Some people shun underground transit systems because: 1) they tend to be less scenic than street-level transportation; 2) they can occasionally force you into close proximity with strangers and whatever microbes they may be hosting; and 3) You’re trapped! You’ll never get out! The walls are closing in!
On the other hand, subways are: 1) a lot cheaper than taxis; 2) a way to avoid speaking to taxi drivers, many of whom seem to be plotting a murder; and 3) relatively harmless if you’ve had your vaccinations and have plenty of hand sanitizer.
Personally, I don’t mind subways. In fact, I’ve found them to be the most efficient way to get around some metropolitan areas. I’ve ridden them in perhaps a dozen cities, including the sprawling systems of Paris and London. First-time visitors to any city can find underground transportation a daunting prospect, but let me use New York to illustrate some basic principles that you might find helpful.
Know where you are, and which way you want to go from there. Let’s say you’re entering the subway at Columbus Circle (59th Street) and you want to visit the Empire State Building, which is at 34th Street. On which side of the platform should you be standing? You know you need to head south, but the signs in the subway don’t say “South”. The direction of travel is shown as “Uptown” or “Downtown”; sometimes the signs will say “Queens” or “Brooklyn”. Here’s the secret: “Queens” equals “Uptown”; “Brooklyn” equals “Downtown”. So if you’re at 59th, headed for 34th, you stand on the platform that is identified as “Downtown” or “Brooklyn”. If you’re not sure you’re on the correct platform, you can always ask someone who is waiting for the train. If they answer you, they’re probably from out of town, too.
Get a route map. They are generally available in the station, and will come in handy; just don’t stand in the middle of the sidewalk to study it. Every New Yorker lives in a perpetual state of being ten minutes late to something important. Obstacles are not tolerated, so try not to be one. Step out of the river of pedestrians to consult your map.
Oh, and when you emerge from the subway after your ride, street level can present another challenge. You may be a bit disoriented and wonder in which direction you should walk. Here’s a mnemonic that might help: “Evens go East”. Most of the streets in Manhattan have one-way traffic; odd-numbered streets have traffic flowing in a westerly direction, while even-numbered streets go east. If you emerge into daylight at, say, 50th Street, you see which way the cars are going and say, “ah, that must be east.” This can save unnecessary steps. And cursing.
Pay in advance. That’s not really optional; you need a ticket to get through the turnstiles. Some cities — Washington, D.C., and Vienna, among others — rely primarily on ticket vending machines. The first one you try will be out of order, so be patient. New York (and other cities) have toll booths where you can buy passage from a fellow human being. The NYC toll is currently $2.25 per ride, but there are deals to be had: A $20 purchase gives $23 worth of rides. I knew a guy who would put $80 or more on his MetroCard. As a colleague remarked, “I never really thought of a MetroCard as a form of investment.”
One other tip: If you happen to be in New York on Halloween, go stand around in one of the bigger subway stations for a while. Where else can you see a train pull in and dozens of people in superhero costumes get out?