Ask me how to get around New York City a year ago, and I would have guessed the same that anyone might: Taxi? Subway? Can you get around by walking? Is it worth renting a bike? What about Uber and services like that? Surely, the brief time I had spent in the city didn't warrant any valuable transportation advice from me. Well, all that has changed my friends. Listen to me, and you'll learn how to minimize your travel time, and maximize your fun time...
The first thing you need to know about getting around the city is that there are many ways to get anywhere. All of the aforementioned methods are options at any given time. The city doesn't sleep as far as transportation is concerned. However, knowing when each method is your best option is a truly valuable trick to have up your sleeve, and will save you a potential fortune in terms of both time and money.
Below is a list of ways to get around and when each one is a viable option.
- Best Time to take it: Weeknights except Friday, Weekends during the day, The wee hours of the night
- Worst Time to take it: During rush hour, Friday and Saturday nights, During parades, When it rains
The first solution that always came to my mind when I added New York + Transportation was Taxi. There's something representative about the taxis in New York. There's a lore about it. We see it in movies, we hear about it in stories, and you can't escape them when you're here. The drivers are from seemingly every country on this Earth, showcasing in their own little subculture how truly diverse and "international" New York is. Heck- there was a show about it.
But does it make sense to take one?
As I alluded to earlier- yes and no. There are times when it is undoubtedly your best option, and times when it can be your worst nightmare. Predicting which one of these outcomes will happen takes a little bit of city-savvy, but let me present it to you in a nutshell.
The city streets move around the nine-to-five work week that America revolves around, and then some. Most people who commute know about this and make arrangements to be very early to account for it, followed by the lucky who get there just in time, and then by the ill-fortuned or poorly planned who will arrive late. This means the streets heading toward the city on any given Monday through Friday will be jam-packed from about 6am until about 10am with work commuters, and again in reverse from about 3pm-7pm. The window in between and surrounding can still be heavy at times, but not quite as immovable as during the hours above.
Saturday and Sunday are sort of a wild card, and area-dependent. On any given weekend there could be a parade or a market blocking off an entire avenue, which can produce a bottle-necking domino effect throughout the city- especially downtown. If you're uptown (past the 60's), you're less likely to run into trouble. But beware of Friday and Saturday nights anywhere in the city- New Yorkers and those visiting the city party hard here, and at those times, the traffic can be worse than rush hour. I've legitimately gotten out of cabs, and walked faster than them to the nearest subway.
All that being said, there is a time when taxis make the most sense. Anytime late at night once the city has slowed down a bit, if you don't mind spending more to remain above ground and get to your destination more quickly, a taxi is the way to go. Also, if your commute is only uptown or cross-city, you can usually get away with a taxi without spending too much.
One final note- once it rains, many people place their looks or desire to stay dry above their wallets, and at that time, finding a taxi can become more difficult. It is generally wiser to run to the nearest subway station. Which brings us to our next option...
- Best Time to Take It: Anytime
- Worst Time to Take It: During early morning rush hour towards Downtown, Late night when the trains run more infrequently
Arguably more synonymous with New York City than taxis are the subways. Once you live here for a bit, you start to see the truth in that. When it comes down to it, New York's subway system is the most efficient way to travel throughout the city and its boroughs. One ride on the subway, regardless of how many times you need to transfer underground, will only cost you a couple bucks, and will generally get you to where you're going faster than any other means of transportation, with very few exceptions.
The main problem people have with the subway when they aren't from here is the same problem I had when I first arrived; at first glance, it seems complicated. It doesn't help that everyone who knows the system and where they're trying to go is usually speeding past you while you're being moved along or shoved aside by the school of humans flowing hurriedly to their destinations. But I assure you- New Yorkers tend to get a bad rep. Most of them will happily tell you where to go if you politely ask them.
Just make sure not stop the flow of things if you can help it- and you usually can. This means don't walk with your face in your cell phone all the time. Make sure there's money on your Metro Card so you're not holding people up at the turnstile. Walk up the right side of the stairs- this isn't England. And don't come to a sudden stop once you've realized you're going in the wrong direction. When you're trying to figure out where you're going, stand aside, out of the way, and you'll avoid getting knocked over or barked at.
The best thing you can do is know where you're going and what to look for before you start swimming with the big fish. Just a simple understanding of the Subway map will help you to know which lines are of use to you. And after months of getting lost on them, taking them in the wrong direction, and discovering their secrets, I am now qualified to break it all down for you.
Here is a Subway Map that you should download if you plan to come to the city. Sometimes you just can't find one when you need one.
Another great tool that I frequently use is Google Maps. Most people who live outside the city don't realize that you can change the method of transportation from "Driving" to "Public Transportation" (and also to "Walking" or "Biking"). They are pretty good about giving you an accurate estimation of how long it will take and when certain trains are going to arrive and depart. You can also search what time you need to be at the station to "Arrive By" a certain time by toggling that feature instead of the default "Depart At."
Before long, you will see that subways are typically your best bet in NYC; they are faster than almost every method of transportation, more reliable, and cheaper. Unless you have time on your side, that is...
