And don't call it a "metro."
If it's during the daytime, and you're traveling more than about ten or fifteen blocks, the subway really is the fastest, cheapest, most efficient way to get around. Generally speaking, on a weekday, you can get from any part of Manhattan to any other in about twenty to forty minutes on the train, depending on your luck.
For an outsider, the system can look a bit intimidating because it was built in innumerable different phases and by a number of different companies. But much like the city streets above ground, they almost all travel north/south or east/west, with the yellow line following the diagonal of Broadway from southeast to northwest.
My use of the term "yellow" is easier here but misleading. No one in New York refers to the lines by their color. It's not specific enough, because outside Manhattan the trains that share a color will often go off in different directions. Instead we identify them by the avenue they follow when necessary, and far more frequently by the train's number or letter. So in referring to the blue trains, you might hear someone call them "the Eighth Avenue trains," but more likely than that we'd say "the A, C, and E." I can't remember the last time I heard someone call them "the blue line."
Subway maps are free at every station simply by asking the booth attendant for one. The free ones are large and cumbersome, however, unfolding to about the size of a poster. If you do use one of these, unfold and refold it so that Manhattan from Battery Park to 125th Street is most easily accessible to view. Much better than these, in my opinion, many gift stores, delis, and tourist information places sell (or give away for free) a subway map that, when folded, is about the size of a stack of three credit cards. Pull it apart and it opens up a map of convenient size, and it closes back up just as easily like an accordion.
If for whatever reason you don't have access to one, there's almost always a subway map on the wall next to the attendant's booth in every station. Many will have a bus map, as well. Practically every subway car has a map in it, also, but you're better off checking the map in the station and memorizing your route. You usually have to be breathing on someone's forehead to check the map on the train car, and it's just awkward for everyone. Some stations will have a map on the train platform, but this is unreliable and they can be difficult to find.
Be aware that a train's route can be significantly different from the weekdays to the weekends. Weekend trains run less frequently and can skip certain stops. The weekends are also when the majority of maintenance and repairs are undertaken, so the trains can take detours.
The biggest risk with subways, I would think, is getting on an express when you want the local one. Express trains are extremely convenient for traveling longer distances (should you want to go to Coney Island, for instance, or use it for the airport). Not only can they easily skip the station you want on shorter journeys, but also can take you unexpectedly into the outer boroughs or a long way from your destination. Some of the trains are coded with a circle (local) or a diamond (express) around the train's number designation, but only the newer trains have this. If you're in a smaller station that clearly only has one track going each direction, very likely all the trains stopping there will be locals.
In larger stations with four or more tracks, the outer tracks will typically be the local and the inner tracks express. On the north/south lines, the east tracks go downtown and the west tracks uptown, like cars on the road. Be aware that none of this is set in stone. Don't get on a train just because it happens to be traveling on the track you want. Go by the train's letter or number designation. If the train isn't following its normal route, the conductors are usually pretty good about making announcements at every stop as to what changes are in effect.
For safety after hours, stay where the booth attendant can see you, close to the exit, or where the majority of other riders are waiting for the train. Typically people will cluster together for this very reason. Many of the more complex stations now have security cameras and emergency call buttons. Nearest to these is obviously best. The cars at the center of the train are always the most crowded late at night and therefore are the safest. The end cars are desolate and also give you only a single escape route. During rush hours, it's best to reverse this and avoid the center cars, if you can even board them at all.
Unless you're traveling a very long distance or are on an extremely tight budget (I'm talking "New York for $20 a day" tight), taking the subway after around midnight or 1AM is a waste of time. If you have bad luck with your timing, you can literally be sitting around in the station for over forty-five minutes before the right train comes. You could probably walk to your hotel faster. Since very few stations have restrooms, and practically none of them have restrooms you'd ever want to use, if you've been out drinking, this could be a serious bladder problem. And then there's the 3AM Garbage Train. If you have the misfortune of encountering one of those, you'll know exactly what I'm talking about. On the flip-side, there are practically no cars on the street above ground. A taxi ride after hours will be about half the price and three times faster than during the daytime. If you're only one person, it's worth it for your safety and comfort. If you're more than two people, it's entirely worth the shared price.
The trip most notorious for inappropriate conduct is on the 4, 5, and 6 trains (if you must know, they're green) between 14th Street and Grand Central Station during rush hour. Even if you're not being violated by mysterious wandering hands, it's still unbearably crowded. Most likely you'll have a smelly armpit in your face. If you can avoid it, avoid it.
This seems as good a place as any to discuss something interesting that recently came to my attention while chatting with a friend who was visiting from Los Angeles. I have endorsed striking up conversation with locals here, but there are circumstances where it's appropriate and others where it is not. A very crowded subway car is in the second category and, oddly enough, the reason has to do with the subject of this section: Transportation.
My friend was saying how New York City comes off as unfriendly because no one talks to anyone else. He said that in L.A., you find people saying hello to strangers passing each other on the sidewalk all the time, which almost never happens here. I realized in analyzing this difference between them is that it concerns what, in each city, constitutes a "destination."
Southern California runs on the automobile. While my friend and I didn't discuss it, I'm fairly certain no one there rolls down their windows at stoplights to say hello and trade small talk while sitting in their cars. That's "transportation mode." Since everywhere one goes requires driving, getting out of one's car signals arrival at a destination. If you find yourself on a sidewalk in Hollywood, it's still on some level a destination reached by automobile. As discussed previously, that same sidewalk in New York is most often a mode of transportation, our primary one, in fact.
The other factors to take into account are personal space and the possibility of escape. Los Angeles is considerably more spread-out and sparsely populated in most parts. The more crowded a New York subway car is, the more uncomfortable it is for passengers, and the more it feels like an unfortunately necessary mode of transportation. Talking to a stranger who's sandwiched in a crowd of passengers may seem like an affront to them because they have no easy way to escape an unwanted conversation should they choose to do so.
The less crowded the subway car, the more people can sit at a comfortable (safe) distance and more easily get away from someone if they feel harassed by them. People don't tend to converse much even on emptier trains, though it does happen. The type and length of conversation you might have with a person in the automobile next to you at a stoplight--say, asking for directions--turns out to be a good analogy. One might notice a similar phenomenon in elevators, where a superficial conversation when on a longer elevator ride with only one other person feels more natural than if it's stuffed full of twenty random strangers.
To sum up, the rule of thumb I've devised for conversing with strangers is as follows. It's most appropriate when both parties are at a destination where they've arrived for more or less the same general purpose, and are reasonably free to end the conversation whenever they wish. For one more example, using this as a guide, it doesn't seem unusual to make conversation with the people sitting at the table next to you in a restaurant, but it's less potentially awkward when standing at the bar of a casual neighborhood pub.
One helpful tip for exiting the train is to make a mental note of which direction the train was traveling. As you twist and turn up the various staircases to the street, do your best to remember the train's direction. Many stations have signage telling you what corner of the intersection you'll be on when you get up the stairs. But it's still much less disorienting to arrive at 14th Street and know which direction is 13th and which direction is 15th. You'll save yourself having to double back after a wrong turn and will have the confidence of having your bearings.
©2012, Ryan Witte