The New York City Guide to Getting Around


25 min read

New York City is unlike any other place on Earth. It’s loud, bustling, hustling, and full of life – and it’s crowded. More than 8.5 million people share a relatively small geographic area, so buildings rise to the skies, transportation moves underground, and people find a way to fit into the daily shuffle. Fortunately, NYC has plenty of options for getting around – and the secrets to navigating it don’t just have to be for locals. Whether you’ve just moved to the Big Apple, are in town for a visit, or you’re a New Yorker looking to bookmark all the best tips and tricks for getting around your hometown, The Zebra’s simple guide is at your service.


Trains

NYC TrainsThere are two main railway stations that connect most trains and subways to each other. Grand Central Terminal on the east side is the main station for Metro-North Railroad. Penn Station is located on the west side is the main hub for the Long Island Rail Road. These main stations also have connections to subways.

Two trains run in and out of the city and another that only runs on Staten Island. The Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) runs out of Penn Station, servicing the inhabitants east of the city in Long Island.

Metro-North Railroad (MNR) runs out of both major transit hubs. Metro-North uses Grand Central Station to help city-goers get around the city itself and reaches as far north as Connecticut and upstate New York. Metro-North uses Penn Station to service west of New York and can take travelers through New Jersey and into east Upstate New York.

The Staten Island Railway (SIR) runs from one tip of the island to the other. Staten Island also has an extensive bus system that can get passengers almost anywhere on the island.

Buses

NYC Bus

Taking a bus in New York City is a great way to get around and sightsee. There are more bus stops than subway stations. When subway stops are scarce, you can often find a bus stop nearby.

There are two kinds of buses in New York. There are “local” buses that make frequent stops every couple of blocks. You’ll see a round sign with a symbol of a bus along with a route number. Some may have shelters and seating. There are also “express” buses that will only stop at certain destinations but will make your trip faster. Make sure that you are choosing the correct type of bus or you could end up far from your destination.

How to Ride the Bus in New York City

Make your way to your bus stop. Plan your trip with this planner to help you find the correct route. You may also use the NYC Bus Checker app (see below).

  • Wait for the bus to come to a complete stop before boarding. Some may kneel to assist passengers board. Pay your fare at the front doors and find a seat.
  • Request your stop. The driver may not stop at a station if no one is waiting there. If you see your stop coming up, pull the stop request cord near the windows. The “Stop Requested” sign at the front of the bus will light up. This will let your driver know to stop at the next bus stop.
  • When leaving the bus, exit through the rear doors.

Cost

A local bus will cost you $2.75 and an express will cost you $6.50. Of course, prices are subject to change. You can pay with exact change (no pennies or dollar bills) or with a MetroCard.

If you use a MetroCard to pay for your fare, you have a 2-hour window to “transfer”, meaning you can take either another bus or subway train for free within 2 hours from when you first used your pass. If you paid with coins, you can ask the driver for a “transfer”. However, it may only be used to transfer to another bus, not a subway train.

Bus Apps

NYC Bus Checker
This app will let you plan your trips with ease. You can get live updates on where your bus is and traffic information. You can also receive info about the Citi Bike stops.

Cars

NYC Cars
The advice you will see everywhere is, “If you don’t have to drive in New York, don’t!.” It’s true. Driving in New York City is not the easiest or cheapest way to get around, but sometimes it’s inevitable, so keep these things in mind if you plan to drive (and insure) a car in New York City. Parking is extremely hard to find within the city and parking tax is 18% which makes parking in the city very expensive.

Insuring a Car in New York City

The cost of insuring a vehicle in the city can be quite expensive, especially if you are buying a car for the first time. A simple way to lower your future rate is to purchase a non-owners policy 6 months before you plan on buying a vehicle. Maintaining this policy for at least 6 months will qualify you for a prior insurance discount with most companies. This can make a huge dent in the rate you eventually pay when it comes time to insure a vehicle, and it’s also much less expensive than a traditional policy.

Vehicle owners in NYC who don’t plan on driving every day should also consider signing up for usage-based insurance (UBI or telematics). A telematics device monitors how and how much drivers are using their cars, so they can be a great option for city drivers. This means you can be rewarded with a lower rate for simply not driving.

