Getting Around New York… In 2015

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Getting Around New York In 2015
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Once upon a time not too long ago, there were only a few ways to navigate around New York as a tourist:

  1. The subway (and bus system)
  2. Taxicabs
  3. Walking

What’s more, as recently as 11 years ago, your practical options getting to and from JFK Airport were really limited to taxis, since there was no possible way of getting to the terminals via train from the city. Since 2003, there’s now AirTrain, which connects JFK with the Jamaica and Howard Beach subway/train stations in Queens.

Though my past experiences in New York largely relied on the reliable subway/cab/walking paradigm, on this trip I ended up not only using AirTrain in conjunction with the subway to get from JFK to Manhattan, but also two much more recent game-changers for getting around the city: Uber and Citi Bike.

AirTrain From JFK

Typically when I fly from California to New York, I either take a mid-afternoon flight, which puts me at Kennedy in the very late evening, or I take a redeye, which gets me to New York in the very early morning. In either case, JFK is relatively uncrowded.

However, this past trip I timed my flight to arrive around 4pm. I toyed with the idea of taking the AirTrain to the subway right off the bat, but ultimately decided that, with my bags in tow, a taxi was too tempting to pass up. Ultimately, as I emerged into the arrivals area I saw that the taxi line was insane. Like, I don’t know how to properly describe it, other than to say it snaked into the terminal and around a holding pen area and must have been — no exaggeration — 300 people deep at least.

So, AirTrain it was! The AirTrain is not too far a walk at all from the arrivals area of the terminal, and I waited about 5 minutes for a Howard Beach-bound train (when I’d arrived, there was a train just about to depart for Jamaica, which is in the opposite direction). You don’t need to pay for the AirTrain at entry, but when you exit at the Howard Beach station about 10 minutes later, you’ll need to either pay to exit, or pay for a combination MetroCard / AirTrain pass (under $8) which would get you onto the subway and into Manhattan.

AirTrain JFK
AirTrain JFK

The transfer from the AirTrain to the subway merely involves a walk downstairs to the platform for the Manhattan-bound A train. While in my head I’d conjured visions of a sweaty, hot underground station filled with miserable travelers loaded with suitcases, in fact the Howard Beach subway platform is outdoors and subject to a refreshing, briny sea breeze from Jamaica Bay, so I couldn’t complain about that. 🙂

I took the A train several stops (about 15 minutes) and transferred to the L at Broadway Junction, and rode the L train into Manhattan, which took another 20 minutes or so. My friend’s apartment was only a few blocks from the 1st Avenue stop on the L train, so ultimately my door-to-door journey from JFK to the apartment took a little over an hour, with transfers and walking time included.

Was it better than the alternative?  In this case, yes, because not only was the taxi line insurmountable, but I’d have hit rush hour on the way into the city (despite the journey technically being against the rush hour flow, it’s always seemingly rush hour on the Van Wyck Expressway). At 4:15pm on a Wednesday, there’s no doubt that I got into the city quicker using the AirTrain and subway combo than I would have by car — even if there had been no taxi line at all.

Now, in other cases I could see how a taxi would be “better”: carrying a lot of bags in inclement, cold or hot weather might make the more expensive, potentially longer point-to-point option vastly more comfortable, which is worth taking into consideration.

Was it cheaper than the alternativeOh god, yes. This is the no-brainer. It cost me maybe $8 to get into the city, versus $65+ by car.

Citi Bike

Somehow, in the last five years New York has morphed from being one of the most inconceivably dangerous places in the world to ride a bicycle, to being miraculously one of the most bike-friendly cities in the country.

When Citi Bike, the nation’s largest bike-sharing program, first rolled out in 2013 I couldn’t fathom the idea of actually biking in New York. But the truth is that under the Bloomberg administration, the city’s infrastructure was radically altered to make it more bike- and pedestrian-friendly, reducing traffic speeds and creating dedicated bike lanes on most of the major avenues and several dozen cross streets.

