So it's been over a month since my trip to New York, and I'm finally getting around to writing about transit lessons learned there. Let me first say that New York is the most transit-accessible city in the country, and it shows. I never once felt constrained by my choice to take a transit-centric trip there. While I did spend most of my time in Manhattan, and I am told that the situation in the outer boroughs is somewhat different, I found New York's transit infrastructure to be convenient, ubiquitous, and auto-competitive. I'll go into what that means in a bit.
My first observation of New York's transit system came upon my arrival in Manhattan's Chinatown (Allen & Canal) at just after 1 in the morning. It was absolutely astounding to me that Google Transit quickly provided a transit routing to my hostel off of 126th and 5th Avenue, nearly 10 miles away. The realization, after perusing the NYC subway map, that every line (not service, but line) runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, was amazing and slightly shocking. And then I walked the wrong way on Canal Street and screwed it up.
Instead of ending up at the Canal St. (N, Q, R, W, 6, J, M, Z) station, I ran into the East Broadway (F) station. I bought a Metrocard and proceeded to try and find my way through the system based on a wall-mounted map on the platform when a train arrived. I boarded it without the slightest idea where I was going, and I made this clear to other passengers on board... when, to my surprise, a NYC metro operator emerged from the rear cab of the car and gave me directions to the uptown 6 train. Service with a smile at 1 in the morning- fantastic.
Fate would surprise me yet again, however, at Broadway and Lafayette station (B, D, F, V, Downtown 6). In what appears to be the only instance of such a situation in the NYC subway system, the uptown 6 train, which is in the same station box, is only accessible via a separate entrance on Bleeker St. This is probably not a big deal to New Yorkers, who are used to it, but for a sleep-deprived tourist at 1:30 in the morning... not fun. I managed to get aboard the train, with help from a hot dog vendor, and got to bed around 2:30.
I won't relate ALL the tales I have about the subway in New York, but I will summarize a bit. I smacked into the turnstile 5 times, got on the train going the wrong way thrice, and declared many times that this system was the first that had me thoroughly confused, in all my years of riding transit. I've figured out DC, Vancouver, LA, San Francisco, Vegas, Paris and Barcelona, but New York tried my powers of map-reading and my sense of direction.
Why is this? A few reasons. First off, the New York system is designed with the assumption that a fare pays for a trip, not a boarding. The fare for a ride on the subway is $2.25, but that includes pretty much all the subway transfers you like, plus a free bus transfer within 2 hours. With this in mind, most subway transfers are accomplished by long underground passages (some several blocks in length) that allow you to change trains without leaving the fare-controlled area of the system. This is convenient, but VERY disorienting. Signage is quite good in the system, but for someone who isn't used to having to follow signs on board transit, it took some getting used to.
Also, New York is (I believe) unique among at least North American subway systems in that it runs separate-platform express service. In every other urban rail system I've been on, the paradigm is that one platform (or one side of an island platform) is for trains traveling in one direction, and the opposite side is for trains traveling in the other. In many parts of New York (Manhattan and Brooklyn, mostly), stations contain two island platforms, one for each direction, with one side of the island serving express trains and the other serving locals. There were occasions where I got on a train traveling in the wrong direction, crossed an island platform, and boarded another train traveling the wrong direction, just faster. I ended up in Queens this way, while trying to go to Brooklyn. Once again, the signage is excellent once you know to look for it, but the paradigms that serve you well in other urban rail systems are not as effective in the NYC subways.
Lastly, the sheer size of the NYC subway system is intimidating. There are tiny little subway stations littered on nearly every corner in Manhattan (And I do mean tiny- these cut-and-cover stations are claustrophobic for somebody who's used to LA and SF's deep-bore tunnels), and when you throw in the different services on different lines, the local/express distinctions, and an unfamiliar city, it can get confusing fast. Google Transit helps immensely.
However, New York does a couple of things right. Trains and buses are plentiful, ubiquitous, and round-the-clock. These factors, more than anything else, allow New York's transit culture to exist. The stations aren't well-maintained or even always clean, the system isn't user-friendly, and cross-town train service is very limited. (There are several cross-town bus lines, but they aren't noted on the subway map. I am told that many New Yorkers use taxis for this purpose.) Many of the preconditions that people posit for the acceptance of public transit in America are not present in New York City, and yet car ownership there is less than 50%. I therefore posit that only a few things need to be present for public transit to gain acceptance- it needs to exist, it needs to run all the time, and it needs to be frequent. Anything else is just icing on the cake.
One other lesson- New York has a completely turnstile-controlled system, where the only method of payment is the MetroCard. Ticket vending machines are present at all entrances, but attendants are only there at major transfer points. And millions of people manage to ride the system every day without the world ending. Perhaps FareGate isn't the end of the world?