|By Foot |
For shorter distances, there is no better way of getting around New York than hitting the sidewalk. If you use the subway or buses, you will almost certainly need to walk to and from stations or stops. In all areas of New York a traveler is likely to visit, all streets have wide, smoothly paved sidewalks. For long distances, walking is also fine and a great way to see the city.
Most of Manhattan is laid out in a grid. Accounting for Manhattan North, which is the convention stating that the island of Manhattan is oriented exactly north - south (it's actually northeast - southwest), streets run east - west and avenues run north - south. This makes it relatively easy to find your way. Both streets and avenues are numbered. Building numbering on avenues starts generally at Houston St., and their addresses rise as you move north. Fifth Avenue divides Manhattan into east and west; numbering starts at Fifth Avenue on each side (except where Central Park interrupts) and increases in either direction. Addresses west of Fifth are written as, for example, 220 W. 34th Street, while those east of Fifth are written as 220 E. 34 Street. Because of this dual-numbering system, it is always advisable to keep in mind the closest intersection to your destination (6th Avenue and 34th Street, Broadway and 51st, etc.). In downtown Manhattan (generally considered as below Houston (HOW-ston) Street), all bets are off as streets meander, dead-end and intersect themselves. Streets in Greenwich Village are particularly notorious for defying logic. For instance West 4th Street intersects with West 10th Street and West 12th Street, and you can stand on the corner of Waverly Place and Waverly Place. As a convenient guide to distance, there are 20 blocks per mile along the avenues (walking North/South). The average person can walk roughly 1 block per minute. Walking East/West on the streets, the blocks are generally much longer.
Jaywalking is common. If you do not wish to jaywalk, be considerate of New Yorkers by not blocking them from crossing at an intersection while you are waiting for your signal. If you do jaywalk, driving is on the right-hand side of the road on two-way streets so remember to look left to check for on-coming traffic on your side of the road. Be aware that most streets are one way, so you may have to look right. Most New Yorkers who know which streets go which way will only look in the direction traffic is coming from rather than looking in both directions. Be aware of any bicyclists unlawfully going against the proper flow of vehicular traffic.
New York City has a great transit system consisting of subway and bus lines with many (but not all) lines operating 24 hours a day. A single ride on the transit system currently costs $2. Recently, the MTA introduced half-fare discounts on weekends from Thanksgiving to Christmas, and at all times from Christmas to New Years Day. The rules on transfers between different lines are complex, but the good news is that the visitor can avoid these by purchasing a daily, weekly or monthly MetroCard which allows unlimited use of the New York Subway and buses operated within the city by New York City Transit, Long Island Bus and several private bus companies. MetroCards can be purchased from either the machine or manned booth at each Subway station using cash, ATM or credit cards. For more information see all the stations are served 24 hours a day (at least once every 20 minutes when service is the least in the middle of the night), but not all the lines operate 24 hours a day. Basically, this means at night you might have to transfer, compared with not having to transfer during the day. It might also take longer due to the transfer and the trains running less frequently.
The rules on transfers are not complex. If you purchase a cash fare on a bus, you may request a transfer for another bus, with a 2 hour time limit. This transfer cannot be used to transfer to subway. If you purchase a cash fare for the subway, you may make unlimited subway transfers with no time limit, as transfers are integrated into the structure. There are a few stations where you can exit the system and re-enter at a near-by station, using a free transfer. If you purchase a Pay-Per-Ride MetroCard, you may use it on bus or subway, with time limited transfer (2 hours) between bus and subway. If you purchase Unlimited Ride MetroCards, you may make transfers, with time limit, and have unlimited rides for the period chosen, except that you will not be able to enter the same station twice within about 18 minutes.
If you buy a monthly unlimited with a credit card and your ticket is lost or stolen, you may report it and have a pro-rated refund issued to your credit card. This is a nice layer of protection if you will be in New York for awhile.
