Third in an occasional series where I wildly generalize about a transit system based on limited experience.

Segments ridden:
More or less all of the Manhattan Routes
D train to Coney Island & Downtown Brooklyn
7 train to Shea Stadium
Various approaches to Yankee Stadium
Bergen County NJ Transit Line (Waldwick – NY Penn Station)
PATH: Pavonia to 14th St
Staten Island Ferry

Scope: A+
If you’re reading this blog you probably know that the subway more or less blankets the city. But what you might not know is the extent of the commuter rail system, which covers all of Long Island, half of New Jersey and deep into Connecticut and upstate New York. Look for yourself; it’s truly massive.

And don’t forget the PATH subway system into New Jersey and run by the Port Authority, as well as the Newark and Hudson Shore Light Rail systems run by New Jersey Transit.

Service: A+
24-hour service on the subway, unparalleled anywhere in the world. As for commuter rail, I rode into the city on a Sunday and found myself with 36 trains a day in each direction to choose from.

Routing: A
Not an A+ because there’s very little in the way of routing that bypasses Manhattan. The city could use some ring lines like they have in Tokyo, London, and Paris.

Grade/ROW: A+
As with all third-rail systems, no pedestrian or auto is ever going to get anywhere near the track.

New York has extreme density where there’s rail transit, not so much where there isn’t. On the other hand, the not-so-dense places would give the average resident of, say, Greenwood some sort of aneurysm.

Culture: A+
Undoubtedly, the city in America where it’s most foolish to own a car, unless you go into the outer suburbs a lot. If not here an A+, then where?


If you have even a little bit of transit tourist in you, get thee to New York City before airfares go up again. Driving is a nightmare, parking can cost over $20 for a half hour (plus tax), and the subway system approaches perfection (unless you require wheelchair accessibility, as I discovered when trying to cart around a baby stroller on this trip).

If you’re a total cheapskate, get a hotel out in the suburbs and take the commuter rail in.

What’s a little frightening is that with all the transit options available, there used to be more. There are tons of transit tunnels and stations abandoned at the peak of the automobile age. The city tore down dozens of miles of elevated track in the last century as well. And yet the system still carries more daily riders that all the nation’s other systems combined.

Smart NYC travelers fly into Newark and take one of the various New Jersey transit options into the city, rather than suffering through a 2-hour AirTrain and Subway slog into Manhattan from JFK.

Multimodalism is at its best here. At Penn Station, for instance, you have Amtrak, PATH trains, commuter rail, 6 subway lines, and God knows how many buses all coming together in one gigantic terminal. The Newark airport has an AirTrain system that connects all the terminals with not only the car rental complex, but also a train station that supports both commuter rail and Amtrak.

This kind of integration makes it plausible to nearly eliminate “puddle-jumper” aircraft, since outlying residents can simply take the train to take advantage of the many destinations available out of the New York airports. I think this kind of thing is very useful as gas prices skyrocket and scarce landing slots have to be devoted to bigger aircraft.

I’m told there are a few traditional tourist attractions in the city as well.

28 Replies to “Transit Report Card: New York City”

  1. Population – Seattle: 580,000. New York: 8,200,000.

    Density – Seattle: 6941 New York: 27,032

    Commute Greater than 60 minutes – Seattle: 5.13%. New York: 24.54%.

  2. I love NY(‘s subway system). I took a long weekend trip to Manhattan, and only felt the need to take a taxi once (which turned out to be a mistake). Everywhere that’s worth going to is a short walk from a station, and there’s never a wait for a train.

  3. Negatives:

    Lack of transit (other than auto/slow bus) to LaGuardia.

    Still no real connection between Penn Station and Grand Central.

    Confusing subway entrance closures during evenings/wkends.


    Still investing in infrastructure: Second Ave subway.

    One word: Secaucus.

    Bottom-line: I still miss the tokens.

