04 November 2009

Notes from the Underground

On Sunday afternoon at about 4.15, I knew I had only 90 minutes left in New York before it was time to meet the car to go back to the airport. I was just south of Central Park and wanted to head down to SoHo for one last cruise of my favourite shops. I made the mistake of heading for the nearest subway station, which was served only by the F train on the orange line, instead of going one block west to a bigger station with several different trains passing through. I ended up waiting 20 minutes for a train, costing me valuable shopping minutes. On the way back, though, I went to Prince Street station and got on a yellow N train. The clock was ticking and I was in danger of being late but then we got to Union Square and I saw a Q train across the platform and immediately sprinted onto it. The yellow Q train covers much the same ground as the N but only stops at the bigger stations, thus allowing me to yomp up to 57th Street in no time at all, and I realised that the New York subway wasn't quite so bad after all. Here's how it measures up to the Tube:

1. Price. Sure, the Subway's cheaper but as tickets have just gone up to $2.25 (a fact I only discovered after wondering how the hell my MetroCard had run out of credit when there should have been at least $2 left), it's not much cheaper than the Tube any more, especially if you have an Oyster card. [Subway 3/5, Tube 1/5]

2. Ease of use. The first time I ever went on the Subway, I was 11 and with Maman and the Bro and we ended up going to the Bronx instead of Brooklyn--not my fault, of course. Since then, though, I've got much better at Subway navigation. Sure, it takes a little longer to grasp the fact that there are trains with different letters and numbers that go to and stop at different places but which are on the same colour line, not to mention the existence of express trains (see below), but once you know the basic rules, you should be fine. The Tube, on the other hand, does have a 1:1 relationship between lines and colours but then the Tube lines also branch at the ends and perhaps it would be less confusing if the Metropolitan Line had the A for Amersham train, the C for Cheshunt train and the W for Watford train. Also, Manhattan's long, thin shape means that even if the map isn't to scale, you still know approximately where you will pop up when you leave the Subway; objects in the Tube map are not closer than they appear. Then again, the Subway does have stations that pretend to changeovers (such as the biggies like Union Square/14 St and 34 St/Penn Station/Herald Square), which really are separate stations vaguely linked through miles of walkways, which makes the changeover from the Piccadilly to the Jubilee Line at Green Park look like a piece of cake. Finally, Oyster cards make life so much easier; New York really needs them. [Subway 2/5, Tube 4/5]

3. Reliability. Yes, the Subway gets points for its 24-hour service but let's face it: how many times have I ever wanted to get a Tube between 1 and 6 a.m.? Zero. On the other hand, how many times have I stood waiting on a New York Subway platform at a reasonably civilised hour and had to wait 15 minutes or more for a train? A lot. And in London, most platforms tell you at what times the next three trains will be arriving; I only saw this on the L train to Williamsburg on the Subway. Then again, at the weekends, the Tube is a mess with several big lines being completely or mostly closed. The Subway also has weekend closures but they simply cancel the express trains and make all trains stop at all the stations on a line. [Subway 2/5, Tube 2/5]

3. Speed. Some lines in New York are clearly not well served. However, this is made up by the incredibly useful idea of having express trains--trains on a particular line that will only stop at the biggest, most important stops and speed right through the others. If you want to get from 96th Street on the Upper West Side (which I did when staying at a hostel there) to Chambers Street in Tribeca, you can get an express train on the red line and be there in just five stops while the local train on the same line makes 15. Given that I take an express train from London to Nowheresville most days, I am definitely in favour of the Tube implementing express trains--the Circle Line Express could just call at Paddington, Baker Street, King's Cross and Liverpool Street along the top of the circle, for example, and save me valuable minutes in bed. You can also use express Subway trains even if you're not getting off at an express stop by running across the platform when you see an express train waiting and then transfer back once you've yomped. The Subway does lose points for being generally a bit slow and less frequent than the Tube, however. [Subway 4/5, Tube 2/5

4. Character. Now, while Subway stations might have names that are helpful in terms of geographically locating oneself within New York, how boring is a station called 77 Street? This is partly due to the fact that New York streets have helpful but boring names--the Paris Metro stations are also named after the street on which the station is located but Paris Streets have much more interesting names, thus there are Metro stops like, Stalingrad, Les Gobelins and (inexplicably my favourite as a child) Ch√Ętelet and its sister stations Les Halles and Ch√Ętelet-Les Halles. On the Tube, meanwhile, you get Swiss Cottage, Burnt Oak and Chalk Farm, to name but three evocative station names. Most Subway stations are also pretty grim--less so on the Upper East Side and in Midtown, more so down town, but rarely nicer than "dingy." It's true that some Tube stations are also quite grim but then you have the futuristic buzz of the additional glass doors by the tracks at Westminster, the Sherlock Holmes mosaics at Baker Street and the swankiness of Sloane Square. [Subway 2/5, Tube 5/5]

5. Entertainment. Usually, I'm not looking for entertainment on the Tube, especially when I'm commuting. My seven-minute journey gives me time to read Metro, stash it behind a seat and the prepare to leg it to catch my train to Nowheresville and that's fine. On the Subway, however, there is no Metro (not at the times I travel on it anyway) but there is still plenty of entertainment because the people have such wonderfully random--and loud--conversations. From the mouth of a well-dressed, 40-something blonde woman as she exited the Subway train on Friday, "And then I drew a penis. And I was, like, what? That's, like, so ew!" I assume she was describing a session with her therapist. "I only dress up for the attention," said a 20-something guy wearing only a pair of short green hot pants, a cardboard shell, an orange eye mask and a lot of green body make-up, on Saturday (Halloween). No kidding. On the Tube, you might get the occasional beggar; on the Subway, you will be more likely to get a gospel choir performing Oh What a Night or Stand by Me and asking for donations afterwards. I know which I would prefer. [Subway 4/5, Tube 2/5]

Totals: Subway 17/25, Tube 16/25. So, the Subway wins--just. This is probably a shame given that the MTA, which runs the New York Subway, are thinking of hiring Tube staff as consultants to help improve the Subway...

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