Tips for Driving in New York City

  • Odd and Even Streets: Traffic on odd-numbered streets moves westbound, and traffic on even-numbered streets moves eastbound. There are some exceptions to the rule, but this is true for most streets in New York City.
  • One Ways: Traffic on almost all streets runs one direction and will alternate directions.
  • Avenues: Most avenues are also one-way streets on which traffic generally runs northbound or southbound.
  • No Right Turns On Reds: In New York City, most streets do not allow right turns on red lights, with a few exceptions. There will be signs informing you when right turns on red are allowed.
  • Reversed Streets: During rush hour, there are some streets on which traffic flow is reversed, which helps commuters get out of the city faster. Police officers will be directing traffic and there will be signs to let you know that the direction of traffic has changed. Be aware that if you go the wrong way, you can get a hefty ticket from an officer.
  • Fast Yellow Lights: The yellow warning light before the red stop light is shorter that average in New York City. The average yellow light is 6 seconds long but in New York City, it is just 4 seconds. Keep this in mind, and begin braking immediately when the light turns yellow.
  • Fast Tow Trucks: If you park in a no parking zone for “just a second”, or if your meter runs out, you will be towed almost immediately. Park in designated parking lots, and obey parking ordinances.

Subways

NYC Subway Map
The subway is the most popular mode of transportation in New York City. With 469 stations and 24 subway lines, you have plenty of route options to get your around the city. Using the subway can seem stressful, but don’t be intimidated. If you aren’t sure which train to take, there is a subway map on the wall of every subway station. You can also reach out to Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) personnel if you need assistance.

There are two types of trains: “local” which means they stop at every stop on their route, and “express” which will skip stops in order to get you to a set destination faster. If you mix these up, you could end up on the other side of town, so be sure to check the train before getting on.

Many people will refer to the trains by the color of the line—this can spell trouble because several routes share the same color on the maps. Instead, refer to routes by its number or letter.

When looking at a subway map, you may notice black dots and white dots. The black dots mark local subway stops and the white dots mark express stops. Knowing the difference between these colored dots is crucial to you getting to your destination.

In some places on the map, you will see a black link connecting two stations. These are underground tunnels for pedestrians to make it easier to transfer trains, rather than going up to street level.

You will see that many of the trains will display a direction like “Uptown”, “Downtown”, or the name of a borough. “Uptown” means that the train is traveling northbound. “Downtown” means that it is traveling southbound. The name of a borough on the train just means the last stop. If that borough is north, then you are going north and vice versa.

Depending on the time of day and the day of the week, trains may run as frequently as every 2 minutes to every 20 minutes. Be sure to review the MTA’s subway schedule when planning your trip.

At the train station itself, you will see signs with the number of the trains at that stop at that station and the hours of operation. To tell which train is arriving, look at the sign on the front and sides of the train to see what number or letter it is, as well as its direction.

How to Ride the Subway in New York City

Once you arrive at your station, you can enter with a MetroCard. If you don’t have a card, you can purchase one at the station operators’ booth or a MetroCard Vending Machine.

Turnstiles

When approaching the turnstile, swipe your MetroCard on the right side of the turnstile and walk through once the screen reads “OK. If your card is not read immediately, try swiping the card faster. If your card is still not working, see an attendant. Do not jump over the turnstile. If you jump over, not only can you hurt yourself, but you can also be arrested.

Entering the Train

Once you are on the platform, wait behind the yellow line for your train. When your train pulls into the station, let the passengers exit the train car first, and then walk in and take a seat. If you want a better chance of finding an available seat, try the first and last cars. They tend to have fewer people in them, and you might be able to take a seat and rest your feet for the ride.

Transfers

Sometimes when riding the subway, you might have to transfer trains or stations. You get one transfer for free on your MetroCard as long as it is within 2 hours from the start of your trip. At some stops, there are underground tunnels for riders to transfer from popular stations. Using these tunnels will save you time.

