The first time I came to New York City (in 2003), I was here for a political protest. I’d taken a bus in from Chicago with a friend, and after the march we made a plan to explore the city in the few hours we had before our trip back home. We somehow made it to Strawberry Fields and some random Thai restaurant in Chelsea. I returned to Chicago thinking that the NYC transit system was seriously messed up. Transfers were a nightmare — sometimes you’d have to walk a block or two underground, and how could you remember all of that information? — and how can you tell which direction when you’re facing when you come back topside?
Ten years later, I’m happy to say that it’s been a very long time since I’ve felt baffled by the MTA network (though I will warn you that frustration at its sometimes-ineffeciency never really goes away). Part of this is from experience: you make the same mistakes enough times and you figure out that you need to change things. My own example of this: for weeks, I sat at the upper platform at the A/B/C/D platform at 145th Street, hoping to catch the D express train… not realizing that the B/D trains are on the lower platform there.
The good news is that New Yorkers — unless they’re in a huge hurry, of which there’s a 50/50 chance — are usually quite willing to answer questions about the MTA, no matter how silly. Most of us have been in confusing situations and know what it’s like to have questions. But in case you are nervous about asking for directions, we’ve come up with a list of five apps that will help you get around until you get your NYC sea legs, so to speak. Or, at the very least, they were each indispensable to me in getting to the point at which I don’t have to ask questions anymore; now I’m the one people are asking.
Google Maps. The iPhone maps app used to be decent for getting public transit information, but now it requires you to download an additional plug-in app in order to get public transit directions. Google has come to the rescue, offering a Maps app for both Android and iOS platforms. (Android and iOS, free)
Uptown. If you’ve ever emerged from the subway and are wondering which was is north, this app will help you find exactly that information. I find it’s more responsive than opening up a map application, since its use is such a specific one. (iOS only, free)
24-Hour Kick Map. This is more than a subway map; it not only works without a data connection but it also indicates which stops and routes aren’t running at certain times. For example the C train stops running around 11:45pm, being taken over by the A, which then makes local stops instead of running its normal express route. And if you do have data access, the app uses GPS to determine where you are — and will connect you to Google Maps in a pop-up window without leaving the app. (iOS only, $1.99; a non-24-hour version is available for free)
Exit Strategy NYC. As if learning how and where to transfer isn’t difficult enough (which you’ll learn the first time you have to get on the S train at Grand Central Terminal), one skill you develop after any time in NYC is knowing what end of the train to be at in order to get out at the exit closest to your destination. This app provides just that information. It’s a bit pricey, but worth if if you’re one of those New Yorkers for whom every second counts. (iOS only, $4.99; lite versions available on Kindle, Android, and Blackberry for free)
NYC Bus Map. Unlike Chicago (from where I moved to NYC after 22 years of learning their transit system), bus lines are both less essential and more confusing than those in a smaller city. But I find myself using the bus often enough, like when I’m not rushed for time and want to get from the Lower East Side to Washington Heights (which is kind of hellish doing subway-only moves). And when you’re new to the city, it’s hard to remember which crosstown buses go where (the eastbound M79 will pick you up at 81st and Central Park West, for example). So it’s nice to have a bus map at your disposal… even if you think you won’t use it, you will. (iOS only, free)
If all of this transit talk piques your interest and you feel like learning more about how the system was built, or just want to get an idea of how 19th-Century urban planning can impact a 21st-Century commute, visiting the New York Transit Museum (130 Livingston St., Brooklyn) can offer just that.
What apps do you use to navigate the MTA system? Are there any you’d recommend that we’ve missed? Let us know in the comments!
P.S. BlockAvenue’s mobile app is just a few weeks away from going live! Stay tuned and be sure to download it straight to your smartphone- we have some really cool transit data to share that’s NOT in the market