Anyway, there happened to be a Citi Bike docking station on the same block as the apartment where I was staying, which was useful, though it’s worth noting there are Citi Bike docking stations — 400 of them! — nearly everywhere you turn in Midtown and Lower Manhattan, as well as in parts of Brooklyn and Queens. As of now, there are no Citi Bike locations north of 59th Street, so you can bike uptown, but you can’t really do anything while you’re up there other than bike back (as you can’t really lock a Citi Bike — they’re just meant to be ridden from station to station).

Citi Bike station
Citi Bike station

You can download the Citi Bike app, as I did, to see the nearest docking station to you at any given time, and to check out the nearest bike routes in any given location.

It costs $9.95 a day for a 24-hour unlimited use pass, and $25.00 for a 7-day unlimited use pass, and the system is shockingly easy to use. As for the bikes, while they’re not the prettiest in the world, they are sturdy, and easy to get the hang of.

The first day I used Citi Bikes, I did so at the suggestion of a friend (with his own bike) for recreational purposes, to bike up and down the Hudson River Park (which I’d highly recommend, as it was beautiful).

But once I got the hang of the Citi Bike, I started to use it as a mode of getting from Point A to Point B. And that’s where Citi Bike is absolutely brilliant.

Especially in rush hour.

Why hop on a subway, for instance, when you can get from Midtown to the West Village in 15 minutes by bike? Or, let’s say you feel lazy and just want to go maybe 10 blocks or so — it’s the perfect excuse for a quick bike ride.

I ended up using Citi Bike fairly religiously over a three-day period, and found it preferable to taxis and to the subway, at least for short- to medium-haul distances. I might not, for instance, decide to bike from the Financial District to Columbus Circle for dinner (that’s a long enough distance where the subway would be the smarter option), but when I needed to get from Gramercy Park to the Lower East Side for dinner, Citi Bike got me there in 10 minutes flat.

While riding in the city, I felt far safer than I feel when biking in, say, Los Angeles (which is unsurprising) but I really can’t stress how easy it was to bike in Manhattan, where there are separate traffic signals for bike lanes, and a coordinated, well-connected network of lanes and routes that make the entire city accessible.

Was it better than the alternative?  I had delightful weather for New York in August — sunny, breezy, no hotter than 82 degrees. It’s perfect Citi Bike weather, and for me, the opportunity to be outside, getting exercise, and enjoying the city was one of the highlights of my trip. In inclement weather, I might have been a little more hesitant to ride Citi Bike as often as I did.

That said, Citi Bike consistently got me point-to-point faster, cheaper and far more pleasantly than either the subway or a taxicab, and I burned calories while doing it. For me, I put this in the “win” column.

Now, the thing is that I like to bike. Obviously, if you hate to ride bikes, Citi Bike isn’t for you.

Was it cheaper than the alternativeIf you’re doing a lot of little trips in a 24-hour period, yes. $10 is the cost of one short-distance cab ride, really, when you factor in a tip. As for the subway, you’ll spend $1 on a Metrocard plus $2.75 per ride, so if you take more than three rides in a day on the MTA that you could otherwise treat as a Citi Bike journey, the Citi Bike is the cheaper option. And on the 7-day unlimited fare, the MTA charges $31 while Citi Bike charges $25 — so yes, Citi Bike is largely cheaper than the alternative.

Uber

To me as an Angeleno, the benefit of Uber is that it’s relatively instantly available in a city where hailing cabs is all but impossible. I had never really understood New Yorkers’ obsession with Uber, since in most cases it’s actually much faster to walk outside and hail a taxi.

And for the most part when I did need to get somewhere in a car, it was very simple to walk over to an avenue and catch a cab in the direction I was going, but at some point I was at a friend’s apartment in the West Village and needed to get up to the Columbia University area, and there weren’t any taxis going up his particular street, so I figured it was as good an excuse as any to use Uber X.

