Fred’s transit notes from New York City

Brooklyn Bridge - City Hall NYC subway station.

If you read my previous post, you know I’m now living in New York City and no longer a regular contributor to The Source.

I will chime in from time to time with a guest post though, and my first such post is simply a collection of observations of New York City transit in comparison to Los Angeles from the perspective of a new resident. You can read Carter’s review of the NYC transit system from the perspective of a tourist here.

  • Buses. For the most part, the buses I’ve ridden have incredible frequency during the weekday. I’m talking service every three minutes. Off peak or during the weekends I’ve definitely found myself waiting a while. Bus service is also not immune to special events. A few weeks ago the New York Marathon put bus service in disarray and there was no good information posted at bus stops. I ended up giving up on my planned bus outing since the bus I was waiting for never showed up.
  • Nextrip? Not so much. NYC MTA is currently testing real time bus arrivals for three lines, two in Manhattan and one in Brooklyn. Aside from the fact that so few lines offer real time information, the information that is provided is not so great. Bus stops do have QR codes, but they lead to a web pages that list every stop unlike Metro’s system which leads to a page specifically for the stop that was scanned. Also, the real time information provided is not given in terms of how many minutes away a bus is but instead how many stops away a bus is. I much prefer Metro’s method. Note: I’ve only tested the real time system on the Brooklyn B63 bus line.


  • TAP or swipe? NYC’s fare media is a paper card with a magnetic strip that must be swiped at rail stations or dipped (almost like an ATM card) on buses. Getting a Metro Card from a subway station could not be easier and the ticket vending machines are far superior to Metro’s. The fact that they are touch screen makes them instantly more user friendly. However, the actual act of using the card makes me miss my TAP card. I don’t like having to pull my card from my wallet and orient it correctly every time I need to use it. With TAP I was able to keep my card in my wallet and just tap the wallet on the sensor. Also, more often than not my first swipe isn’t read by the fare gate and I’m forced to swipe multiple times in just the right way to be granted access.
  • A portal to my heart. By far the best part of the NYC subway system (and there are lots of good parts) is the fact that stations have so many portals (entrances). One of my biggest issues with the Red and Purple Lines has always been the lack of portal options at most stations. A few of the downtown L.A. stations offer riders plenty of options, but most just give riders one way in and out. Not so in New York where stations often have so many portals it can be downright confusing. But there’s no denying the positive effect of having the stations so accessible from nearly every corner on a street.
  • People drive! Yes, people who live in New York City drive, and just like in L.A. many do it because they find public transit inconvenient. A waitress at a local Brooklyn diner revealed to me that she drives from Queens because “public transit would take too long.” Sound familiar?
  • There’s a ton of apps for that. There is no shortage of NYC transit apps. A few of my favorites so far: Exit Strategy (essential for deciding which of the many portals you should use), iTransNYC (off line subway navigation) and City Transit (a clean and readable subway map app).


18 replies

  1. To respond to your questions, Ciacci…

    1. No, there are no bike racks on the front of buses. I’m not sure there is as great of a demand for that in NYC as in other places due to the density of the city and the extensive network of bike paths and subways. The weather here would also complicate the design and functionality of racks.

    2. Yes, according to the MTA’s accessibility page there is ADA compliant access to 110 of the system’s stations. Even more either have elevators or ramps that make the stations accesible but not always ADA compliant (steep ramps and what not). One has to keep in mind that a large portion of the system was built a long, long time ago. It would be great if every station were accessible, but it is a very expensive task for a very aged system.

    3. No, but isn’t that part of the charm? Kidding aside, there’s a lot of grime and dirt and even more litter. The grime is understandable – the system is old. Because food and drinks are allowed on the train, passengers often use the railbeds and platforms as their own personal trashcans. While it would be nice if the MTA could keep up with the trash (the trash train often doesn’t meet the specified schedule) it would be even nicer if people had a little more respect for their surroundings.

    4. Yes, with an EasyPay Xpress Metrocard. You load up the card with a credit card online, and when you need more money on it your account is automatically debited. You can choose to pay per ride or purchase an unlimited card. What’s even better is that when the expiration date is approaching on your card, the MTA sends you a brand new card one week in advance.

    I used Metro transit in LA for years before moving to New York, and both have their merits, though I think the comparison is apples and oranges. There will always be something that can be improved.

  2. @Tony

    Not true. You don’t exit the station, get through turnstile and exit the system once, go up to the street level to re-enter to another. Otherwise it’ll cost $2.50 everytime you exit the system and re-enter (except those places like Lexington/63rd or Long Island/Court Square).

