The Transit Tourist: New York City, N.Y.

The Transit Tourist takes a look at other transit systems across the globe from the first person perspective of a visitor. What can Metro learn from how these other systems treat the uninitiated – and often bumbling – tourist?

I’ve had the opportunity to travel to New York City a number of times. It helps, after all, to have a brother in Brooklyn with a spare couch. But my latest trip eastwards was different for a couple reasons: 1) It was my first trip to the Big Apple since I became a transportation writer, and 2) I had yet to see a lot of the ground-level changes to the city’s transportation system, namely all the new bike lanes, bus lanes and pedestrian plazas.

So many lines! Click through for a high def PDF.

The subway? It was pretty much the same one I rode during my last trip in 2009, but it was interesting to see how it works in a new, more critical light — that of a transportation planner-in-training.

Frankly, entire books have been written about public transit in New York; there’s a lot to say about a transit system that carries a full third of all the transit trips in the U.S. So I won’t try to cover that territory. Rather, I’ll try to hone in on how the system works in comparison to public transit in L.A. County as it is today and as it will be in the near future.

Last year, Fred Camino inaugurated The Transit Tourist series with an excellent post about his trip to London. To refresh, here are his thoughts on why the tourist perspective of another city’s transit system can be a valuable one for readers of The Source:

The tourist experience on transit is a unique but important one. Tourists generally have different needs than the daily commuter, but my feeling is that when a tourist’s needs are met a transit system is doing a good job at two things: providing an easy to use system that also serves many destinations. In other words, if a system works for an outsider, it’s probably going to work for local residents as well.

So without further ado, here are my thoughts on transit in New York City using Fred’s categories.

Next stop for The Transit Tourist – New York City

New York, N.Y.
Population: 8,175,000 Transit Agency: New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority Miles of Rail Track: 659
Density: 27,532/sq. mi. Rail Lines: 24 Bus Routes: 217
Area: 304.8 sq. mile Rail Stations: 468 Budget: $8.6 billion
Source: US Census and

Airport Connection

Two of the three major airports serving the New York area can be reached by train plus a people mover; the other airport, LaGuardia, is served by several bus lines.

My flight to New York arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport after 1 a.m. Typically, traveling into the city is not a problem even at that time, because most of the New York transit system runs 24 hours a day. There was a hitch, however: The AirTrain people mover that connects the airport terminals to the train system was shut down overnight for scheduled maintenance. Thankfully, a friend generously offered to pick me up in his car. Even in New York, sometimes you have to rely on a friend for a ride.

On my flight home, everything ran smoothly and as expected. The train ride from Brooklyn involved a trip on the L Train, a free transfer to the A Train and a hop onto the AirTrain people-mover. The whole trip took about 1 hour and 15 minutes, door-to-terminal, and cost $2.25 for the L and A trains and another $5 for the AirTrain. The most challenging part was the L-to-A transfer, which involved a bit of a hike — tricky with a suitcase — and a 10-minute wait on a sweltering platform. If you’re traveling to JFK from Manhattan, you can take the A train all the way. For comparison, a cab ride between JFK and Manhattan costs $45 or more.

Overall, my city-to-airport trip was pretty typical for the city as a whole — you can expect to take at least an hour to get to JFK from Manhattan or places near transit in the other New York boroughs.

For reference, a trip from the 7th Street/Metro Center Station to LAX is about the same distance as my brother’s Brooklyn couch to JFK. In Los Angeles, the trip from downtown L.A. to Aviation Station would take about 45 minutes on the Blue Line and Green Line. Even adding another 30 minutes for the free shuttle would get you to the airport in the same amount of time, covering roughly the same 15 miles for only $3. I’ll be the first to admit that transit to LAX isn’t ideal — although it’s better than it gets credit for. The coming Expo LineCrenshaw/LAX Light Rail line and the LAX transit connection currently being studied should give more Angelenos fast and easy transit access to LAX. For many L.A. area neighborhoods, a bus such as the FlyAway may be the best option for the foreseeable future; the FlyAway bus from Union Station to LAX can take as little as 30 minutes when traffic is light.


Like many transit agencies across the country, New York’s MTA has had to raise fares recently to make up for recession-endued budget problems. Today, $2.25 will get you a trip on any city train or bus with “an automatic free transfer between subway and bus, or between buses,” when you use an automated MetroCard.

Transit riders can obtain MetroCards for free and add value to MetroCards at ticket vending machine. Another perk: riders get an extra $.70 bonus for every $10 added. Unlimited weekly and monthly passes cost $29 and $104 respectively in New York City, compared to L.A. County Metro’s, which cost $20 and $75 respectively.