I waited about 4 to 5 minutes for my Uber to show up (about the same as I’d wait in LA), though, to be fair, in this case no taxis had gone by in the meantime (it was a Saturday morning — and no, not a walk of shame type situation, thanks). My Uber was clean and quick, as Ubers generally are, and got me up to Columbia as requested in 20 minutes.

However, I felt a bit of sticker shock, as the total bill ended up being just a little under $25 for a quick 6-mile ride. I realize it was probably cheaper — a little cheaper, at least — than a yellow cab, but substantially more expensive than Uber X is in LA.

Indeed: in Los Angeles, Uber X is $0.18 a minute plus $1 per mile, while in New York, Uber X is $0.40 a minute plus $2.15 per mile. Uber X still may be a value proposition in NYC, but for those accustomed to dirt-cheap Uber pricing in other cities, you should know in advance that Uber is not a “bargain” in the New York area.

I used Uber once more, on my way back to JFK Airport on a Sunday afternoon. I had heavier bags than on my way into the city, and I had to drop my set of keys off at a second location, so I thought an Uber might be the most practical way to take me to two locations and get me to the airport quickly.

My Uber driver, Naveed, was phenomenal — he bypassed heavy traffic on the L.I.E. and on the Van Wyck, and made sure I got to the airport in time for boarding (I was running a little late) by driving aggressively (but safely!) in a way that made me proud.

However, my Uber receipt was also more expensive than I’d imagined: $65.54 (this is essentially a flat $60 rate charged by Uber, plus $5.54 in tolls). Given that the NYC Taxi and Limousine Commission mandates a $52.80 flat rate plus tolls in yellow taxis, it’s a bit of a wash here.

Was it better than the alternative?  Uber is definitely better than taxicabs in Los Angeles. But I’m agnostic about the issue in New York. Uber doesn’t seem to be appreciably cheaper than cabs, at least for long distances (and certainly not to JFK) and it’s usually much quicker to simply hail a cab on the street, when they’re available, than to wait 5 minutes for an Uber to arrive. Yes, the cars are a bit nicer than a standard cab, but on a short trip I’m not sure I care. Plus, all cabs in New York are required to accept credit cards through a fairly quick and painless system, so the “cashless” advantage Uber has over many cities’ cash-only cab systems is a wash here as well.

I’m going to go ahead and say that in most circumstances, unless taking an Uber X would be demonstrably and significantly less expensive, I would hail a taxi in New York. But if the weather weren’t great and cabs were in shortage, I’d probably use Uber (and undoubtedly deal with surge pricing).

Was it cheaper than the alternativeIn my experience, not remarkably cheaper than a taxicab, and definitely not cheaper for airport rides.

Bottom Line

Visitors to New York — not to mention New Yorkers — have never had more options as far as navigating the city is concerned.

In this visitor’s opinion, AirTrain is preferable in a rush hour period when cab lines are long and traffic is a nightmare, but I might still choose a taxi or car service in an off-peak period, especially if I had a lot of luggage.  Citi Bike is, in my opinion, a game-changing addition to New York and something every bike-aware visitor should try. As for Uber in NYC, I just don’t get it — it fills an incredible role in taxicab-poor cities like San Francisco, LA and Washington, D.C. but I don’t see the value-added benefit in New York.

Have you taken the subway to JFK Airport, Citi Bike, or Uber in New York? What did you think?

And New Yorkers, what am I missing?! Why is Uber so popular in your city?!

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Comments

  1. The next time you’re back you’ll be able to Citibike above 59th Street as well–they’ve just started installing the uptown stations in the past few weeks.

  2. Uber is great for us new yorkers because we’re no longer at the mercy of yellow cab drivers. They can be surly, have poor hygiene, haggle about the destination, complain like crazy even when they do agree to the destination and sometimes spew bizarre and unpleasant rantings. Uber’s standards for both hard and soft product protect against that. I switched from yellow cabs some time ago and never looked back.

