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Highway to Subway: My Transition to Public Transportation After a Big Move and The Benefits

Public transportation can be a lifesaver for commuters but if you’re a newbie to public transportation, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Check out these 4 tips on switching from highways to subways after a big move.

Moving to a new city is a milestone in life that comes with excitement along with certain challenges. One of the biggest hurdles of a big move is adjusting to your new environment. From meeting your neighbors to getting to know your neighborhood, your new city can sometimes feel like another planet compared to where you moved from.

This was the case when I moved to New York City from a quiet suburb in California. If there’s one thing Californians are known for, it’s driving. Whether it’s the coffee shop down the block or the beach cafe across town, 9 times out of 10, they drive themselves to their destination. So imagine my culture shock when I moved from a city with very little public transportation options to the public transportation capital of the world - New York City

To say that learning to use NYC’s public transportation system was an adjustment would be an understatement. As a newbie to the city, I made many mistakes when it came to public transportation safety and planning my public transportation route. However, I’m happy to say I have now mastered it and am ready to share my knowledge and experience. So if you have a transition from the highway to the subway looming on the horizon, sit back and enjoy the ride as I present 4 important tips to know about using public transportation in a big city.

Tip #1: Know the Difference Between Local & Express Trains

Contrary to what I assumed, trains and buses are not dubbed as “express” because they move faster. Local vs. Express is an essential difference when taking public transportation to your desired destination. Most train lines will have two different trains going in the same direction but the local train will stop at every stop and the express will only stop at major subway stations. In most cities, local and express will be differentiated by a letter or a number (i.e. In NYC, the 4 versus. 6 train or N versus. Q and in Philadelphia, the Express A versus. Express B). Knowing the difference between these two transportation route types will help get you to your destination faster or help avoid missing a stop.

Tip #2: Check the Sign Before You Swipe

I had to learn this the hard way and I would hate for a public transportation newbie to go through the same hassle that I did. Most subway commuters who reside in the city purchase an unlimited, monthly MetroCard (I highly recommend that you opt for this cost-saving option when purchasing your own Metro Pass as well). However, before you swipe your card at a subway turnstile, make sure to check that you’re swiping at the correct train stop. 

In an effort to eliminate commuters from double swiping for friends, cities enforce a 20-minute wait time between swipes for unlimited passes. This means that if you accidently swipe at the wrong turnstile, you would need to wait 20 minutes before you can swipe again. Additionally, even if you don’t have an unlimited pass, swiping at the incorrect turnstile will cost you an additional fare. Needless to say, I missed quite a few important appointments by not knowing this vital piece of information.

Tip #3: Know the Direction of Your Destination 

Subway trains are typically named after a number or a letter. For example, the train from Williamsburg in Brooklyn to Manhattan is called the L Train. However, after getting lost several times, I realized that each subway station will offer two entrances for the same train name going in opposite directions and it was my responsibility to figure out which direction I was heading to. You may think this should be easy enough but it’s not always this simple.

For example, if I was already in Manhattan and I was looking to go further uptown, the subway stations won’t always be marked as “Uptown” or “Downtown”. Instead, the train to uptown Manhattan may be marked as “Queens” or “Bronx” while the downtown train may be marked as “Brooklyn”. It is up to you to figure out which way uptown or downtown would be. While my example is specific to NYC, most cities that offer public transportation work this way. To put in “‘highway-related” terms, do you need to be going north or south on the freeway?

Tip #4: Practice Public Transportation Etiquette

Last but not least, as I continued to get familiarized with the NYC public transportation system, I quickly learned that there were unspoken rules to riding the subway. While these rules can sometimes be found posted on the top of the subway car, it’s best to know them beforehand. While public transportation etiquette is mostly just common sense, it’s not as obvious to those coming from a world where public transportation isn’t the norm. Practices such as waiting for others to get off the train before getting on, holding your backpack in front of you to create more space, moving to the center of the car, etc. are easy yet effective rules to follow that make the subway ride pleasant for everybody. While I have been guilty of not following some of these rules during my first weeks riding the subway, I slowly assimilated and was happy to partake.

For a comprehensive list of subway best practices and rules, visit the MTA website.

A big move comes with many to-do items so it’s best to be prepared for those must-do’s that aren’t as obvious such as switching to public transportation. A little research and helpful advice can go a long way when navigating a new city and its transportation options. Follow these tips and you’ll be riding the public transportation routes in your new city like a pro!

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