Public transport in New York 101: Costs and passes

Learn how to navigate public transportation in New York with our guide, covering everything from costs and fares to the best way of getting around the city.


5 minute read
13 Jun 2024

One of the main things you need to consider when searching for homes for rent in New York is their proximity to public transport. You can always rely on your car, but the extensive network and affordability make public transport in New York a better choice.

To help you learn how to navigate public transport in New York, we’ve broken down the subway, railway, and bus networks and the costs and passes you can use to pay for them. We’ve even added some tips to help you get around NYC seamlessly. So, let’s dive in.

How do you pay for public transport in New York?

Public transport in New York, overseen by the Metropolitan Transport Authority (MTA), has various fare options that help maintain a lower cost of living in NYC than driving or taking taxis. Travelers can choose between paying for a single trip, contactless payment with the OMNY system, or using a MetroCard.

The single trip costs $2.90 and can be paid for via cash (only on buses), contactless via an OMNY reader, or with a MetroCard. Paying via OMNY reader is the easiest; you only need to tap a phone or card.

The readers also work with OMNY cards, which you can purchase at various locations, such as subway stations. OMNY cards are rechargeable and give you a 12-ride fare discount, where your rides become free after 12 journeys within 7 days. Choosing this option comes down to $34 weekly (or $136 monthly) for public transport.

OMNY and MetroCards can also be obtained from MTA's mobile sales buses and vans, with schedules available on the MTA's mobile sales page.

The other way to pay for public transport in NYC is via a MetroCard. Like with OMNY cards, you can buy and recharge MetroCards at various locations. Additionally, you can get a MetroCard through your employer as a benefit.

The MetroCards offer various subscription options. You can opt for a 7-day unlimited subscription, which costs $34 weekly. But the best one for people moving to NYC is the 30-day Unlimited subscription, which costs $132 monthly. It reduces the cost per trip to $2.20 for frequent travelers on subways and local buses and can be automatically recharged with EasyPay.

For those using express buses, a 7-day Unlimited Express Bus Plus option, available for $64 weekly, covers unlimited rides on express, local, and subway buses and the subway.

The most significant difference between an OMNY card and a MetroCard is flexibility. With a MetroCard, you pre-pay the subscriptions, regardless of whether you travel your money’s worth. On the other hand, with OMNY cards, you pay only for the number of journeys you do, and if they exceed 12 in a week, you get the rest for free. On the other hand, MetroCard needs to be recharged 7 days after you first used it, whereas the OMNY card resets every Monday.

Subway in New York City

Did you know the NYC subway has 472 stops, making it the metro with the most stations? Not only does it extensively cover the city, but the New York subway also works 24/7. Because of its coverage and round-the-clock availability, the subway is the best means of getting around New York City.

How to navigate the NY subway system?

With 25 routes, navigating the NYC subway is overwhelming, and getting a handle on it takes time. Here are some helpful tips for NYC subway:

  1. New Yorkers refer to trains by numbers or letters, not colors.
  2. The colors of the subway indicate the “trunk line” or route the line is part of. There are 11 colors, each indicating a different route.
  3. Train directions are based on Manhattan, where “Uptown” is north and “Downtown” is south. So you’ll often see signs such as “Uptown & The Bronx” and “Downtown & Brooklyn”.
  4. The IND Crosstown Line is the only subway line you won't need Manhattan as a reference point as it doesn’t pass through the borough.
  5. If the line goes between boroughs, it will say “borough-bound”, indicating the name of the first borough on the way, not the endpoint. For example, if you take the 5 from Flatbush Av-Brooklyn College to Morris Park in the Bronx, the train will display “Manhattan-bound” when boarding it in Brooklyn. Once the train is in Manhattan, the sign will change to “Bronx-bound”, where it stops last.
  6. Stations are usually named after the streets (e.g., 86th Street), intersections (e.g., 163rd Street—Amsterdam Avenue), neighborhoods (e.g., Astoria), notable sights (e.g., World Trade Center), or a mix of 2 (e.g., 81st Street—Museum of Natural History).
  7. Make sure you check which routes pass through the subway station upon entering the station, as some sides have access only to downtown or uptown routes.
  8. Check the MTA’s accessible stations page to find out which subway stations are accessible and what side the elevators are on.
  9. The MTA routinely posts on its website or X (formally known as Twitter) if there are any disruptions, so it’s helpful to follow them (search for “mta delays twitter”)

Buses in New York

While not as vast and well-known as the NYC subway, the bus network in New York is still good. The city has over 300 bus routes that work 24/7 and operate in every neighborhood in New York.

You can tell the buses apart by their letter and number (B for Brooklyn, M for Manhattan, Bx for Bronx, S for Stated Island, and Q for Queens). If the bus travels between 2 boroughs, it will have the first letter of each borough on its label. Generally, New York has 4 types of buses:

  • Local buses
  • Express busses: connecting boroughs but often available only during the weekly rush hours
  • Limited busses (LTD): have fewer stops than local buses and can be told apart by the “LTD” sign on their front; their bus stops have purple signs with the number of the bus
  • Selected bus service buses (SBS): have very few stops and are available only on priority routes.

If you’re taking the bus at night, you can ask the bus drivers of local buses to stop at places that aren’t bus stops.

Railroad in New York City

While not as well-known as the subway or the buses, the NYC railroad is an efficient means of transportation. There are 2 main railroads in the city: The Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) and the Metro-North Railroad.

The Long Island Rail Road has 11 branches connecting Long Island with the rest of the city: Manhattan at Penn Station and Grand Central, and Queens at Jamaica. Of the 11 branches, the busiest is the Babylon Branch between Penn Station and Babylon. If you’re living in Long Island, this’s the primary means of public transport you need.

The Metro-North Railroad has 5 branches servicing Northern New York and Connecticut. The 3 main “trunk lines” of Metro-North are Harlem, Hudson, and New Haven. The railroad is a nice substitute for the subway, especially if you commute outside the city.

Ticket and subscription prices vary depending on your journey and whether you travel during peak or off-peak hours. It’s best to check the fares via the TrainTime app, allowing you to purchase tickets online.

What’s the best way to get around in NYC?

The best way to get around in NYC is the subway. The NYC metro has the largest coverage and works around the clock the whole year. Buses often get crowded and are more uncomfortable to travel, so it’s best to rely on them if there isn’t a subway station nearby or the line you need isn’t working. The railroads are the best way to get around if you live in Long Island, Northern New York, or Connecticut.

What’s the cheapest way to travel in New York?

The cheapest way to travel in New York is by getting a 30-day Unlimited MetroCard for $132. But if you don’t need public transport daily, getting an OMNY card with a 12-ride cap (or $34) is better, making your trips free afterward. Keep in mind that the OMNY cap restarts every Monday, whereas the MetroCard subscription expires on the 30th day.

This article is for informational purposes only.

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