    For side platform configurations, you just go up the stairs to the central area and walk over to the correct stairs going down to the platform of your intended direction. You do not go through the turnstiles to exit out of the system and out into the street only to pay another $2.50 to enter back into the system.

  3. One thing to note about multiple portals in the New York City Subway is that for the station with side platforms (as opposed to island platforms that are the defacto standard for LA Metro Red/Purple Line, in addition to a mezzanine level) is that if you’re in Manhattan and wanted to go Uptown but ended up on the Downtown platform, you’d have to exit the station and cross the street above to enter the portal to your intended platform.

    The New York City Subway is a different animal to tame compared to LA or Chicago, however, the up-and-coming Second Avenue Subway will be more like our Red/Purple Line, or even Bangkok MRT (and other Asian cities) with platform protection doors.

  4. Can you put your bike on the bus rack in front?

    Do they have elevators in the NY Metro station for people in wheelchairs and people with babies?

    Are the stations clean?

    Can you recharge you MTA card online like you can TAP?

  5. @Erik G.

    Using percentage numbers as the sole comparison between NYMTA and LA Metro is misleading; NYMTA has more transit riders compared to LA Metro, hence 1.5% on NYMTA which has higher fares and higher number of riders accounts to a lot more money in lost revenue than 3% of LA Metro which has a lower fare and lower number of riders.

    Annual ridership of NYMTA subway in 2010 was 1,604,198,017.

    1.5% of 1.6 billion riders @ $2.50 per boarding accounts to over $60 million in lost revenue from fare evasion per year.

    In contrast, LA Metro’s ridership numbers and fare evasion numbers are all estimated numbers.

    There’s no fare checks in place, it’s all handled inefficiently with random officer checks, there’s no real-time data gathering going on, so everything is based on assumption.

    Google results on LA Metro fare evasion statistics can be anywhere between 3% to as high as 10% and no one has a real figure. It’s not like the ticket machine or the train has the brains to say “hey that guy who got board didn’t pay his $1.50!” So how does LA Metro even know their own fare evasion statistics?

  6. One of our favorite things about the NYC subways is all the vendors in the stations — permanent and temporary (people selling out of carts, etc.) There are good restaurants, bakeries and shops of all types in many of the larger subway stations (where lines connect or subway/train stations). LA is just starting to see this at 7th/Metro and Union Station. These add vibrancy and make the transit portals more than just entry points for travel.

    We’re wishing you the best with your new adventures in that Big Metro system to the east and look forward to more of your posts.

  7. Unless you are buying single-fares each time Fred, those Metrocards are actually made of thin plastic. And neither New York or Los Angeles have faregates; those things you pass through are called turnstiles.

    At last check, even with turnstiles and staffed stations, fare evasion was still 1.5% in New York as compare to a little over 3% without turnstiles in Los Angeles.

  8. @AlexB

    Sure the MegaBus is cheaper, but they are still prone to being stuck in traffic.

    And I highly doubt it costs $250 each way on the Acela or the NE Regional. The last time I rode Acela which was three months ago, the walk up fare was $80 from NY Penn to Boston South Sta. Even now, searching, I still find $69 fares on the NE Regional and even the most expensive ones costing $151 on the Acela for today. Buy it in advance and you’ll find Regional fares to be $49 and Acela fares to be at $100 or so.

    Besides, the point was how the NE Corridor has much better intercity rail travel; why take only the MegaBus when Fred can try out the multitudes of Amtrak services offered in that region? Why not try Megabus one way and the Amtrak on the return or vice-versa?

  9. I’ve lived in NYC for 6 years and am intimately familiar with the system here. I think we should be getting a tap/oyster card type system here in the next couple years. The MTA has started looking into phasing out the metrocard. Very excited to read about the Expo line progress!

    To Mitch Bart – The NYC MTA has always had a problem with customer service and have been incredibly slow to implement technical changes. Many blame expensive union work rules combined with an ancient system where there isn’t space for the new technology or it gets wet. The bus time thing has been in the work for over a decade and we currently only have 3 lines kinda operating if that should tell you anything. Real time on the subways is a bit further along, but has been in the works for even longer. I’d give it at least a decade before every line has arrival times.

    To Y Fukuzawa – Unless you are well off or traveling for work, most people don’t take the Acela or Regional from NYC to Boston or Philadelphia. The tickets are around $250 each way while a bus can be $25. Amtrak knows they have the fastest and most convenient service between city centers and they squeeze as much money out of it as they can.

