelt Island Aerial Tramway
At this point, it's pretty evident that there's no dearth of feasible transport options in New York. Next up on our list is something a little unique. We're referring to the Roosevelt Island Tramway. This aerial tram connects Roosevelt Island with the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The NYC aerial tram has been operational since 1976, the first aerial tram in the USA. Build with the intention of connecting Roosevelt Island with Manhattan, the aerial tram is a great way to explore New York from a good height and get mesmerising views of the city skyline.
Using the Roosevelt Island Tramway
Although the Roosevelt Island Tramway is not operated by the MTA, you'll still need a MetroCard to access the tram. A single person can board the tram at the cost of $2.75, which is the same cost as a subway or bus ride. If you're annoyed at the prospect of having to get a MetroCard for the aerial tram ride, know that you can transfer from the tram to a subway or bus service without paying any additional. This is because the tram is linked to the MetroCard system. Comprising of two capsules that run back and forth, parallel to each other, the aerial tram is a great way for tourists to get around the city. The tram is operated by LPOA (Leitner-Poma of America), who represents the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation of the State of New York, a state public benefit corporation created in 1984 to run services on the island.
Hop-on Hop-Off Buses
A fabulous way for tourists to discover all the magic and wonder of New York, the Hop-on Hop-off bus service is the perfect way to get the proper tourist experience in the city. If you're the kind of traveler who doesn't want to decide on transport and make plans of seeing specific attractions in the city and wish to embark on a pre-planned journey which focuses on only the most popular destinations and provides information about them, a Hop-on Hop-off tour is the way to go.
Why take a Hop-on Hop-off Bus?
Featuring open-top buses which follow routes around the city that stop at all the iconic landmarks you need to see, a Hop-on Hop-off tour allows you to get off or on the bus as often as you like! You heard that right. You can leave the bus at any specific point and continue your sightseeing journey either on your own or continue the tour with a different Hop-on Hop-off bus. A great option to explore the city when you're short on time and don't want to figure out the complicated transport system, a Hop-on Hop-off tour also comes with an audio guide commentary which keeps you well informed about each attraction that you visit. Available for different routes and parts of the city, these Hop-on Hop-off tours are a pretty great way to see New York City.
The last transport option we have for you isn't really a means of "public transport" in the traditional sense. A relatively recent phenomenon, bike hire programs allow you access to a wide network of bikes placed all around the city. The great thing about these programs is that can pick up and drop off the bike at various points in the city and don't have to keep hauling the bike with you even after you're done riding it.
How Citibike works?
New York's very own bike rental program, Citi Bike is available for $12 for a day and $24 for three days. The program is open to tourists and locals alike and the passes can either be purchased through the official Citi Bike mobile app or at a station kiosk. People looking to rent a Citi Bike need to be 16 years or older. Please note that a citibike pass can be purchased with a debit or credit card only and cash is not accepted. For residents and folks planning on staying in the city for a long duration, there are annual memberships available as well. You can sign up for an annual membership on the official website.
An important thing to remember here is that once you buy a one or three day pass, you can only use the bike for 30 minutes at a stretch. Post 30 minutes, an extra fee will be levied so avoid paying this fee by dropping off the bike and picking up a new one before 30 minutes pass. If you opt for annual membership, you get to ride the bike without interruption for 45 minutes. This system is to keep the cycles within the city limits and negate chances of theft.
Best Way To Get Around New York City
If you're wondering what's the best way to get around NYC, well there's no clear answer to that question. To take a bite of the Big Apple, people come with their own expectations, hopes and how you travel within the city is reflective of that. If you're looking to familiarize yourself with New York City and discover it like a true local, you should opt for buses and subway over cabs. If you're looking to hit up all the prime touristy attractions, a Hop On Hop Off pass can come handy. If you have a lot of time in hand and don't mind the physical activity, you can walk around the city or hop on a Citibike as well. As you can see, there's something for every type of traveler in the city, you just need to find what works best for you!
The Best NYC Transport Passes
Given just how expansive (and expensive) both the city of New York and its transport options are, you'll end up spending a considerable amount of money on just moving around the city. To avoid that, here are two handy transport passes to you can use:
New York Explorer Pass
The NYC Explorer Pass is truly created keeping the convenience of tourists in mind. Pick from 3, 4, 5, 7 and 10 attractions from an exhaustive list of 82 landmarks in the city and get upto 50% off on entrance tickets. On top of getting free access to your selected attractions, you also get a ton of shopping, entertainment and dining discounts as well.