WALKING, BIKING, AND BOARDING
- Best Time to Walk/Bike/Ride: When it's sunny, When time isn't an obstacle, When you want a workout, When you want to sight-see, When you're broke
- Worst Time to Walk/Bike/Ride: When it's raining, When you're in a hurry, When you're feeling lazy
It doesn't get much cheaper than free, and it doesn't get much nicer on a sunny day in NYC than walking, riding a bike, or my personal favorite: riding a longboard. Obviously, this is the slowest method of travel, generally speaking, unless you've got a bike and traffic is thick!
I think most people would rather be above-ground, soaking up the rays, admiring New York City's architecture, people, and cityscapes than in a oft-congested underground travel tube. That's how most of us stay in shape here. If something is within 20-30 blocks, I'll typically walk it, and would suggest walking it. If you're visiting, and don't plan on rushing around, why not walk it? It's a very pretty walk, and there are so many different routes- each one amazing.
If you're wondering how far it is to walk from the bottom- say Battery Park, which is where you would take the ferry to the Statue of Liberty- to say Upper Manhattan, it would take a little over two hours. It's almost seven miles, but I can't imagine a prettier 7-mile walk. If you did it by bike, it would take you less than an hour.
I hear what you're saying: "I'd sooner do it by bike, but I'm not gonna drag one into the city!"
No need, my friend. They have implemented CitiBike Stations throughout Manhattan for you to rent at your leisure. They offer Day Passes and even 3-Day Passes at a very affordable rate. Essentially, you pick up a bike from any one of the stations in the city, and drop it off at that or any other station when you're done. I love that, and wish more people would do it. As they advertise- it's a whole new way to experience the city. Just don't lose the damn thing or you'll be charged way more than it's worth.
And while we're on the subject of getting robbed, let's discuss one more method of transportation...
TRANSPORTATION APPS & SERVICES (UBER, LYFT, VIA, ETC.)
- Best Time to Take It: When convenience is paramount, When public transportation isn't easily accessible, When you need to lug around more than a suitcase
- Worst Time to Take It: When everybody else wants to, During heavy traffic
Another popular way to get around New York City is through one of the ever-changing apps that offer you an alternative to the taxi meter. They do serve their purpose, and are occasionally desirable, and even worth it, but come with a strong warning: they can be hard-to-swallow expensive, and at times, the slowest possible alternative. They can also be the fastest and most convenient, however, so again, it's entirely situational.
The first one I'd like to talk about is Via. In theory, this is actually a great app. I love its concept: they'll take you anywhere in Manhattan for $5. That's a deal. If you're going from top to bottom, you can expect to spend a minimum of $20 and upwards of $60 in a taxi or an Uber- even more at times if you ever fall victim to surge pricing (why is this a thing?). The only catch is- you generally share the vehicle with other people who are getting around.
The app calculates the most convenient route for everyone involved, and you're at the mercy of its logarithm. You might be the only one in the car (this has happened to me) and you might also be forced to go through Midtown Saturday night traffic with a drunken, real-life version of the Golden Girls (this has also happened to me).
In two out of four times taking a Via, I've asked to get out of the car, opting to finish my commute in a subway, deciding I would arrive much faster and/or at least escape my company. I like the app and the concept, but it isn't without its flaws.
The other style apps like Uber and Lyft, charge you a set amount, pick you up exactly where you are, and no amount of traffic you run into will change what you pay, unless you run into a time where "surge pricing" is in effect, which means so many people want an Uber that they know they can effectively empty your wallet in one trip if you ride with them. The upside to apps like Uber and Lyft is convenience, a more pleasant riding experience, and probably a more comfortable one. Sometimes, it's also your fastest option, like when cabs are for some reason no where to be found and it won't be convenient to take a subway.
There is something to be said about the convenience of an Uber, though, when you need to transport a bunch of stuff. I recently went on a film shoot where a taxi or the subway just wouldn't have cut it. It was expensive, but then again, we weren't paying for it. It definitely serves its purpose, it just shouldn't be relied on in all situations like it can be in other parts of the country.
Oh! And I almost forgot...
- Best Time to take it: Going across town (East/West), When it's raining, When you're in the buroughs
- Worst Time to take it: When you're in a rush
The bus, actually, is a pretty valuable method of transportation in New York City. I'll give you an example of why...
I live in the Upper East Side and I used to work in the Upper West Side. Normally, I would walk or take my long board across, taking me anywhere between 20-35 minutes. It would really suck to do that in the freezing, windy cold of winter, or the 37-degree rain. A taxi is possible, costing about $10, or you could just hop on the bus with the swipe of your Metro Card (currently $2.75). They both take almost the same amount of time, and it's not a particularly uncomfortable journey either.
The buses in NYC are actually pretty nice. Just beware- at some stations, you're apparently supposed to pay with the machine at the bus stop rather than swiping on the bus. I got a lot of attitude from one bus driver because it was my first time riding a bus that "required" it. It escalated to the point where I called him a jerk. It takes a lot for me to call someone I don't know a jerk to their face. But he was a jerk. Anyway, you won't normally run into this kind of bus- just know it's a thing.
Another time the bus can be useful is when you're riding in or through the buroughs. I found that the express bus to Staten Island was much quicker than taking the ferry, and there have been times when I found myself in Brooklyn trying to get to other parts of Brooklyn that weren't possible via subway. The bus is a good, cheap alternative to the taxi in these parts, and Google Maps will again help you figure out where you need to be and when to catch one.
That's it for now! Just remember...
When in doubt, take the subway!