The New York Subway has 26 lines, all of which accept MetroCards. Most lines are identified by letter or number, although a few shorter lines, designated with the letter "S", are referred to as "shuttles". An interesting facet of the New York subway is the local/express system, where different trains runs on the same track, but with express trains bypassing some stations. Tourists will be most familiar with the Lexington Avenue line (4/5 express, 6 local), the Broadway line (N [weekends local]/Q express,R/W local), the cross-town #7 train (which runs between Times Square and Grand Central, as does the S shuttle), the 7th Avenue line (1 local, 2/3 express) and the 6th Avenue/Central Park West B/D train.
Generally, you will be able to get free printed subway and bus maps from station attendants if you ask nicely. In most places the subway runs only just below street level and is entered by stairways from the sidewalks. In some stations, different sidewalk level entrances serve different platforms; the entrances display the lines and directions accessible from that entrance. If you are used to entrance barriers or gates on other subway or underground systems, you may find the turnstiles on the subway rather different. Unlike other systems you may not just stick it in in any direction and have it returned to you. You must swipe it in a particular way, described later, and you are responsible for the whole swipe. In other words, you need to think more, or have more awareness than in other systems where you just stick it in. Be aware that New Yorkers will become impatient if you are taking too long or have a bad attitude about sticking it in and it not working. You must keep going, and not stop and stand there complaining about it not working.
Instead of inserting your MetroCard into a slot in the gate, you are expected to swipe it across through a vertical swipe reader located on the top of the turnstile; this is something of an art which may take a couple of attempts to get right. You are not required to swipe your MetroCard to exit the system. Unlike some other systems (for example, Toronto), if you make a mistake and go in the wrong direction, you will not always be able to cross over to the other side at the next station without exiting the system. It depends on the station. You will have to ask someone if you don't know, or get off and experience it for yourself.
Large portions of the system, particularly in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx run above ground. In fact, New York used to have even more elevated portions and tore most of them down. For these stations, you will have to climb up stairs or escalators. Some stations will have elevators. The entire Staten Island line runs above ground. Uptown and downtown trains refer to north and south in Manhattan. Cross-town only refers to the L train which runs across 14th St. in Manhattan to Brooklyn, and to the G train which connects Brooklyn and Queens, but does not go to Manhattan. Every other train will go through Manhattan, and will be referred to as Manhattan bound, or Queens bound. In some cases, you might be in Brooklyn and you might take a Queens bound N train, via Manhattan. This info might be out of date if the designations have changed.
Subway cars are air-conditioned, but the rest of the system, including the stations and platforms, is not. As a result, with New York summer temperatures outside and the air conditioned cars adding to the heat load in the stations and tunnels, waiting for a train can become a somewhat unpleasant experience on a hot day. The subway may look a bit grungy but the much-feared subway crime of the 80s and 90s for the most part no longer exists. It's still good to use common sense though, so avoid using the subway late at night, and try to get in a car where the conductor or operator is in, and when waiting in the station, stay behind the yellow line on the platform.
Navigating the subway can seem like an intimidating task to newcomers, but visitors will find that New Yorkers are generally very helpful with directions, and will sometimes even volunteer information if they see you looking bewildered. Bear in mind that lines on the New York subway are identified by letter or number (the N train, the 6 train, etc.), even though the routes are also color-coded on maps. New Yorkers will likely stare at you strangely if you tell them that you are looking for a stop on the 'Yellow Line,' so be sure to know your route names.
The subway per-se does not operate on Staten Island. However the surface Staten Island Railway is run by New York City Transit and uses subway type cars and accepts MetroCards. A very useful dynamic map that, among other things, allows you to find the closest subway to any given address in New York City is available at complements of the Straphangers Campaign, a New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) that advocates for rider and commuter rights.