That said, it’s difficult to make a useful apples-to-apples comparison on fares. L.A. County Metro’s are cheaper for a single ride, but there are no free transfers. To add another layer of complexity to the comparison, Angelenos have the option of buying an $84 monthly EZ Transit Pass that works on 24 different transit operators in the greater L.A. area. For reference, I spent about $50 on fares over the ten days I was in New York.

Rail System

Frankly, there’s not a whole lot I can say about New York’s rail system that hasn’t already been said. It offers frequent service, 24-7, on lines and stations that blanket most of the city’s core. The trains are themselves mostly up-to-date, comfortable and — importantly in August — air conditioned. The one thing, however, that struck me on this visit is how much the system is showing its age.

In lower Manhattan, only a fraction of stations -- those above -- are fully accessible to New Yorkers with disabilities.

I’m willing to overlook the dinginess and powerful smells of New York’s subway stations, in part because the wait times are typically pretty short. But I was surprised and dismayed to see how inaccessible the majority of stations are to individuals with limited mobility, i.e. the elderly and people with physical disabilities.

Most of the system’s construction predates 1990’s landmark law the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires all new public facilities to be accessible to disabled individuals. Consequently, only 50-some subway stations in New York have elevators. This map [PDF] from Just Urbanism shows how limited the system is if you aren’t able to spring up flights of stairs.

By contrast, the Metro Rail system is completely accessible to people using wheelchairs — every station has either a ramp or elevator to reach the station platform.

Another thing worth noting is that New York is still in the early process of adopting real-time arrival displays and automated station announcements. Both worked great where they were already in place.

Bus System

Confession time: I didn’t ride a bus while in New York. I certainly didn’t try to avoid riding buses. At home I’m a frequent bus patron and try to nudge my friends to do the same — but I didn’t get around to it in New York because the rail system was particularly convenient where I was staying.

That said, there are a few noteworthy developments and observations. First, you can’t mention New York buses without noting that they carry more trips per day — 2.7 million — than any other entire transit system in the U.S. The system offers a variety of service levels, including local, limited stop and express service. But overall, speed and reliability remain issues: Thanks to the city’s gridlock, some lines average only four-to-five miles per hour — “barely faster than the average pedestrian” the New York, the MTA acknowledges.

"Now arriving: A Manhattan-bound L train."

But this progressive transportation city isn’t sitting on its hands. New York MTA has begun rolling out “Select Bus Service” lines. So far there’s one in Manhattan and one in the Bronx. Angelenos would probably recognize this type of bus rapid transit service as something like a cross between the Wilshire Rapid and Orange Line. SBS runs on city streets, but has its own lanes and off-board fare collection, i.e. you buy your ticket before getting on. Joel Epstein has a good breakdown on how they’ve panned out.

With respect to the city’s bus fleet, on the whole it looked more dated than L.A. County Metro’s, with more high-floor buses and more diesel buses still in service. New York’s bus fleet is roughly twice the size as Metro’s, so I imagine it’s just taking more time to switch over to cleaner-burning natural gas and hybrid buses.

Customer Service

While Fred had a particularly positive experience in this regard in London, I can’t say I had much interaction with customer service. The busier stations tended to have station attendants on hand, whereas the smallest ones often didn’t even have a ticket vending machine — a real pain if your MetroCard runs out of prepaid funds.

I will say that when I needed to lug my suitcase through a service gate en route to JFK, an attendant was on hand to buzz me through — without the horrible alarm going off.

Report Card

The Good:

  • Vast rail and bus system with frequent service. No American city can compare with the mobility this transit system offers the average commuter.
  • 24-7 service means fewer worries about how you’ll get home. In a pinch, there’s always a taxi close at hand.
  • An airport rail connection that gets the job done, although many trips from JFK Airport to the city will require at least two transfers.
  • The city’s leadership has embraced trying new things to get the most out of its existing system, in particular by turning over space formerly dedicated to cars to transit vehicles, bicyclists and pedestrians.

The Bad:

  • What Fred experienced in London was certainly true in New York: “Good transit is crowded transit and during peak hours it gets VERY CROWDED.”
  • The station facilities were in pretty rough shape — lots of trash, dirt and weird smells. During one rain shower, a G Train station was literally gushing water through the ceiling. To be fair, the upkeep on such a vast system must be hugely expensive. The poor state of affairs really reflects more on America’s general underinvestment on transit, than on New York MTA.
  • The subway system fails to accommodate passengers with limited mobility in a meaningful way. As the Baby Boomers reach their golden years — and New Yorkers live longer than most Americans — this disparity will become even more glaring.