  3. Good piece! UBER over cabs because UBER cars are clean. Drivers are generally much nicer, and it’s often cheaper. Many NY taxis are disgustingly dirty, and drivers are rude.

  4. If I have bags, I always reserve a car service. You don’t have to wait in the yellow taxi line and they come within 5 minutes. They are the same price or cheaper than yellow cabs. Car services have been around for years. That should be no. 4 on your list.
    Uber is expensive in the city, and I almost always use a yellow cab. In over 20 years, I have never had an unpleasant experience (I’m also not black so …).

  5. Regularly commute on Citibike. Get my exercise and its only about 5 minutes longer than the subway – just shower at the gym by work and head in.

    I usually go Uber over taxi for time reasons. Especially in the winter / on a weekend night I (more or less) know exactly when I’m getting picked up, don’t have to deal with the pain of hailing (or fighting for) a taxi, and don’t have to hassle with paying at the end of my ride.

    You can also take the NJ Transit train to EWR in ~45 minutes for $12.50, and the subway / bus to LGA

  6. Great review of the transportation systems in NYC… thanks!! keep up all the good work with reviews everywhere

    Few other cab alternatives are Lyft and Gett.. both Uber-like with professional drivers in nice, clean cars – but with Gett, you can get anywhere in Manhattan (below 110th) for only $10 FLAT RATE, which is a HUGE bargain (as you experienced a $25 cost from WV to UWS (get out at 110th, then walk 5 blocks if not carrying tons of things / weather is nice)

    Also, CitiBike is currently expanding to 86th St in Manhattan (UES has new stations up and running as of now) and also more locations in Queens / Brooklyn throughout this month!

  7. Uber pool (and Lyft line) are huge money savers in NYC when you’re not in a hurry. You ride with someone else going in your general direction. Flat $36 from Manhattan to JFK airport and at least a 25% savings on other rides, regardless of if they match you with someone. (they were running amazing summer promotions as well which sadly are about to end)

    Also, as of this week Citibike is expanding to the upper east and upper west side. Just joined and have been riding to/from work all week (upper east side to fidi). Takes maybe 40 minutes vs 30-35 on the train but at least i’m getting some exercise and can use the bike path on the east river.

  8. as someone who lives in NYC and takes the airtrain regularly, i much prefer to take it to Jamaica and take the LIRR. 15 min to Penn or Atlantic Terminal, but it’s definitely way more than the subway.

  9. Nick.
    You have one factual error regarding JFK before airtrain. There was a specific subway that went to JFK and was met by bus to connect to terminals. It wasn’t as sexy as the new train but it worked since 80s and was only about 10 mins longer ride than current version. Many subway stations had meeting points on the A line with marked areas for the JFK train. It was a shorter train, about 4 cars and if I remeber was 4.50 each way which was paid to an on board conductor.

  10. West Village to Columbia? C’mon, dude, that’s a trivially easy subway ride. No New Yorker who isn’t a zillionaire would take a taxi (or Uber) for that.

  11. Great post. Uber is a godsend for pickups in the outer boroughs where taxis are scarce (same reason Uber first became popular in SF – cabbies just wanted to go between Union Square hotels and SFO all day, neglecting residential pickups in areas like the Sunset).

    I’d also agree that AirTrain to Jamaica + LIRR is the more efficient choice than connecting to the A in most cases.

  12. @Jack

    There’s a pretty interesting wikipedia article on that former service:

    en.wikipedia[dot]org/wiki/JFK_Express

    My favorite part is that they had transit cops on the dedicated trains to protect the tourists. Times sure have changed.

  13. @Mike: You’re right, but I was short on time and on a Saturday morning I knew a car could get me uptown 110+ blocks much quicker than a subway.