Note that the New York Subway is not the only 'subway' or 'underground' style rail system in New York City. The PATH system (operated by the Port Authority of NY & NJ) operates two lines from the New Jersey side of the Hudson River, as described in the Getting In section. The line terminating at 33rd Street has several stations in Manhattan's west side (23rd Street, 14th Street, 9th Street, and Christopher Street) and can be used for within city journeys, but is typically a commuter subway system. The PATH is $1.50 per way, but fare reductions are available to those who purchase multi-ride PATH QuickCards. Most PATH stations now accept Pay-Per-Ride but not Unlimited Ride MetroCards.
If you are paying cash fares and need to go for example from the Penn Station area to Christopher St., then it is cheaper to take the PATH instead of the Broadway-7th Ave., 1 train, as it will be $1.50 instead of $2.00. PATH trains will probably not be able to go all the places a typical tourist will want to go in New York, but it is useful to be knowledgeable of their services.
There are many different bus lines, which provide good transport away from the subway. Bus lines are identified by letters followed by numbers. The letters indicates the borough in which the line mostly operates (M=Manhattan; Bx=Bronx; B=Brooklyn; Q=Queens; S=Staten Island). Bus maps for each borough can be found at
Even in Manhattan, with its dense subway network, buses can often be the best way of making a cross-town (i.e. east to west or vice versa) journey. And outside peak hours, a ride by bus from the tip of Manhattan at Battery Park to the Midtown district is a good and cheap way of taking in the sights.
Buses are particularly useful when going across Central Park (e.g., going from the Metropolitan Museum to the Museum of Natural History). The buses that traverse the park are the M66, M72, M79, M86, and M96. These generally operate on 66th, 72nd, 79th, 86th, and 96th Streets respectively, however the eastbound M66 runs on 65th St, and the M79 uses 81st to go around the Museum of Natural History on the west side.
When boarding a bus with a MetroCard, insert the card into the card slot in the top of the farebox by the driver. The farebox will swallow the card, read it and return it to you. You should see the front of the MetroCard and the magnetic strip will be facing you and on the right side as you stick it in the machine. It will be vertically oriented. This is different from entering the subway where you don't stick it in as much, but slide it horizontally oriented through the swipe device, with the front toward you and the magnetic strip on the bottom.
The fareboxes also accepts coins but not paper money as the fareboxes are unable to read paper money, and even so would be shredded in the "fare collection vacuum". As a safety precaution, drivers do not handle money. Change is not given, so exact fares must be paid. The fareboxes accept dollar coins, and will also add up your pennies, even though it says not to use pennies. Rarely used half-dollar coins cannot be used because the coin slots on the fareboxes are not big enough.
The Metro North Commuter Rail and Long Island Railroad are primarily services between New York City and suburbs to the north and east, but they do provide some service within the city, especially between Manhattan and Brooklyn on the one hand and Queens and The Bronx on the other. NJ TRANSIT provides commuter service from New Jersey into Penn Station-New York.
Ferries provide an interesting alternative to getting around New York. The most famous ferry is the Staten Island Ferry, running from the tip of Manhattan at Battery Park to Staten Island. The ferry carries passengers and bicycles only, runs every 15 minutes during the day, and is free. As it gives a really good view of the Statue of Liberty on its way, this is a very popular trip for visitors. Ride on the starboard (right facing forward) side of the ferry from Manhattan and the port side from Staten Island for the best views (to the west).
Most of the other ferries you will see are operated by New York Waterway, connect the city with the New Jersey Hudson River Waterfront and are not free. Enquire as to fares before boarding.
New York Water Taxi runs ferries between points within Manhattan, with some connections to Brooklyn and New Jersey. Their boats are painted to look like taxis.
Real NYC taxis are yellow, have a metal seal on the hood ("medallion"), a light with a taxi number on the roof, a meter for billing, stickers on the windshield for various licenses, special taxi license plates, and a divider in the car. Start off rate is $2.50 now (2004), and then $.40 for each 1/5 mile afterwards. "Yellow cabs" cruise in most of Manhattan and are available at dispatcher lines at airports, but not in the other four "boroughs." See "Livery or Black Car" below.