Knowing When to Get Off Your Train

Try to have an idea of how many stops your train will have until you have to get off. There are typically two maps on either side of every subway car. The conductor will also announce which stop is next along the line. New subway cars have electronic strip maps that show stops along the line, making it easier to follow the route. They will also have a mechanical voice announcing the current and upcoming stops. However, it may be hard to hear the conductor or mechanical voice, so keep an eye out the window when you pull in. The station number is displayed on the poles inside of the station and sometimes along the wall.

An App to Help You Navigate the Subway

Citymapper is a great app to have not only for the subway but for any transportation in New York City. Once you input your starting point and your destination, Citymapper will calculate different ways to get there while giving real-time updates of any delays. It will even tell you how many calories you’ll burn (for more active parts of your commute) and the cost of your fare.

Cabs

NYC Cabs
New York City cabs are iconic. You often see in TV shows or movies people having a hard time catching a cab in NYC. Fortunately, it’s not often hard to hail a ride in real life – you just have to know what to look for.

There are easy-to-read signs that tell you the status of a cab: On-Duty, Occupied, and Off-Duty. You can tell the difference among these cabs by looking at the light on the roof of the cab.

  1. An On-Duty cab will have just the center of the light on, highlighting the cab’s number.
  2. An Occupied cab will not have any lights on the roof illuminated. This means that someone is already in the cab and it can’t stop for you.
  3. An Off-Duty cab will have all of its lights on the roof illuminated. Not only will the light highlighting the cab number be on, but the lights on the sides of the topper will be on as well.

How to Use Cabs in New York City

First, if you don’t see any cabs in your area, consider walking a block or two to a higher traffic road. Once you do spot a cab, extend your arm to flag the driver. You can even try to whistle to get the cabbie’s attention. LOCAL TIP: If you aren’t going very far, make a “C” with your hand when hailing a cab. It will let them know that you aren’t going far and an Off-Duty cab might even pick you up.

Wait until you get into the cab to give your destination. Once you are inside, they aren’t legally allowed to refuse the trip. When giving your destination, don’t give exact addresses. Instead, give landmarks or street corners. Doing this gives the impression that you are local, and they are less likely to “take the long way” to charge you extra.

Taking a cab is often not the cheapest way travel around the city. You are expected to pay all tolls and fees associated with your travel. You also might have to pay for surcharges depending on the time of your ride. For more exact information about fares, you can check out NYC’s website.

Hail a Taxi with This App

Arro lets passengers request a ride and pay for it with the app once the trip ends.

Ferries

NYC FerriesFerries aren’t just for fun or sightseeing. They are also a great way to get into New York City from the surrounding areas. There are four ferries that operate around New York City shuttling visitors and commuters alike: the Hudson River Ferry, The East River Ferry, The Belford Ferry, and the Staten Island Ferry.

  • Hudson River Ferry: This ferry services the west side of Manhattan along the Hudson River. With 12 ports along Jersey, you can get downtown easily.
  • The East River Ferry: This ferry creates a big loop, picking up commuters and tourists from five ports along Brooklyn and Queens, and dropping them off at Midtown or Wall Street. The port at Midtown even has complimentary buses to shuttle passengers to nearby subways or trains.
  • The Belford Ferry: This smaller ferry connects commuters from Belford New Jersey to 4 ports in Manhattan. The ferries have TVs and snack bars to make your commute a pleasant one.
  • Staten Island Ferry: This ferry only runs to and from Staten Island. Trips are made throughout the day as well as on weekends. The trips are around 25 minutes and are a great mode of transportation for sightseeing and business. Iconic landmarks like The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island can be seen from this route.

How to Buy Ferry Tickets

  • Hudson River Ferry, The East River Ferry, and The Belford Ferry can all use the same pass. You can also purchase a Hudson Go Pass which includes the use of the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail (commonly known as the Hudson Light Rail) and the NJ Transit Bus to the ferry. Single-use tickets are also available on their website. Ticket purchases for these three ferries are available on the same site. You will have to create a login in order to view ticket prices. Prices vary depending on destination, day, age, and frequency.
  • Staten Island Ferry is free to ride.

Airports

NYC AirportThere are three major Airports in the New York City area, two of which are in New York and one in New Jersey.

