Ellie Says: the MTA

As part of our new “She Says, She Says” series, Sara recently posted about Transport for London. Today, Ellie tackles the MTA.

When Sara asked me to write a blog on the subway I paused. And then procrastinated. She gently nagged me to get on with it. The reason I’ve posted 10 blog posts on anything other than the subway since she first asked is that, well, I don’t like it. And I thought it might be rude to say so on a blog that’s read by lots of lovely New Yorkers who might take umbrage with a London upstart coming to town for all of 3.5 months and criticising their infrastructure. But Sara won’t stop nagging so here goes, I’m risking the wrath of the Big Apple.


The Sophie Blackall illustrations that are dotted around the subway carriages ARE beautiful, Sara, you’re right, and it is cheap but aside from that? I’ve been risking life and limb in the not much better (though gloriously cheap yellow taxis) rather than take the subway. Here’s why:

The Bad

  • One of my first trips to New York and headed Downtown (I.e. southbound), I swiped my card on the turnstile. Oh. There’s only one track. And one v confusing sign seems to suggest it’s headed Uptown (north). Where was the Downtown train, I asked the almost fascinatingly rude MTA worker in his glass box. “You need to cross the road.” He didn’t actually say that, he ignored me and grunted a bit until a passing New Yorker took pity on me and explained that there are different stations for Uptown and Downtown. So once you’ve swiped into the wrong direction entrance (and spent your money), you need to come out again, head up the stairs to the street, cross an invariably busy road, then head down another set of stairs and spend your money again IN THE SAME STATION but via a different entrance. I first came to NY in 1999 and I’m still angry about this today. Is it obvious?
  • There are NOT handy signs anywhere on the subway. The overhanging signs on each platform are so cryptic they could be seen as poetry. There are no maps, anywhere. Ok, there are sometimes maps in some stations but not as a rule and not on the platforms, meaning you need to have lived here 30 years to stand any chance of getting on the train you want.
  • Subway season tickets are made of paper, not tough Oystercard plastic. So they’re easy to lose and quickly use their black strip making it unusable.
  • Not all the stations have countdown signs alerting you to how long the wait is until the next train comes.
  • …which is a total pain because subway trains can take AN AGE to come. Like 11 minutes. At an equivalent station to Leicester Square.


  • It’s filthy. I mean, I know you don’t want to lick a London Underground seat, but the tube is sparkling clean compared with the subway. Loose wires hang from blackened ceilings, rats run free all over platforms and rails, and it smells. Oh, it smells.
  • 20130306-154548.jpg

  • It’s not pretty. See above. The tube is so pretty in parts that it has its own design range, featuring cushions, posters and china. And it’s not just the tube map that’s a design triumph, but the mosaics on stations walls, the (occasional) Art Deco entrances and the graphic red and blue colour scheme. I don’t get this. New Yorkers are all about the grooming. Their city is beautiful. Why not give the subway a makeover to match?
  • The London Underground workers are one of the best things about the tube in London. They write up inspiring poems in the entrances of many stations, they make us laugh with their in-tube announcement (a lady on the Bakerloo line gives life advice) and they all look super smart in their natty uniforms. The MTA workers – meh. They’re the reason I hated New York when I first came here at the age of 19. A subway worker was so rude to me that that’s pretty much all I remembered of my two day trip. And they don’t seem to have changed. They’re gruff, uncommunicative, sarcastic and it goes without saying, unhelpful. Plus they don’t do poetry.
  • The subway may run all night long but it feels kinda sketchy – even at 9am. There have recently been a slew of commuters pushed onto the tracks by mentally ill people. I have seen so many ill people riding the trains since I arrived. One woman was particularly memorable. Her thing was spitting at people from quite some distance. Maybe London’s high prices keeps anyone but the most functional of Londoners off the network. I don’t know but this is a serious downside to riding below ground in NYC.

The Good

  • There is some good. It’s cheap. The London Underground is eyewateringly expensive – £4.50 for a single ride if you don’t use an Oyster. BUT, and here’s the thing – that fare is really only for tourists because the vast majority of people use an Oyster card, which costs you £2.10 per ride. Not as cheap as the $2.25 single fare here but for that inflated price, we get helpful tube workers on every platform, and a, generally, safe, clean, super efficient service.
  • But the subway does have some beauty. Check out these mosaics: so pretty. Though they’re jewels in a monster’s stomach: hidden away in a dark, grimy underground world and tucked away so that they look like afterthoughts.



Now, a brief on buses and black cabs…

Yellow taxis. They’re cheap. They really are. Which is just lovely. I’m taking them everywhere despite the fact that they could kill you – the Post has reported on what feels like dozens of fatal cab crashes since I arrived 7 weeks ago. And I see why. They’re driven as if they’re in Grand Theft Auto. And the one time I asked a driver to slow down, he said, “Why? Are you scared?” and accelerated. They’re filthy (compared with the beautifully clean London cabs) and their drivers have NO IDEA where they’re going. None. They don’t even know where the landmarks are. I was dropped two streets away from Penn (the only railway station in the city) the other day when I asked to be dropped there. A black cabbie knows every mews street, every gated terrace in the 659 square miles that make up the capital’s 32 boroughs. They’re skilled workers.

I took a bus the other day. It was cleaner than the subway and seemed to have fewer crazy people riding it. Plus it had one of those bell pulls we used to have on our Routemasters! Joy! (And very practical).


But the bus timetables are written by the same people that write the subway signs. Maybe. They don’t make sense to anybody. They can’t do. And all the buses seem to go to the East Village ie up and down avenues rather than across streets. Not so helpful.

I’m sorry this is such a negative blog. I promise to make up for it next time. Ill be writing about Broadway next week and I can’t help but be disgustingly positive about musical theatre.
Happy travelling.

4 thoughts on “Ellie Says: the MTA

  1. I was just in new York last week and had a terrible time with the subway. I’ve been to New York several times so I’m not a novice. I downloaded the embark NYC app onto my iPhone and that helped loads with routing and preventing ending up at the wrong side of the track. Sadly it doesn’t help with cleanliness or uneasiness when too close to the edge of the platform. And btw every time I’m in there and riding the subway I’m thinking to myself “London’s tube is so much nicer!”. Good luck, it’ll get better I’m sure and if it doesn’t well, New York is still pretty awesome. Even with a scary subway!

  2. Ellie – while I have to agree with much of what you said – its not all as terrible as it seems. Someone (Sara) has hopefully told you about HopStop.com, which gives you times and locations on traveling the MTA system.

    Most subway stations reek and are rat infested and being an MTA worker is one of the most thankless jobs in the city. Its a system run by incompetence and is almost always broke. But they are trying little by little to restore what they can and return some of the stations to their original glory. Its the largest mass transit system in the world making it much more difficult to police – clean and keep up with the constant flow of people.

    If you tell the MTA workers somethings happened like not paying attention to the entry signs that say uptown only – they will generally push a button and let you through – I know because I’ve done it. The bus drivers are generally much more cheerful and willing to help. Maybe its being above ground where there a little more sun and less idiots taking the buses as tourists are more apt to take the subways but as a general rule its true.

    I hate being jammed up in the subway, people pushing to get in before letting you out. But its ours. We can move about from burough to burough in within 30 mins. Its an easy system to learn and there are maps at every station before you head underground and often at the ends of the platforms. In New York you just have to pay a little more attention but it makes life a whole lot easier.

  3. Pingback: Four Fab things learned during a London-NYC job swap « Fabulous Magazine – The Sun – news, horoscopes, recipes beauty, fashion, competitions, homes, videos, photos

Whaddaya think?