  4. The construction of the Flushing Line (today’s IRT #7) is an interesting study about the correct way to build a city.

    NYC built the elevated line when the area was barely populated … and the city grew up around each of the stations.

  5. Sam, it’s kind of pointless to compare cities in radically different stages of development to each other, because the infrastructure choices made have a large impact on that development.

    There’s a great NY Times article on what would have happened without the subway in NYC. Density would have topped out in the 1950s!

    Note that density in NYC when the first subway line opened in 1904 was about 10,000 per square mile – not much higher than Seattle’s 6900. With Link allowing population density in Seattle to increase, and the results of the next few years of condo construction added on, we’re well on our way to the demand necessary for a new york subway line.

  6. berlin’s u-bahn is pretty amazing too – 24-hour subway with <15 minute headways on many of the lines (this, apparently, is relatively new in the last 5 years). it works great. they also have a ring-bahn (S44/S45, if i remember correctly) that runs around the city.

    there are two advantages to both berlin and parts of the NYC transit system that are often overlooked:

    -you can drink on the train!

    in berlin, as in many (but not all) european countries, open containers on transit are OK.

    in nyc, on many of the commuter lines, there is a bar car and from what i understand it’s pretty congenial. imagine that on sounder! even if drinking isn’t your thing, it’s nice to have passenger amenities for those long sloggy commutes like having food/beverage for sale either in the stations or on-board.

    the closest i’ve ever seen has been on metro’s rte 150 a few years ago, a couple kids with a cooler came on the bus and were selling sodas for 50 cents or some (pretty low) price. it was awesome!

  7. Commute Greater than 60 minutes – Seattle: 5.13%. New York: 24.54%
    Where’s this number from?

  8. I have one complaint about routing of the NYC subway: No lines from the Bronx to Queens without going through Manhattan. That adds some time to trip.

    Frank at Orphan Road taught me this: If you’re flying into JFK, take the Air Train to Jamaica and then Take the Long Island Rail Road to Port Authority, it’s the fastest way from JFK to Manhattan I’ve found.

  9. I don’t even see how you can have a 60 minute commute within Seattle. You work in West Seattle and Live in Lake City?

  10. Daimajin,

    It’s easy, if you don’t work downtown. Try commuting Rainier Beach to Loyal Heights, especially if there’s some walking involved.

  11. Talk about lack of ways to bypass Manhattan. Is there any way to take any sort of rail from the Bronx to anywhere on Long Island without entering Manhattan?

  12. I have a friend who has a Northgate to (insert large coffee company in SoDo) commute. Their parking is 10-15 mins away, depending on lights/trains.

    I know lots of people with longer commutes within City of Seattle, than I would from my hovel in the sticks to downtown.

  13. morgan, given that on a train, you don’t encounter any slowdowns just by virtue of being in a dense place, why would you want to avoid transferring trains in manhattan?

  14. andrew cencini –

    Open containers are okay on Metro, too. Look carefully at the “ride right” sign:

    -No eating
    -No alcoholic beverages

    See anything there about non-alcoholic beverages? Nope, neither do I.

  15. (Okay, I know you meant alcoholic, I’m just pointing out that a coffee is okay).

  16. Ben,

    morgan, given that on a train, you don’t encounter any slowdowns just by virtue of being in a dense place, why would you want to avoid transferring trains in manhattan?

    I think you underestimate the distances involved in the NYC subway. Taking the 7 train from Grand Central to Shea Stadium, IIRC, is something like an hour. Getting there from the Bronx, probably a good 20-30 min from midtown Manhattan, at least, would take forever. Even in NYC gridlock, driving over one of the Long Island Sound bridges would be faster.

  17. yeah i should have been clearer about open containers to mean open alcohol containers

    *though* i have seen drivers (on what must be a really grumpy day) refuse boarding to certain passengers with coffee – lidded or not. saw it on the #10 a few weeks back. the driver had been having an awful day obviously. the ride-right posters seem also to conflict with the “no food or drink” stickers that usually are above the drivers’ area and towards the back on the frankentrolleys.