At the airport or any of the bus or train terminals, use the dispatcher line, and don't get into anything else. Airport trips are flat fare and expensive compared to taking mass transit-which is terrible from the airports, even with the AirTrain at JFK. Newark Airport offers direct service into Penn Station for around $10 from the Newark Airport Train Station, schedules are available online. Any other type of car ("Livery or Black Car") may only be called by phone, for a trip and are flat rate rather than metered (ask for the fare before getting in), and are not allowed to cruise the street or airports for fares.
In some areas, hopping into livery cars is widely practiced. This is useful, especially in outside of Manhattan, where there are few yellow cabs. Negotiate the fare first. They are almost all Lincoln Town Cars, and can be very nice. However, be advised, that if you do get into a livery cab on the street or at an airport, there is a VERY HIGH chance you could be cheated out of up to $10. Be wary of unlicensed cars (known as 'gypsy cabs') cruising for passengers, especially near the airports. While drivers may claim to offer you a cheaper rate than an actual taxi, your chances of actually getting this rate (not to mention getting to your destination safely and quickly) are slim. If you are in doubt, ask an airport staffer for help finding a cab or cabstand. Major airports have taxi information cards for passengers.
For all cabs, you pay the tolls for bridges, tunnels and highways, even if the cab has an E-ZPass to use the express toll lane. Be careful of being overcharged by cabbies for toll crossings - on some bridges and tunnels (like the Queens-Midtown Tunnel) rates are not posted in plain view. So, a crossing which actually cost the cab driver $4 is easily passed onto the unsuspecting passenger as a $5 charge. Outside the city, other than flat fare destinations, meter rates are doubled (when going to Westchester or Nassau County).
Tipping 15 to 20% of the fare is customary, even though the Taxicab Driver Rule 2-34 requires a driver to give the correct change to a passenger who has paid the fare but not to ask a passenger for a tip nor indicate that a tip is expected or required. As only very few yellow taxis are equipped to accept credit cards and drivers are very unlikely to accept personal checks, passengers should always carry cash. Always take a receipt when paying the taxi fare.
There are also bizarre van and shuttle services in different parts of the city. You will have to ask where it is going and how much it costs. Usually, you will see people lining up and some mysterious van will appear and they will board. There are services between Chinatown and Queens (you won't have to make any transfers if it goes where you need to go!), and also there are separate services in Brooklyn, and Queens. Many of these services are branded as "Dollar Vans", and follow major bus routes. One should use good judgment before using these vans to prevent getting cheated out of money, or something considerably worse than losing money.
Best advice is that a car is not only unnecessary but also inadvisable; street parking is practically nonexistent near crowded areas and tourist attractions and garage parking ranges from very expensive to prohibitively expensive. Note that a large percentage of city cab drivers are originally from the developing world and have brought their aggressive, take-no-prisoners driving style with them. Traffic can be mind-blowing for the uninitiated, especially in midtown and around rush hours. Manhattan is compact and has excellent public transportation. While this is somewhat less true of the other boroughs (particularly Queens and Staten Island, the only boroughs to be developed with auto and expressway in mind), no visitor to New York will need a car and indeed will be hampered by having one.
The major car rental agencies have offices throughout the city. Smaller agencies are also well represented. Be warned that car rentals in New York are generally more expensive than elsewhere in the United States, and frequently require a deposit of up to US$500. Insurance rates also tend to be higher in New York than in most other cities.
While cheap parking can be found in some parts of New York at some times, it is generally extremely expensive. Paying US$40 a day is not at all uncommon. Street parking can be much cheaper but can be extremely hard to come by. Note also that New York has alternate side-of-the-street parking rules, which may require street parkers to move their cars at different times of the day. Parking enforcement officers are very efficient in New York--trying to leave a car parked illegally for very long will often end with a ticket and a vehicle illegally parked in a overcrowded place is very likely to be towed away.
