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The New York City Subway
It's only fair that the city that never sleeps has a transportation system that never sleeps. The New York City subway runs 24/7 for New Yorkers and tourists on the go. It is also one of the oldest and largest systems, but only the 4th busiest in the world in comparison to Asian cities like Tokyo. Nonetheless, the New York City subway is one of the unique building blocks of the historical and modern city that exists today.
The History of the New York City Subway
As the modern city began to grow with early 20th century developments, New York was in dire need of a reliable transit system. Although elevated steam-powered railroads developed in the mid 19th century as the early transportation route, the underground subway began at the turn of the century in 1898.
The consolidation of New York City to consist of the five boroughs, made it easier to link the city with a subway. The first subway was built to run from City Hall in Manhattan to The Bronx, opening in 1904. The first company was the IRT: The Interborough Rapid Transit Company, which developed a few transit lines going down major avenues in Manhattan. Some of these lines still exist today, like the IRT Lexington Avenue Line, which ran from Borough Hall to Grand Central - 42nd Street. Today, this is the Lexington Avenue: 4,5,6 line.
Integrating the Subway System
The second privately owned system was the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company, or the BRT which built lines through Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan. The City of New York worked together with both companies and would eventually own and operate its own line, the Independent Subway System: The IND in 1932. It would be inevitable that the two private systems would be bought by the city to integrate the entire system. By 1953, the New York City Transit Authority, who oversees the subway today, was in charge of not only subway transit, but bus and streetcar lines.
Understanding the New York City Subway Map
One look at the New York City Subway map and you might think it looks like Spaghetti. Conquering the system as a tourist first hand may be difficult with so many lines, letters and colors. Train lines often change due to construction, but for the most part run within normal limits. 24 train lines have their own color and shape, determining whether or not it runs local - stopping at every stop - or express - a faster route.
Even though the system runs 24-hours, 365 days a year, some lines do not run or change patterns during late night hours and weekends. The colorful map is based on a 1979 design which is not to scale, but displays the routes in a way that is eye appealing. For instance, two station stops may seem within walking distance, but one must account that there may be a few street blocks in between stations.
New York City Subway Stations
Tourists and even locals love taking photographs in city stations. At one point after 9/11, it was deemed illegal to take photographs in subway cars or stations, as a security warning. Yet passengers love the designs of these stations, some very unique in taste and form. You can find a subway station by looking for the Globe lamps, which were once used to designate if a train was running local or off hours. Many stations have mezzanines allowing for access to platforms and other transit lines.
Stations often feature intricate art work and designs, thanks to the "Arts for Transit" program which promotes mass transit and local artists. For instance, you can see beautiful stained glass at at the Bronx Park East station in The Bronx, located close to The Bronx Zoo.
How to Ride the New York City Subway
Fares often change in New York City due to fare hikes in order to fund maintenance of the subway. Tokens were used for decades as payment for the subway. With this system you would pay for a token to insert in a turnstile to get through. These have become obsolete since 1994 when the MetroCard was introduced. This is a refillable card that can be used on the subway and on New York City buses. You can get special fare cards, which include a 7 day Unlimited Card or a 30 day Unlimited Card, most optimal for locals who work.
Riding the subway seems to be a quintessential New York City experience, especially for tourists who want to view the unique stations and ride like a local during rush hour. New innovations include an initiative introduced in 2011 called "On The Go!" which lists important transit work service changes and helps travelers find local landmarks or other stations nearby.