If you are coming to New York City from out of the country, you will most likely be flying into John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) which is in Queens. For easy access after your flight to the city itself, you can take the AirTrain. The Airtrain takes travelers straight from the airport to the city and close to main subway and train lines to get them to their destinations.

The second airport located in New York City is La Guardia Airport (LGA). Most domestic flights will end here rather than JFK. LGA is also located in Queens but is much closer to the city itself than JFK. There are multiple bus and subway routes that can get you to the city, and of course, iconic New York City cabs are always waiting to take you to your destination.

The third major airport is located in Newark, New Jersey, Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR), for both international and domestic flights. With its location outside of New York City, it can be less crowded, but is a little out of the way for some travelers. In an effort to make EWR more accessible for tourists and travelers, you can now take a NJ AirTrain into Manhattan from the airport.

A More Accessible New York City

Programs like the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities (MOPD) have been making NYC a safer and more navigable city for over 43 years according to NYC.gov. How New York City has enhanced accessibility:

All buses have lifts installed for passengers in wheelchairs and for those who may be unable to use the stairs. The MTA network has more than 110 accessible subway and commuter rail stations. These stations have features that improve accessibility for customers with visual, hearing, and mobility disabilities, as specified by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In addition, the MTA offers a reduced fare for persons over the age of 65 and those with disabilities. To apply for one of these reduced fare cards, you can fill this form out and go to the MTA website for more information about the card.

Big Apple Greeters is an iconic free tour guide service that will place you with a New Yorker so you can explore NYC through their experiences. They also have an Access Program that can set you up with a tour guide who also has a disability and can help you explore the city. Guides will show you their favorite accessible parts of New York City and its many attractions.

New York MetroCards

NYC Metro Cards

Many forms of New York City transportation can be accessed with a MetroCard. There are 3 different kinds of MetroCards that you can purchase: Pay-Per-Ride, Unlimited Ride, and EasyPay cards.

The “Pay-Per-Ride MetroCard” can be preloaded to make getting on the bus, subway, or train faster. The higher you preload on the card, the bigger discount you can receive. You will have to reload this card at a MetroCard Vending Machine or at a station booth.

The “Unlimited Ride MetroCard” can be purchased for time periods of 7 days and 30 days of unlimited bus and train use, and 7 days of unlimited bus, express bus, and train use. Having this card will come in handy if you will be using the subways, trains or buses often for an extended amount of time. There are some restrictions to exactly what “Unlimited Rides” means and you can find them here.

The “EasyPay” Metrocard is connected to your debit or credit card and will be refilled automatically so you don’t have to wait in line to add rides to your card. You can choose to use this card as a “Pay-Per-Ride” card or an “Unlimited” Ride card. You cannot get this card at a MetroCard Vending Machine. You can only apply to purchase one through the MTA website.

Visitors and locals alike can also apply for a “Reduced Fare” card in either Pay-Per-Ride or Unlimited Ride. These cards are meant to help individuals with accessibility needs and elderly. You can find more information about this card at the MTA website.

How to Find a MetroCard


If you don’t have a card, you can purchase one at a MetroCard vending machine, local merchant, subway station booth, and the MetroCard bus or van. You can use this locator to find the option closest to you.

Bike

Thousands of New Yorkers use bikes as a mode of transportation daily. Because of this, New York has gone to great lengths to ensure cyclists’ safety. Over 1,000 miles of bike lanes weave throughout New York City to help cyclists navigate the city streets. As an effort to educate the cycling masses, New York City DOT put together this great “Bike Smart” guide on biking laws and best practices that show examples and illustration. If you plan on biking at any point in NYC, it’s worth checking it out.

There are several bike rental programs across the city for locals and tourists to take advantage of. Most notable and readily available is the Citi Bike program. Citi Bike has 8,000 bikes with 500 stations around New York City, so you can grab one and go. They also have both annual memberships and daily passes available.

Citi Bike app

The app is available for both IOS and Google Play and can tell you where the stations are and how many bikes are left so you don’t have to hunt for your ride. Other apps that can help plan your transportation around NYC, like Citymapper, can also help you plan Citi Bikes into your travel plan.

  • tyranorfolk

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