As I headed home yesterday, a woman approached me on the Subway platform asking for directions to Times Square and if the Yellow line would take her there. Holy tourist! Yellow line?! I began chatting with this nice lady from Madison, Wisconsin since we were traveling in the same direction and she started lamenting the complexity of NYC’s subway system. I promptly offered my navigational services but as I started explaining the map I realized, this really is one helluva alphabet soup of colored lines and sans-serif font!
So I started with the basics: the Number Lines. These are 1,2,3,4,5,6. The most efficient way to travel the subway is north to south, as cutting across town becomes quickly complicated and it is typically easier to resort to busses or cabs in that case. When traveling the west side (left side on a map!) of Manhattan, take the 1,2,3 (red line). The 1 train makes local stops and 2,3 runs express through the city. When in doubt, take the local because it will always stop where you want it to (I’ve hopped on an express and seen my destination whizz by on many an occasion). For the east side (right side of the map), take the 4,5,6 (green line). Here the 4 and 5 are express trains and the 6 runs locally. If you stay on these trains going downtown, you will end up in Brooklyn. Conversely, if you stay on these trains going uptown you will end up in Da Bronx. Remember: North= Uptown, South= Downtown.
Now, for the Letter Lines. This is where it gets ugly. One would think the ABC trains would run together and maybe the DEF trains would follow a single line but that would be too easy! Instead, in some evil plot to confuse tourists the Metro Transit Authority has clumped the A,C,E (blue line) into one set and the B,D,F,V (orange line) into another! In addition, there is the N,Q,R,W (yellow line) and J,M,Z (brown line). The best way to think of these train lines is that they make a horse-shoe from Brooklyn into Manhattan, and then back out to Queens. When traveling through Manhattan, the B,D,F,V and N,Q,R,W are good for midtown stops, as they go up the middle of the city (5th and 6th Avenues), whereas the 1,2,3 or 4,5,6 will drop you on the west or east side. The A,C,E runs along the west side on 8th Avenue, so take that if you are making west side stops- just make sure if you’re on the E train that you hop off at the 50th St. stop because it cuts cross-town heading east after that point all the way to JFK Airport (convenient if you need to get from midtown west to midtown east).
Lastly, there are a couple cross-town options aside from the E train mentioned above. In Times Square there is the shuttle, S train, which takes you from Times Square to Grand Central on 42nd St. I rarely take this unless it is raining because I can usually walk faster. Alternatively the 7 train runs from Times Square out to Queens and is best used when the S isn’t running or late night. A bit further south is the L train option, which runs from 14th St. and 8th Avenue across town and into Brooklyn.
By no means is this a comprehensive subway guide as doesn’t address much travel in boroughs other than Manhattan. And yes, I neglected the dear G train! (It runs through Brooklyn.) Regardless, hopefully this was a good crash course in navigating one of the oldest subway systems in the world. And don’t worry, you can throw everything you just learned out the window if you’re traveling via Subway on the weekend because they MTA changes train routes for construction so frequently that locals don’t even know where they’re going!