  18. as regarding 60-minute commutes here in seattle –

    capitol hill to overlake (microsoft)

    i did that for *years*. while the sea->redmond trip usually was only ~45 minutes (incl walking, transfers), redmond->seattle portion would often top out over 90 minutes on many days depending on when i left.

    also, try commuting from columbia city to redmond by bus. at best you could get the 7X->545 at king street, or try a multi-way transfer at I90 through bellevue to redmond. on the way home it was something like 545->48@montlake->5-10 minute walk from rainier playfield. ugly.

  19. Some things to do on the subway-

    Go to South Ferry. There’s a station with a curved platform and unique extending platforms to match the train. While there, ride the Staten Island ferry- a great way to see the outer harbor and get views of NY.

    Still in the south tip of Manhattan, take some trains around City Hall. You will pass through “ghost stations” that have been closed for many years.

    From Wall Street, ride the IRT north. Fastest or not, it feels like the fastest. The south tip of Central Park is a nice place to take your lunch.

    Coney Island, from what I hear, ain’t what it used to be. It seems to take forever to get there, but on a warm summer night it can be quite impressive to go down on the beach and look at the sea. Next stop, Ireland!

    It would take a while to exhaust the possibilities of the NYC subway system. Be sure to take a bus once, for that “watching the pedestrians go faster than you are” sensation. Do that first and you will immediately overcome any reluctance to ride the subway.

  20. When I take the train somewhere that involves a transfer I always figure it will take 45-60 minutes.

    Bikes are much faster than the subway.

  21. It takes a very similar amount of time to get to from either JFK or Newark to Manhattan.

  22. > rather than suffering through a 2-hour AirTrain and Subway slog into Manhattan from JFK.

    Huh? It’s not anywhere near 2-hours from JFK to Penn Station. AirTrain is about 20 minutes last I recall taking it, and LIRR from Jamaica is 20 to 30 min.
    Oh, did you take the *subway* from AirTrain? Well there’s your mistake. That’s much slower. Jamaica to Manhattan is actually a pretty big distance, so subway vs train is kind of like MT 174 local vs 194 from Seatac.

  23. sam-
    seattle: 84 sq. mi. of land
    nyc: 304 sq. mi. of land

    thats why there’s so many less 60 min commutes.

  24. If I were you, I’d also consider cost, safety, and comfort.

    Cost: A. Not as cheap as it used to be, but one flat fare to go as far as you want in the entire system.

    Safety: B. Here I’m guessing a bit, and while I’ve never been mugged, I’ve felt less than safe on the platforms in the Bronx after midnight.

    Comfort: C. I don’t mind the tight spaces, but NYC’s subways are notoriously filthy and almost unbearably loud. But not as bad as the transbay tube for BART.

  25. Umm I have to say that your comment about Newark is unfounded. You CAN, from JFK, use the subway into Manhattan or you can be smarter and pay a bit more for Long Island Railroad at Jamaica Station and ride non-stop or one-stop 24 hours a day (might be 1 hour wait, if you miss a train in the middle of the night). However, with your Newark if you arrive late a night you’re gonna have to wait for the first train of the morning to get into Manhattan.
    As I live in New York City (Manhattan), I would rather use JFK simply for the 24 hour links into NYC.

    Thanks for taking my 2 cents.

  26. Two comments:

    – Two days ago, I took the J train from the Lower East Side to JFK (It seemed easier than dealing with a transfer to the LIRR), and it was still only about 60 minutes. It was also a beautiful ride — I understand that elevated trains can be bad for urban development, so I wouldn’t necessarily support them here — but man there’s something nice about watching the pretty, old, semi-decaying buildings go by.

    – On cleanliness: the NYC subway has cleaned up a *lot* recently. It still smells like decay on many of the platforms (probably the result of stagnant water pooled under the tracks), but the cars are surprisingly clean.

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