New York City wouldn't be the same without its subways—and not just because the City relies on the system in order to function. The 24 lines run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, underpinning the City both literally and figuratively. On an average weekday last year, NYC's subways transported well over 5 million people, making it the most trafficked public transit system in the Western world. The system is also one of the oldest and most complex on the planet, and the stories behind its construction and day-to-day operations are fascinating. In many ways, the subway is as iconic an NYC attraction as the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building, and just as famous. What other city's public works project can lay claim to inspiring a Jennifer Lopez album title, appearing in films as diverse as Midnight Cowboy and Crocodile Dundee and even having a fictional stop on Sesame Street?
In this feature we uncover some of what makes the New York City subway system so intriguing, looking at its history, secrets, peculiarities and lore. Ever wonder about the secret Beaux Arts station near City Hall? Curious about the connection between train fares and pizza prices? Interested in hearing how a night-train conductor sees NYC? Read on for more—and stand clear of the closing doors, please.
History of the Underground
As is the case with most of the City's grand public works, the story of the subway system is long, colorful and, in retrospect, sometimes quaint. The first attempt at an underground public conveyance came courtesy of inventor and Scientific American editor Alfred Ely Beach, whose Beach Pneumatic Transit Company built a prototype in 1870 that ran on lower Broadway in Manhattan between Murray and Warren Streets. (Beach sold 11,000 rides in its first two weeks of operation—not bad for an operation that ran for only a single city block.)
It wasn't until 1900 that the City began to get serious about the underground, though, opening its first line on October 27, 1904. The subway ran from City Hall to 145th Street in the Bronx and took about 36 minutes to make the trip, which, considering how long that trip takes today—about the same amount of time—is remarkable. Expansions to Brooklyn and Queens swiftly followed. Because of both the enormous costs and the level of expertise involved, City Hall contracted several private companies to handle the subway's operations, initially working with the IRT (Interborough Rapid Transit Company), which operated the now-defunct elevated trains in Manhattan, and the BRT (Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company), which became the BMT (Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation) in 1923.
In 1932 the City opened its own subway, the IND (Independent Subway System), along Eighth Avenue in Manhattan, which we now know as the A, C and E lines. The entire system was consolidated in 1940 under the auspices of the New York Transit Authority, which, in turn, was placed under the control of the state-operated MTA (Metropolitan Transit Authority) in 1968. That, by and large, leads us to today. For those interested in further exploring the warrens of the City's underground, including forgotten tunnels, decommissioned lines (the KK, anyone?) and abandoned stations, the New York Transit Museum is an excellent place to start. So is the subway itself, where remnants of the system's past, including BMT and IRT signage, can still be seen. —Jonathan Durbin
Any system as extensive and venerable as the New York City subway is bound to have a secret or two lurking within stations and below platforms. Beneath City Hall Park lies the hidden gem of the IRT past, the City Hall station. Designed in Beaux Arts style with arched ceilings covered in interlocking Guastavino tiles and decorative features like antique brass chandeliers, wrought-iron skylights and glass-tile City Hall signs, this station is architecturally unique and ornate. While City Hall station hasn't been used since 1945, lucky riders of the 6 train who don't get off at the Brooklyn Bridge stop can get a glimpse of the underground jewel as the train loops back northbound toward the Bronx. The Transit Museum offers official tours for members only.
Farther uptown, hidden beneath Track 24 in Grand Central Terminal, is Track 61, which was used in the 1930s when bigwigs looking for a private entrance to the Waldorf-Astoria were in town. Its most notable passenger, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, used it to hide his disability from the public. The platform was wide enough to fit FDR's armor-plated Pierce-Arrow limousine, which could be driven directly from the train to the interior of the Waldorf. The limousine is still housed inside the old train car today. Operation on the track stopped in 1945 when FDR died. Legend has it that Andy Warhol threw an underground party on the platform in 1965.
The three-story dark-red brownstone at 58 Joralemon Street in Brooklyn Heights doesn't house a local family–it's actually home to electrical equipment and serves as a ventilator, releasing exhaust from the tunnel system. This facade also leads to the world's oldest train tunnel, the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel, built in 1844, which at one time could be toured by visitors who were comfortable with descending into a manhole in the middle of the Atlantic Avenue/Court Street intersection. Unfortunately for us, the tours ended in 2010.
Back in Manhattan, the PATH rail system can bring you to New Jersey from 33rd Street, but on the way it stops at central hubs (23rd, 14th, 9th and Christopher Streets) throughout Manhattan. A second PATH line goes from the World Trade Center to Jersey City and Newark. The PATH fare is the same as the subway, $2.75 and you can use a Metrocard to ride, but not if you have an unlimited ride card.—Christina Parrella
Transit Museum and Nostalgia Train Rides
During your subway commute, through the routine stop and go, on and off, you may have wondered who built the very line and subway car you were traveling on. If you have, pay a visit to the New York Transit Museum, where you can unearth the subway system's vast 108-year history through programs, exhibitions and collections of transportation-related memorabilia like maps, drawings and photos. Interactive displays include exhibitions on construction, the history of the subway token and a gallery devoted to the bus and trolley system. A museum annex located in the Shuttle Passage at Grand Central Terminal also hosts rotating exhibitions.