  14. Totally agree with commenters above. As a NYC native, that LIRR train is a sweet, sweet ride when compared to the oft-packed A or E trains into manhattan. 20 minute ride as opposed to 45-60 min on the crowded subway, and it’s (usually) *much* more comfortable. For those unfamiliar who may be reading this, the fare is $7.25 off-peak (anytime NOT 6am-10am leaving manhattan or 4pm-8pm going into manhattan), and $10 peak times between Penn and Jamaica station. Nominally more expensive than the subway, and a much more comfy ride, especially if you have big bags. Air-train + subway = $7.75, Air train + Off-peak LIRR: $12.25, Air train + peak LIRR= $15, Taxi = $50-$70. No brainer.

    Tix: http://lirr42.mta.info/index.php

  15. Nick, I’m surprised you said there were no train options until 11 years ago. Back in the late ’80’s/early ’90’s, I took the “JFK express” subway from midtown Manhattan to near JFK, which connected with a short bus ride to the terminal. It was great – at that time, JFK express trains were air conditioned; other subway lines were not. They called it “the train to the plane.” When did they discontinue JFK Express service?

  16. Citibike is the greatest thing ever. In the last week it has started expanding north of 59th st. It is great for tourists as you describe and is very user friendly. Try it (or similar systems) in other cities too: Boston, DC, Montreal, Toronto, Miami, Denver etc!

    The Airtrain is great. It is reliable whereas taxis are not (can take 2 hours at rush hour) Howard beach or Jamaica will both get you to Manhattan in about the same amount of time. When the taxi line is long, there a usually abundantly available ubers at JFK (about same price as taxi as you note).

    UberX in New York is more expensive than taxis because they charge for time AND distance while cabs only charge for time OR distance. West village to Columbia you should have taken the 1 train. Uber is useless in manhattan below 59th st because if you can’t get a taxi in less than 5 minutes, Uber is probably on surge pricing anyway.

  17. In addition to the comments about the old JFK Express, it was possible to just take the A train to Howard Beach and not pay the Express added charge. Of course it took a lot longer but as a college student at the time, it was worth it to me.

  18. @Matt Don’t forget that LIRR is only $4.25 on weekends. A no-brainer if you’re going anywhere near an LIRR station (Atlantic Terminal, Nostrand, Woodside, Penn Station, etc).

  19. 8 years ago my young family and I flew to JFK for a family event (grandparents live on Long Island). All the boys were headed to a Yankees game but our flight got in too late to ride with everyone (they went early for BP and a trip around Monument Park). I got my wife and 2 kids situated in a rental car for the drive to Hicksville, just before rush hour so an easy trip for them, and I hopped on the subway. Seems like it was only about an hour to get up to the stadium and the trains were packed. But no traffic to fight. Contrast that to a poorly decided on Thanksgiving flight to EWR then fighting crosstown and Island rush hour traffic…4 hours later we made it after trying just about every conceivable way around the bigger roads. And then another trip from the Island into the City on a Saturday, our group was large so it made sense to drive in and pay for parking, cheaper than train trips for all of us. So it just depends on your situation

  20. I’m interested in the data for Uber in NYC. The majority of yellow cabs are concentrated in Manhattan. Very rarely will you be able to hail a yellow cab in the outer boroughs. There are boro taxi’s but there aren’t as many compared to yellow cabs so it’s also hard to hail one. There is an overabundance of private cab companies but you’d have to Google one that can do a pickup wherever you are.

    For me. I can request an Uber in popular neighborhoods outside of Manhattan and get to where I need to go. It’ll be faster than searching for a cab company or trying to find a boro taxi. Also, during shift changes for yellow cabs, drivers ask where you are going before you get in and will refuse to serve you if it’s inconvenient for them. If you got in the cab and they kick you out, the driver will get fined, which is why the lock the doors and ask before you get in. I tried to get a cab from 23rd and Lexington to Williamsburg around 5pm and the driver said hell no and drove off.

  21. Painfull to take a cab at all but the bleakest hours to the city.
    The “A” train takes forever…
    I always take the Airtran to the LIRR and hop on almost any train city bound one stop and you’re in Penn in 10 min. I can get from JFK to my apt in 30 min.
    I have no idea what that costs but it is the only game in town.