What Metro can learn:

  • At the end of the day, New York transit shows that the value of a transit system is measured in how quickly you can get to your destination safely, comfortably and affordably. Metro does a good job on the latter three in my book, and the Measure R transit projects will expand the number of destinations within quick access.
  • Frequency is key: In New York I never bothered to look at a transit schedule. I just get up and went, because I knew a train was likely to arrive soon enough.
  • Keep up the good work on station design. Metro’s subway stations are practically palatial compared to many of New York’s dark, musty stations. Bringing that design emphasis to bear on existing and future stations will go a long way towards convincing more Angelenos to embrace public transit.
  • Off-board fare payment for buses can really speed up travel times. Metro has implemented this on the Orange Line, but what about all the other Rapid Bus lines?

13 replies

  1. Well, the point is that there are “city myths” and the often lauded NYC Subway has plenty of them, often too rosy, especially for visitors who don’t deal with the realities every day. NYC subway, the entire NY MTA really isn’t much worse than any other agency in trying to provide mass transit in the Tri-state area, but it is the victim of those who seem to paint such a perfect, flawless, system, when in truth, all the services of the MTA have some significant PROBLEMS, but considering how old and inefficient much of the system is, including MNRR and LIRR, MTA has to be given credit for doing the best with what they have, ridiculous cross-platform transfers and all, and that problem is a real pet-peeve who depend on those transfers and it seems the MTA has never really addressed that or other problems , but if our writer doesn’t experience that, his conclusion is all is Nirvana on NYC Subway, and, oh, he’ll just barely mention the hassle of his luggage filled trip to the airport, but one had to consider how New Yorkers experience that a fair number of time compared to the writer who gets to go back home in a few days.

    L.A. has its “city myths” too, as all cities do, that are often painted by visitors who don’t have the daily experience the many things that are “wrong” here. I know New Yorkers who have various opinions regarding Transit in NY, often cool or warm, but NEVER enthusiastic, and then we have some of the life-long New Yorkers who swear they will “never again” take the NYC Subway” and how it is actually one of things that is “wrong” with NYC, in general. Sorry, but DC Metro, London Underground, Paris Metro, with all their problems, still GREATLY superior to NYC Subway.

  2. I’m an LA transit optimist, and having just gotten back from an NYC venture myself, I noticed a few other things.

    First, a lot of small subway stations don’t have a platform that allows you to cross from one side to the other without returning to street level. This has a few bad consequences: #1 you might end up paying to enter one side only to realize you have to reenter (and repay I believe) the other side, #2 because the weather is often difficult, having to switch platforms at street level can be prohibitive, #3 if you’re running to catch a train you better know which side of the street to enter or else you’ll miss it.

    Second, I experienced several inconveniences caused by ‘system maintenance’ (which of course is important) that were very confusing for a tourist. For instance, from Brooklyn I could take the L toward Manhattan only as far as Bedford (the last stop in Brooklyn) before we were forced out of the car. Then our train reversed direction on the same track and headed back East. Then we had to board the train that normally is Eastbound in order to cross West into Manhattan, at which point we had to switch back to the original side of the track to continue West. This isn’t a bad solution to the tricky problem of operating on a track, but it caused a major issue with crowds of people. At least 2 Manhattan-bound trains emptied at Bedford before a train appeared at the other side of the platform. At that point, the train emptied a third load of people onto the platform as two loads worth waited to board. You can imagine how difficult that was.

    Third, I only took a few bus rides, but in every case the bus was at least a few minutes late, and in one case it was so late I ended up taking a cab instead. I realize it’s a massive agency, but a bus tracking system would be extremely helpful (after all, they have it in Chicago). But the same can be said for LA buses (we could use the tracker, I don’t think of our buses as being quite so late).

  3. LA should be getting closer to having an NY Select Bus Service when the Wilshire Bus Only Lanes come into effect. I think the off-board payment and bus only lanes in congested parts of transit corridors is exactly what the Metro Rapid Program needs to make the service truly Rapid.

    Here are some videos from Streetsblog documented the Select Bus Service in NY

  4. Even in the boroughs, New York has more bus service. Compare the bus service levels on Staten Island to that of the San Fernando Valley, of which they are roughly comparable.

  5. While NYMTA may have the frequencies, it’s also one of the major contributing factors to why it’s budget problems keep on inflating.

    NYMTA added all the frequencies, but ridership remained stagnant because of the high fares needed to cover the cost of transit. As such, they needed to raise fares year after year, only to alienate more riders because of ever increasing transit fares.

    The truth is, even if there’s trains coming every 5 min or so, it’s only half of the solution to making transit work. The other half is “how much is gonna cost my wallet.”

    With higher fares, the subway will not be for everyone more so if it’s going to cost $2.25 or more everytime they ride the train. Some people need it to get from one end to another, but higher fares tend to scare away those that only need it for a short ride, no matter what the frequencies maybe.

    Heck I could care less what the frequencies are on the A train to get me from Franklin to Nevins (three stations away) to visit my dad when I lived in Brooklyn; I’m not paying $2.25 for such a short ride, I’d rather just bike.

