One of the things that intrigues outsiders most about life in the Big Apple is the subway. Mostly influenced by TV and movie lore mingled with a dash of truth from the pre-Giuliani days, the popular perception of the subway is a graffiti-drowned wreck of metal junk-boxes on rotting rails in which riders risk life and limb dodging crowbars, flying bullets, and jutting knives while crawling over drugged out hookers and passed out winos. While the subway system
could use some sprucing, it is nothing like the hell-on-tracks perception held by many non-New Yorkers: riding the subway is my favorite mode of transportation in the City.
Above everything else, I love the way the subway serves as a great social equalizer. I’ve ridden on the subway with millionaires sitting next to homeless people. I’ve ridden the subway with doctors, lawyers, and hedge fund managers, and have sat between migrant workers and down-on-their-luck immigrants from every continent. Everyone sits on the same seats, hears the same station announcements, feels the same bumps, walks through the same doors. Riding the 4 train downtown from the Bronx, at Harlem-125th Street a 20 year old single mother with 3 screaming kids wearing ragged, stained sweat pants pushes her way onto the crowded car using her stroller as a plow, followed by a
battalion of Armani suit-clad business men swarming onto the same train just one stop later at 86th Street in the Upper East Side. Many people prefer the bus, taxi, or even their own car, but every type of person rides the New York subway; a single ride provides a veritable microcosm of humanity.
The subway also carries a certain rustic charm that is matched by no other city. I would like to see the cars upgraded and improved (a work in progress – about half the trains have been upgraded to date), and the maintenance at the stations could be much better. Even so, I like the tangible realness of the New York subway. The stations aren’t scrubbed and sanitized to the point of sterility the way they are in the Washington, D.C. Metro or MARTA in Atlanta. The subway looks more or less the way it did when the last line was
completed in the 1940s – the intricate, sometimes elaborate, station mosaics are still in tact, the thick steel beams with peeling paint stand as they did then. The stations are small and sometimes cramped without air conditioning or heat. Cars and buses rumble overhead, and waterfalls pour from the streets above after a rain shower or snowstorm. The lighting is dim and the echoing noise cacophonous, providing a cavernous feel to the small stations. The subway stations are not nice, nor are they pretty: they are practical, unpolished, and authentic.
Practically speaking, the subway is a safe, effective means of travel within New York City proper. The subway’s operating company, the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), sets the standard for corruption and inefficiency, but they also maintain the world’s 3rd busiest subway in the only system that never closes. The stations are located conveniently and in sensible places, even in the outer boroughs – a station is always within a few blocks of the desired final destination.
The trains are generally fast and on time – much faster than riding a bus, and often faster than a cab ride, especially traveling Uptown or Downtown. And the subway is indeed safe. With graffiti-proof coating and the frequent presence of cops on board, I’ve ridden the subway alone at all hours in all boroughs and never felt the least bit uncomfortable. Considering they never close and carry 3.6 million people every day (1.35 billion every year), the subway is remarkably safe and effective.
Part of its practicality comes at the expense of ease of use for tourists. Unlike the very basic, color-coded lines of the London Underground and Paris Metro, the New York subway is confusing to the savviest out of town guests. The subway was designed for locals and makes perfect sense considering the most common commuting routes. But it can be a difficult maze to navigate for tourists, with Express and Local trains easily confused: it’s not uncommon for tourists to find themselves in the heart of Spanish Harlem when they’re trying to get off at Grand Central Station. With its own colloquial lingo, it’s not always clear which train is the appropriate one to take, frustrating many inexperienced riders. In my mind its user unfriendliness is part of the charm.
So riding the subway is an enjoyable aspect of Manhattan living. Hopping on and off the subway is an efficient, often enlightening means of transportation. I love seeing the first glimmer of light on the rails far down the tunnel as the train approaches – all true New Yorkers crane their necks to look down the tunnel for the first sign of a coming train – we all know that makes it arrive faster. I savor the rush of wind that swirls through the station, pushed along by a speeding train. Once on board, the familiarity of the recorded PA system is almost soothing: “Stand clear of the closing doors please.” And we’re off to our destination: the place may be the same, but it’s always a new adventure getting there.