  22. The Air Train to Howard Beach is a good solution, as Nick mentioned. Keep in mind that on weekends, some lines on the subway system are subject to special schedules (meaning the station you wanted isn’t a stop) and construction-related issues (same problem). The staff at the Air Train station are incredibly helpful, especially dealing with overseas visitors.

    JFK on the other hand is something of a dump. There are no rental car pick up vans; instead, one has to take the Air Train, which late at night might not be in service for a variety of reasons. On my last arrival there, with the Air Train inoperative, it took 90 minutes before an airport authority bus (very beat up affairs) arrived at baggage claim with enough room to get me to Hertz.

    The subway ride from Howard Beach into Manhattan is something of an anthropological adventure. It seems to take forever, probably because of the ambient existential torment, tiring, grubby, and generally an embarrassment compared to what one might find in Bangkok, Frankfurt, and so forth.

    The idea here was to save money on Uber or cab to help subsidize a luxurious night at the Chatwal in Times Square, which is certainly one of the most comfortable hotels on the planet. It’s beautifully appointed, friendly, peaceful and apparently, located on another planet.

  23. Taxi to JFK is more expensive than UberX, when taking tips into account: $52.80 + $5.54 + 15%tip = $67.00, compared with UberX’s $65.54.

    The the in-taxi credit card machine has always suggested a minimum of 20% to me, making UberX look even more attractive.

  24. Great article! Can you do one on LA? I’m going there soon, so it would be appreciated if I could get tips and strategies on the city. Thanks!

  25. Via is also a great newish option in NYC. It’s $5 per person anywhere in Manhattan b/w 110th and Canal St. It’s kind of like UberPool except they’re usually nice SUVs with 1 to 4 people in them. Use my code teddy6u2 for $10 of credit and I’ll be forever grateful 🙂 🙂

  26. Hi Nick,
    As a New York native I have never used Citi Bike and your post has intrigued me to use it. Quick question: I understand trips are limited to 30 minutes a-piece. So..:
    a. What happens if you go over that time?
    b. Can you park the bike at a terminal for one second and then take it back?
    c. what if you arrive at a terminal an there are no parking spots left?

    Thanks for your time, and great post!

  27. As others have mentioned, depending on where in NYC you are going, the upgrade to take the LIRR from the Air Train (note you have to go to Jamaica station) is often worth it. Also, if you are going anywhere south of Midtown in Manhattan or any part of Brooklyn that isn’t Williamsburg/Bushwick/Greenpoint, don’t take the LIRR to the nightmare that is Penn Station, take it to Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn. You can get almost every train from there (2/3, 4/5, N/R/Q, B/D, its like a 2 minute walk to the G train should you need that, and if you really need the A/C or F trains, you can take the R two stops to Jay St./Metrotech and make the easy escalator assisted transfer, just get on towards the front of the R train) and the connection is so much easier, especially to Manhattan bound 2/3 trains (there are no stairs involved, you just walk straight from the train platform to the subway platform). I live a 5 minute walk from the A/C in Brooklyn and less than half a block from the 2/3, when I fly into JFK I could save a little cash and take the A/C, but I almost always just take the LIRR to Atlantic Terminal, walk to the Manhattan bound 2/3 and take it a couple stops to my apartment.

    Also, as a former Angeleno who left LA to go to law school in NYC before Uber/Lyft became a thing I have to say its shocking how cheap those services are in LA and pretty much in every other city in the country, but typically Uber is still cheaper than cabs in NYC, and the ability to send them your destination by phone and have them get a map to take you there is oftentimes clutch. That said, the Way2Ride app allows you to pay for cabs by phone and its almost as seamless as Uber (you just have to type in a 7 digit code into the app to “check in” to your cab).

  28. DavidW already said this, but as a reminder, New York City is not the same as Manhattan. Try hailing a yellow cab in Kingsbridge or City Island and you’ll understand the value of Uber.

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