    To Dennis – There is a push to put bike racks near subway stops, but the main constraints are space and community opposition. You can’t imagine how crowded the sidewalks can be here and how anti-bike many small businesses can be. Regarding bikes on buses, many think that won’t work in NYC for two reasons – 1) buses are often about the same speed as walking so why would you want to switch to a slower bus if you are already on a bike, 2) with the high pedestrian and rider volumes, putting bike racks on buses would make them easy to steal and would slow down already slow service. I don’t know how much of NYC local news makes it to the west coast, but there have been ferocious battles over the expansion of the bike lane network here. Nothing can be done in New York without a fight of some kind unfortunately.

  10. The outer boroughs have bus transit service comparable to South Central LA or the inner parts of the Valley. The rail system is definitely quite useful, but the bus is the same everywhere. One BIG difference about NYC – try finding paper schedules anywhere. You can’t, not unless you go to the transit store during weekday business hours. But, they have schedules posted at most stops – done in Santa Monica, but not elsewhere in LA County.

  11. Welcome to NYC Fred! We’re endeavoring to bring modern real-time transit to the NYC subway, and would welcome you to participate in the process!

    Check us out at

  12. One area that Los Angeles Metro is well ahead of NYC Metro is parking for bicycles. It’s my understanding that NYC does not have bike racks on the front of any buses or at bus stops, and none of the rail stops have parking for bicycles.

    The complete lack of parking for bicycles on buses or at rail stops is a big reason why New York City has not passed Los Angeles in bicycle modal share, even with large leaps in on-street bicycle infrastructure in the last four years.

  13. Fred,

    Also, we all know how great public transit systems in the East Coast are compared to LA (used to live in the East Coast as well), but bottom line is that riders do care about fare policy as those are the ones that we pay from of our ever shrinking paycheck from taxes.

    And since fare policies are the direct link to keeping revenue back into the public transit system, a focus should be made on how the fare system differs between NYMTA, NJ Transit, Boston MBTA, Philadelphia SEPTA, and the DC Metro. Once you begin to visit many cities on the East Coast as well as the rest of the world, you’ll quickly learn that LA Metro has a lot to learn in its fare policies.

    One suggestion is to report on NYMTA’s fare policy, such as how they reward pay-per-ride customers by giving them 7% extra when they top load their NY MetroCards. At the same time though, a comparison of how much more expensive it is to take public transit in NY compared to LA at $2.50 per ride which is not a cost efficient way to get around shorter distances. OTOH, the fare system in NY does allow for free transfers between the subway and the bus and between buses, which is a big difference compared to the “pay $1.50 every boarding system no matter how far or short you go” which is what we have on the LA Metro.

    A compare/contrast column data between LA Metro, NYMTA, and other agencies would be a big help to view and analyze how fare structures vary from place to place, which is key to the transit riders’ wallet on what it costs to get around town.

  14. On the subject of Nextrip/Nextbus for MTA B63 pilot only.

    I don’t know how NY MTA is presenting the data, but the Brooklyn B63 pilot uses the same underlying service provider as LA Metro, Nextbus. Because I come the the SF Bay Area were SF Muni/AC Transit and other systems have used Nextbus for a while, I always use the Nextbus native site/SMS and phone call for tracking buses.

    I checked the native Nextbus site/sms/phone call system for the NY MTA B63 and the arrivals are presented in minutes just as LA Metro and the Bay Area systems I am familiar with are.

  15. Welcome to NYC, Fred. Being out of LA doesn’t mean being out of Touch (of LA). With the Expo Page (on Facebook) and Google Maps, I have been following the Progress of the Expo Line. Was last out in LA in Oct 2010 and only for five days. I miss the LA Transit System b/c I had so many more places to explore. LA’s TAP Card beats anything in NYC.

  16. Fred,

    Since you’re in the East Coast, why not take a day trip on the Acela and also provide us feedback on how Boston’s MBTA runs its system on its CharlieCard and compare how that works with TAP?

    If you’re new to NYC, just head off to Penn Station, buy an Acela ticket which gets you to Boston in 4 hours, and you’ll be in the heart of Boston at South Station. You can buy your CharlieCard there and top load it to run all of Boston’s excellent MBTA system.

    With intercity trains running all and up along the NE Corridor, you can also report back on Philly’s SEPTA and Washington DC’s DC Metro. Even taking the ferry over to New Jersey or interchanging to the NE Corridor Line at NY Penn to Newark Penn on NJ Transit is a different experience that opens up a wider view on how each city handles public transit differently.