  6. I was wrong about the every 20 to 30 minutes being on all LIRR and Metro North lines all the time, as some lines run every hour or hour and a half on some segments during some parts of the day, but the system is still ALOT more frequent overall.

  7. Thanks for the great article, I completely agree that frequency is key and is one of the most important components to a transit system for both bus and rail and NY certainly has that nailed down (even the far flung commuter rail lines like the LIRR and Metro North run well into the night all at headways shorter than most LA buses). LA mostly does it right with the urban rail lines (and orange line bus) both HRT and LRT, but with buses, not so much. Most buses in LA except for a handfull of core lines run at headways of more than 30 minutes which too often makes the first or last leg of a bus to rail or rail to bus trip prohibitive due to long waits. Metro needs to address this. Higher frequency certainly can spur more ridership.

  8. Correction:
    I meant to write “Carter, NOT every “con” of the NYMTA is due to its size.”

  9. On the one hand this report touches on the weakness of the often touted transit offered in New York City: Manhattan-Fine; the other Burroughs can be a very different story. It seemed as if the writer wanted to avoid that subject, which can slant any rating of a transit system. Guess what? There are 4 other Burroughs that are New York City, not just Manhattan.

    And I won’t get into the huge numbers of riders who get off of Metro-North at Marble Hill to take NYC Subway into the heart of Manhattan just to avoid the high cost of continuing the trip on the MNRR even though it adds more time to their commute. Sorry, Erik G., but AFFORDABLE transit is the key and those who live in the Tri-state area would seem to scoff at your expensive suggestion and leave it to tourists who can afford such luxuries.

    But there is one really big difference between California and NY and most other states for that matter: The New York MTA is a STATE agency. Meaning the funding all comes from ALbany, not locally (as is also the case for the Met Opera and the Met Museum, ALL STATE INSTITUTIONS, NOT local. Those venues ought to be renamed the New York State Opera and the New York State Museum because that is what they are, as is the New York STATE Transportation Authority).

    The entire NYMTA board are all the Governors nominees, even though there are requirements of representation and recommendations, in the end, they are all the Governor’s people, and Mayor Bloomberg doesn’t like it because he can’t get HIS people on the MTA, and seeing as NYC gets the biggest impact from the MTA, the Mayor is rigt, but Albany is paying the tab.

    In CA, Los Angeles included, the vast majority of the funding is LOCAL. Sacramento adds a very small percentage and is looking to even add LESS. However, we could never have such a state agency (Sacramento) paying for nearly all of LA’s transit needs because we have San Francisco, San Diego, and more who would be left out. In New York state, it is all about NYC, as if it were the only city in all of New York State and that’s it.

    CA is far too diverse, so we are left with local resources rather than the resources of the wealthiest state in the union. Considering that, we are doing far better than New York would be doing if they were left to fend for themselves as we are. Sorry, but DC Metro,

    And sorry, Carter, but every “con” of the NYMTA is due to its size: NYMTA has never had the commitment to alternative fueled buses LACMTA has and does, having just recently retired its last diesel. It took years, but it finally got done after DECADES of alternative fuel bus programs by the SCRTD and LACMTA.

    Please stop making excuses for NYMTA’s faults, Carter, because everything is relative. Yes NY City Transit Subway is larger, but the NYMTA has MORE MONEY, therefore size is irrelevant when all that money is cascading from the much larger resources of Albany, instead of just NYC.

    LA is to blame for its transit shortfalls and Albany to blame for NYC’s transit shortfalls. Let’s not make excuses for either.

    Carter, will your next article focus on the plethora of complaints from riders of the Long Island Railroad and how LIRR and Metro-North both have fair stretches of single-track and not very frequent service PER BRANCH. And all of NYC Subway is NOT 24/7. Some lines MUST be shut down overnight for track clearance and desperately needed maintenance, some lines nearly EVERY NIGHT. Also, cheaper for MTA to run buses overnight instead of subway for some lines. The rail myths of New York aboud.

  10. Don’t ignore the ability to take the LIRR either from Manhattan’s Pennsylvania Railroad Station or from the newly renovated Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn to Jamaica Station and then connect to AirTrain for JFK. A little more cost, yes, but faster, fewer stops and LIRR cars are better designed for travellers with luggage,

  11. Great article. Currently in NY enjoying the amazing complete street pedestrian plazas the NYCDOT has created between Times Square and Union Square along Bway. Nothing like it in a sustained way anywhere else in the US.

    My favorite way to travel from JFK into Manhattan is on the Q10 bus from Terminal 4. $2.25 buys you a (frequently arriving) bus ride to Lefferts and Liberty where you board the A train to Manhattan. You can also stay on the bus to pick up the E train in Kew Gardens. A lot cheaper than the equally inconvenient and more costly Airtrain to the Howard Beach A train or Jamaica option. See:

    Just saying.