The NYC Explorer Pass is valid for 30 days, giving you plenty of time to get acquainted with the city at your own pace. To make the entire process even more convenient for you, the pass comes with an online guide and a printable PDF which includes useful information about the attractions as well as maps of the city.
New York Unlimited Attraction Pass
If you don't want to be limited in your quest to explore everything NYC has to offer, the New Year Unlimited Attractions Pass is perfect for you. Get free, one-time access to upwards of 100 attractions in NYC including the American Museum of Natural History, the Empire State Building and many, many more.
The pass can be used up to visit the attractions for either a day or 2,3,5, and 7. The Unlimited Attractions pass also comes with a downloadable guide that contains useful information like subway map, city map, contact information, travel tips and even attractions information.
Top 5 New York Public Transportation Apps
When we say that NYC's public transport system is a complex maze that will take some getting used to, we're not kidding. To help you navigate the city and its transport like a pro, here are some handy apps you must download before you arrive. Here are some apps you should consider downloading on your phone, in case things get messy!
- Exit Strategy: It takes a couple of tries to fully understand what exactly goes on in the NYC subway system. Exit strategy functions on a singular goal; keeping impatient New Yorkers moving through the subway with tips on where to stand on the platform and which train to board.
- Waze: If you're planning on renting a car and driving around the city, Waze is the app for you. The app crowdsources live data about the city's traffic conditions, including heavy traffic, accidents, and police activity and helps you champion NYC slightly crazy traffic.
- City Mapper: An app that literally tells you all the ways you can get to a destination, complete with station and mode changes is the perfect way for tourists to explore the city without asking around too much for help. The great thing about this app is that it also lists non-MTA transport options as well.
- Transit App: Oftentimes, the wait between two modes of transport can get really frustrating. For instance, you have just stepped out of the subway and are waiting for a bus but it's nowhere to be found! Enter your new best friend, the Transit App. The app will update you of all the transit options close to you and their time of arrival.
- Mapway Subway Map: Get an updated version of the New York City subway network map on your phone with the Mapway app. The days of carrying a giant physical map and struggling to make sense of it are long gone! What makes this particular subway map app better than the others is that it also works offline.
Tips & Hacks For Getting Around NYC
- Getting a hang of New York's public transport system can seem overwhelming in the beginning and it's quite easy to just give up and take a cab. That really isn't the best idea since cabs are generally quite expensive and don't give you the local travel experience that other modes of public transport do. If you're in a hurry and are unable to make head or tail of the transport system, reach out to a local for help or download any of the apps listed above.
- If mastered, the subway can be your new best friend in the city. The underground train network is officially the world's largest and connects to literally every part of NYC. Make good use of this connectivity and the subway's affordability and make your time in New York extra special.
- If you have some time to kill or are generally interested in walking, you can opt for a walking tour of the city. There are walking tours available in both categories, paid and free and you can pick either depending on your interest level of the route offered. A walking tour is also a great way to explore the city minutely and like a true blue local.
- Opt for a combo travel pass to save on transport costs. These combo passes are generally accepted at all modes of transport and give you the freedom of choosing the mode of transportation of your choice without worrying about buying tickets separately for it.
- Another fun way to get around the city is the ferry service which takes commuters and visitors to Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, & Bronx. The ferries are fun to ride because they offer incredible views and refreshments on board (even local wine and beer!) During warmer seasons you can sit on the outer decks and enjoy the sunshine.
- The plague of peak hour traffic strikes NYC's public transport system as well. On weekdays, 8:00 am to 9:30 am and 4:30 pm to 6:30 pm witnesses incredibly crowded streets and jam packed buses and trains. If you're out and about for sightseeing, avoid planning your trip around these hours.
- If you're looking to witness New York City in all its glory, there are certain subway trains that offer glorious views of Manhattan. Take the J, M or Z line over the Williamsburg Bridge or the B, D, N or Q line over the Manhattan Bridge for great views of Manhattan.
- There are a lot of subway stations situated in close proximity to each other. Be aware of the stations situated around you since by walking a short distance you can reach a faster or more direct subway line. Keep a subway map handy to know which stations are around.
- If a subway car is empty, understand that it is empty for a reason. There's probably something foul in there, or the AC has perhaps conked off. Always get into subway car that has atleast 5 to 10 people in it. It's much safer too.
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