Also, note that gas stations are few and far between, especially in Manhattan, where only a handful exist on the fringes of the island. Be prepared to pay much higher prices than in the surrounding suburbs.
Words of Warning
Unlike in most other parts of the United States, within New York City limits, turns on red lights, except where there are special turning arrows on traffic lights (in which case the turning arrow must be green) or turning branches of roads, are illegal and punishable by a fine. Given the number of pedestrians on the streets, they are also dangerous, and will be met with a hostile reception and possibly a kick to the side of your beloved vehicle. Talking on hand-held cellphones while driving is also illegal and punishable in New York state, and very dangerous, though this regulation is still fairly new and spottily enforced, and you will see other drivers doing this. But don't even think of driving while under the influence of alcohol! And please, if there is an emergency vehicle trying to get through with its siren blaring, pull over to the right and move forward as necessary. Pedestrians understand the need for emergency vehicles to go through red lights and are usually cooperative.
Also, check all parking signs carefully, especially if you're lucky or persistent enough to score a parking spot in Manhattan. Parking meters demand constant feeding, and are hungry late into the night. It is a good idea to keep a roll of quarters in your glove compartment. Parking is prohibited in bus stops, in front of places of worship and funeral homes, near fire hydrants, and wherever there is a yellow line on the curb. Many motorists simply pay garaging fees to relieve the anxiety of finding and maintaining a parking spot and avoid the risks of parking tickets, which can be expensive and serve as a major source of income for the city treasury!
Buy a map
This advice is even more important for intrepid travelers to the outer boroughs, where the street patterns seem to have been designed by drunks playing pick-up-sticks. There is no north-south or east-west. In Queens, numbers identify not only avenues and streets, but also roads, places, and lanes, all of which might be near each other. Read the entire street sign. Outer borough highways are confusing and often narrowed to one lane; the potholes could trap an elephant; the signs are sometimes misleading; exits which should appear do not; signs directing a highway approach drag you through miles of colorful neighborhood (in the wrong direction) before finally letting you onto the highway with a stop sign and six inches of merge space.
It really depends on where you're from, whether you can handle driving in New York. If you're from Boston, you'll eat it up. If you're bold, you'll have a great time. If you're anxious and stressed-out you'll have a heart attack and you're better off not adding to the traffic while the paramedics come. New York has 8 million over-stressed people as it is. If you're laid-back, kiss your attitude goodbye. By the time you leave you'll have torn chunks from your upholstery in frustration and rage.
That said, there are several points of entry/exit into the city from the New Jersey side: the Lincoln Tunnel (midtown), the Holland Tunnel (downtown), and the George Washington Bridge (way uptown)--all are accessible from the New Jersey Turnpike. The Midtown Tunnel over the East River is convenient for Long Island travelers, as it becomes the Long Island Expressway. The Queensborough bridge (aka The 59th Street Bridge) also crosses the East River into Queens, is toll-free and, lands near the mouth of the Midtown Tunnel but requires some automotive manipulation to get onto the Long Island Expressway. Other routes head north and east out of the Bronx, including Interstates 87 (north to Albany) and 95 (northeast to Boston).
Traveling at off-hours makes sense to avoid rush hour traffic, but some highways and roads are surprisingly packed even so. The Cross Bronx Expressway is almost always choked with traffic. The Long Island Expressway has heavy eastbound traffic between the morning and evening rushes. The Holland and Lincoln tunnels are 10 minute waits on good days. The Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE) is notorious, and an accident on the Verazzano Bridge can cause a backup all the way through the northern part of Staten Island into New Jersey.
Driving cross-town (east-west) in Manhattan during rush hours is especially troublesome because the street lights are optimized to move traffic along the north-south roads. Your best bet is to avoid driving in Midtown Manhattan (between the 30s and 50s) whenever possible.