Graduate Admissions Blog

Navigating the Subways

The subway. For some, a disorienting and stressful experience, where uptown and downtown feels like luck of the draw. For others, an efficient, enjoyable, and history-rich marvel of urban engineering. For most of us though, there are 3 to 4 stops we are familiar with and we know just where to stand on the platform so we can zone out entirely with a book or iPhone app until we arrive at work or school.

My dad, a New Yorker who used to commute from Long Island to midtown, came to visit me recently, and when he took the 1 train to Penn Station from Columbus circle where we had lunch he casually referred to it as “the IRT”. I was intrigued, because to me it was just “the 1 train”. Many people new to the city don’t realize that there were once two subway companies, the IRT and the BMT. Check out a neat article about it here. There is so much to learn about the subways. It could make for a great way to study the history of New York with middle or high school students, come to think of it.

Even for those who appreciate the bone rattling speeds of an uptown A train, or the fact that this is a 100 year old system that is still growing in ridership, there are those moments in that zoned out commute when suddenly, unfairly, the train is running local or worse yet, service has been directed over a different line. “How is my train on the wrong side of town?” I recall thinking to myself the first time this happened to me. It helps to know that a line and a service are different things. I didn’t know that until recently. It is kind of confusing, but it helps to make sense of why a 5 train is occasionally running on the track where you usually get the 2 train. If you’re interested, here is a chart of subway lines and the services that run on them.

So how can someone new to the city hope to master this system, and be ready for what service changes the MTA gods decide to test your skills with on a particular day? I think your best bet is to try out the following apps:

1 – “subwaytime”


This app is free, which is great, and also fairly easy to understand. The app is made by the MTA, so the train times listed on the app are directly linked to those LED countdown clocks in the stations. Those countdown clocks are not available

on most of the lettered subway lines, so they are not even listed on the app! You can only get info on the 1,2,3,4,5, and S and L lines. To be fair, they let you know this ahead of time (and remember, the app is free.) There is also no map to look at, and a jarring “loading” wheel in-between screens. Other apps can at least show you a map if there’s no cellular or wifi service, but thing wouldn’t even load up at all in a dead-zone. Rating: 1/5

2 – “NYCmate”


Although broken, I still recommend it because A. it’s free, B. it’s easy to maneuver the map, and C. maybe it will work again some day! This had been the best thing ever two or so years ago. For some reason, right around the end of 2012, certain features stopped working. It has a map of the subway system, and when you tap any stop, it would tell you the arrival times of the next couple of trains. This even worked for lettered services somehow. It was perfect! You knew whether to run to make a train or take your time getting there. I say download it anyway to have a nice looking uncluttered map available on your phone. You can also access metro north times and bus lines in all boroughs on it. What a shame it’s not working like it used to though. Rating: 2/5, could be 5/5 if it worked!

3 – “NYCsubway” by MXdata

NYC subway

This app is pretty helpful. The subway map is the main screen, and tapping any station stop brings up information on the train services that run there and if there are any delays. A great feature is that this thing is somehow linked to the arrival board data you see in the station. So you can get real time information on when your train comes in. You can also get pop-up delay notification on lines you frequent. The only drawback is that there is a lot of tapping involved to get to the train arrival board times, and it seems to me that would be the most important feature and should require the least amount of navigation. Also, there is no arrival board time for lettered subway lines, only the numbered lines. Luckily for us at Bank Street, the 1 train has the arrival time data available. You can upgrade to a paid version that will get rid occasional advertisements. Rating: 4/5 (would be higher if interface was a bit friendlier)

Happy riding!