During the holiday season, visitors can journey back to the early days of transportation service with a trip on a Nostalgia Train—we're talking as early as straw-woven seats and humming ceiling fans. Trains usually operate on the M line between Queens Plaza and Second Avenue stations. Interested riders can also hop on one of many vintage buses from the '50s, '60s and '70s that operate in the five boroughs today, for the same price as a ride on a modern-day model. For details, check out the MTA's website with annoucements in November and December. —CP
Smooth Operator: Behind the Controls of a Subway Train
“I go to work when most people are going to bed,” says a late-night New York City subway train operator who prefers to remain anonymous, “and come home when most are starting their day.” The subway system runs 24 hours a day—even on weekends and holidays—and he is among the men and women who make sure that, no matter what the time, New Yorkers can navigate their City.
The motorman understands how many people rely on him: “If I'm late, that means 3,000 other people will be late to City Hall or wherever they're going.” There's considerable pressure to be on time, no matter what challenges come along: different controls (“You're not driving the same vehicle every day. One day you're in a 1992 Golf and the next you're in a 2001 Jetta”), inclement weather, leaves on the track. Details are key: “If you don't go the right speed, you're throwing people out of their seats. You have to make your station stops accurately, otherwise you can't open the doors. People will fall into the tunnel,” he says with a laugh. All of these seemingly automatic parts of a subway ride depend on train operators.
There's a lot to keep track of, too. Operators must keep one hand on the controller constantly, or the “dead-man” feature—which has been needed only a few times, most recently in 2010—will automatically stop the train. And they must know their way around the world's largest public transit system. “You get these multimillion dollar trains in your hand. You're on your own and nobody's there to help you—just this little guy in the cab.”
While some might see the late shift as a burden, this train operator enjoys it. “Most 9-to-5 people rely on their weekends to get things done,” he explains, “and don't get to enjoy nice, sunny afternoons like I do.”—Jonathan Zeller
Of Pizza Slices and Subway Prices: The Pizza Principle
Only in New York, where the subway and thin, floppy pizza slices are iconic symbols of the City, could someone bake up the Pizza Principle. This “economic law,” first posited by Eric M. Bram in 1980, states that the price of a single slice of of untopped pizza “matched, with uncanny precision, the cost of a New York City Subway token.”
Although we no longer use tokens at the turnstiles, Bram's humorous observation has more or less held true in the era of the MetroCard—with some caveats. Though the official fare is $2.75 and roughly correlates to current average cost of a slice, discounted and unlimited fares offered by the MTA make the average fare harder to calculate. And there's the discount slice phenomenon, with the rise of dollar-pizza joints in recent years skewing the average. —Adam Kuban
The Longest Delay: Second Avenue Subway Construction
Next time you think you've been waiting too long for a train, consider the poor souls who began anticipating the Second Avenue subway way back in 1929. The project has had to wait in the face of issues ranging from the Great Depression to the City's economic crisis in the 1970s. Now, though, it looks to be on track. The first phase, with new stations from 63rd through 96th Streets, is scheduled to open in December 2016 and will carry passengers on a re-routed Q train. Tunneling, achieved with the help of a seriously cool 485-ton tunnel-boring machine that dug at an average depth of 70 feet, was finished in September 2011. At a future date to be determined, the line will stretch from 125th Street to Hanover Square and will be called the T train. The new route will ease considerable crowding on the Lexington Avenue (4, 5 and 6) line, which MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz says carries more passengers than Chicago's entire subway system. Ortiz is optimistic that, this time, they'll finish the job: “We've got a big hole right underneath Second Avenue, and there's no turning back now. It would probably cost more to refill it.”—JZ
For more information about the Second Avenue subway, visit mta.info.
Underground Hits: Music in the Subways
If you take the subway regularly, chances are you encounter your fair share of surprise concerts. You might catch someone playing a guitar, a violin, a keyboard or—in the case of Natalia Paruz, the “Saw Lady”—even, yes, a saw (one of her album titles is I Saw The Future), creating pleasant melodies between trains rumbling into the station. Paruz, who's been performing in the subways for around 17 years, says she loves meeting all kinds of men and women while she's playing—rich and poor, from all over the world—and “bringing music to where the people are” so they can hear it “even if they can't afford it or don't have time to go to a concert hall.” Artists are permitted to play in subway stations, with or without a permit, as long as they adhere to the rules posted on the MTA's website. Since 1985, Music Under New York—part of Arts for Transit—has formally organized performances throughout the system, to the tune of more than 350 artists at last count. As one might expect, they are a diverse group: MUNY performers have included the likes of indie rockers Freelance Whales, acoustic guitar–toting singer-songwriter Luke Ryan and costumed xylophone-based ensemble Xylopholks.—JZ
For more information about Music Under New York, visit mta.info.
