Comprehensive Guide to Using the Subway

UPDATE:  Since my most recent trip to New York, I've changed some of the instructions in the New York Subway example below for clarity and accuracy.

I absolutely love public transit. In Winnipeg, I take the bus to work daily and it's my favoured mode of transportation whenever I visit a big city. But I know some feel nervous using public transit. They worry about crime or rats. They're terrified they'll get lost. Yet in my experience, taking the subway - particularly during peak hours - is relatively safe and reasonably clean. And if you make a mistake (get on the wrong train, off at the wrong stop, et cetera), it's often easily fixed. 

So if you've never tried a mode of public transit like the subway, tube, sky rail, el, or various rail systems, but are interested in learning how, here's a guide on how to use it.

Chris waiting for the El in Chicago, 2012
Familiarize yourself with the city's transit website before you leave. You can look at maps of the routes,  use tools to plan your trips in advance, and often download a transit app for the city you're visiting. You can also use the website to figure out what type of pass is right for you. If you're using public transit multiple times a day, every day, it may be worth it to purchase a day or week pass. Different cities offer different types of passes, so take some time to work out what is right for you. This will save you money in the long run.

Once you've arrived, transit maps for subway lines and their stops can be found in one of two places: either immediately outside each subway station, or as soon as you enter, before you go through the turnstiles. There will also be a map over every set of doors on the train for the stops on your route. Some include information about which stops offer connections to other lines.

Buy a ticket at any one of the machines you'll see the moment you get in the station. If you don't have exact change, don't worry. Most machines make change, or even allow you to pay with credit card or debit. Buy the pass you need (single use, day pass, or more) and continue on to the turnstiles. In some cities, you must scan your metro card or insert your subway token to get in (there will be a sign showing you which way to insert the card), and others operate on a kind of honour system. You're expected to buy a ticket, but are not required to scan the card at any point. However, if you're caught on a train without your metro card, you will pay a hefty fine.

To take the train you need to know four things: where you're going, which line (or lines) you need to take, the end stop for your line, and the stop you need to get off on. I'm going to use this New York City subway map to show how this works. (You can find a full page map here.)

Image from

Let's say I'm on the west side of Central Park, the nearest station to me is 81 Street Museum of Natural History, and I'm trying to get to the Brooklyn Bridge City Hall stop. From my current stop I can get on either the Blue A or C or Orange B or D Lines, but I know that I need to get to the Green 4 or 5 Lines to reach the Brooklyn Bridge City Hall stop. Both the Blue A and C and Orange B and D Lines intersect the Green 4 or 5 Lines, but the Blues don't intersect until after my desired stop, so I'm going to be sure to get on one of the Orange B or D Lines at the 81 Street Station. 

Now, since trains on each line runs both ways, I need to be sure to get on the correct train. In most cities, trains are labelled by their last stop on the line, also known as the Terminus Station. In New York, trains are labelled by the direction or neighbourhood they're headed toward. For example, a train may be labelled Downtown, Uptown, Brooklyn, Queens et cetera. I definitely want to be heading toward Downtown, but the Orange Line splits off into multiple routes as it goes south. By looking at the map, I can see that the B or D line will intersect the Green 4 or 5: allowing me to transfer. 

To transfer to the Green 4 or 5, I'll have to get off on the Broadway Lafayette Street stop. After that, I'll walk over to the Bleeker St stop on the Green Line. Either the 4 or 5 will get me to my goal stop, Brooklyn Bridge City Hall, as long as I take a train headed for Brooklyn, not up to The Bronx. Once I get off at Brooklyn Bridge City Hall, I'm done!

The Dakota Building off Central Park West, New York City, 2011

If this seems confusing or overwhelming to you, remember two things: New York City's transit system is one of the largest and most complicated ones around. Seriously, if you can master it, every other city will seem like a cake walk. And two, this gets easier and easier the more you do it.

A few further pieces of advice:

For safety, stick to subway cars with more people on them, keep your valuables in front of you and not in your back pockets, and stand with your back to a wall or sit down if possible.

Don't panic. These systems are designed to be used by people. There will be signs, announcements and information literally everywhere. Take a deep breath, focus on where you need to go, and if you're really stuck, ask a stranger with a friendly face for help.

When you're on the train, pay attention to the stops as you go along and keep track of how close yours is. When you hear your stop announced, move closer to the doors so you don't get stuck on the train for another station.

Remember that mistakes are fixable. If you mess up, get off, reorient yourself, and get back on in the right direction.

Brooklyn Bridge, New York City, 2011
Navigating public transit in a big city can be a daunting task. I can relate. I grew up in a small city with absolutely no transit system. Even figuring out the bus system in Winnipeg seemed impossible to me when I first moved here. I never imagined I'd master the rail systems in cities like Rome, Toronto, Vancouver, Chicago and New York, but I have. And I can tell you from experience that it is an amazing way to see a city. You'll be among the real citizens who work and live there, see some pretty weird and whacked out (but mostly harmless) people, and acquire a useful skill. In my opinion, it's the true way to navigate a city like a local.