Arts for Transit
There was a time when the City's subway system was a blank canvas for graffiti artists who filled walls and subway cars with tags over tags, over more tags. The mid-'80s ushered in a new wave of underground art, however, when mosaics, murals and sculptures became permanent artwork under Arts for Transit. The program was implemented to enhance and promote art in subway stations and to reflect the stations' surrounding neighborhoods and features. Throughout NYC, art in the form of grand mosaic images, stained glass, light-box presentations, posters and poetry creates a colorful underground landscape.
Milton Glaser, the graphic designer behind the I Heart NY logo, created geometric porcelain panels at the Astor Place 6 train station and Roy Lichtenstein's Times Square Mural is a testament to NYC's fast paced energy.
Other permanent pieces include Tom Otterness' Life Underground, featuring cartoonlike bronze sculptures throughout the 14th Street subway station that depict intriguing scenes of City and subway life; Vito Acconci's Wavewall, a wavelike installation at the Q train's West 8th Street stop, which suggests the motion of the neighboring Cyclone roller coaster; and Bill Brand's Masstransiscope, a mass-transit version of a zoetrope, which creates a series of bright and psychedelic images, colors and shapes as the train moves past.
Poetic words whirl throughout the subway in car cards showcasing poems and artwork from featured writers Dorothea Tanning, Jeffery Yang, Kevin Young and Aracelis Girmay. The program, Poetry in Motion, displays eight poems per year.—CP
The High Line, a park that was once the site of elevated train tracks, is one of New York City's newest public-space success stories. And way down on the Lower East Side deep beneath Delancey Street lies an abandoned subway station prepping for its very own face-lift. The Lowline, a proposed two-acre underground park, would be the first of its kind in the nation. Organizers hope to turn the defunct Williamsburg Trolley Terminal below the base of the Williamsburg Bridge into a green space complete with trees, shrubs, a water element and even sunlight from above. What remains of its past, however, would not go entirely dark, as the park would retain such characteristics as crisscrossing tracks, original cobblestones and domed ceilings. After winning the approval of Manhattan Community Board No. 3, things are moving along in the deveopment of the park. Currently, the Low Line Lab on the LES is open to the public through March 2016 showing how the technology to bring light into the space will work. Find out more at thelowline.org.—CP
The easiest and quickest way to travel around NYC is by the public subway system. Riding the subway is also a fantastic way to feel like a local during your stay in New York.
• For $2.75 (the cost of a single ride), you can use the system citywide and transfer as many times as you need, as long as you don't exit the system through a turnstile. Also, there is a one-time fee of $1 to buy a Metrocard.
• Subway trains operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
• You can transfer from bus to subway or vice versa within two hours and ten minutes of using your MetroCard. (The free transfer does not apply if you leave a subway station through a turnstile and want to get on another subway line.)
• Subway stations on the same line are generally about eight to 10 blocks apart.
• The subway does not travel to Staten Island. To get there, board the free Staten Island Ferry or take a bus.
You can get a free subway map from booth attendants or at any Official NYC Information Center, or download one from our Maps & Guides section. You can also visit tripplanner.mta.info for a customized route (but it's still a good idea to carry a subway map when you're out and about).
Subway lines sometimes change routes or temporarily stop running—especially late at night and on weekends. Look for bulletins posted in stations and check for up-to-date MTA service information at mta.info and on the MTA's Weekender map or by calling 718-330-1234.
Alternatively, you might want to download a smartphone app to help you navigate, such as iTransNYC (iPhone, iPad, iPodTouch) or Google Maps (Android), both of which include real-time service alerts.—Staff
Crosstown Traffic: In Manhattan, most subway lines run north and south along the avenues, and there are only three lines—the 7, the L and the S (shuttle)—that travel crosstown (east and west). This makes it more efficient in some cases to walk or take a bus or taxi if you're looking to get from the east side to the west side or vice versa.
Final Destination: Before you head into a station, consult the subway map for the line you're taking and note the name of the final stop in your direction of travel—and in which borough it's located. The signs on a train (and often in the stations) reference these terminals.
Making an Entrance: Some entrances to the subway only allow access to travel in one direction (uptown or downtown, for instance). Always know your direction of travel, and pay particular attention to the subway signs on the stairwells.
Making an Exit: If you really want to travel like a local, try “prewalking.” Veteran straphangers know just where to stand on their originating platform so they can leave the train car as close to the station exit as possible at their destination platform. There's even a smartphone app called Exit Strategy that helps travelers plan where to stand.
You are Here: Stations have subway system maps as well as more-detailed neighborhood maps (with bus local routes) just outside the turnstiles, so you can check your route before and after your subway trip.
One Rider, One Seat: Even if a car is empty when you enter, it can fill up quickly. Be courteous and keep your bags or luggage on your lap or the train floor. Additionally, don't place your feet on the seats. Transit police make occasional sweeps and have been known to ticket transgressors.
MetroCard Discounts: The cost of a SingleRide ticket (sold in station vending machines) is $2.75. But discounts are available for purchasing multiple rides or, better yet, a 7-Day Unlimited MetroCard, which gives you unlimited rides—if you know you'll be visiting for a week.—Staff