I’ve been taking the train in New York City since middle school, which is further back in my history than I care to admit. The city, the world really, has changed a lot since then. After September 11, 2001, train passengers were repeatedly advised “if you see something, say something,” which is still encouraged 21 years later.

There are certain rules when riding the Iron Horse. These aren’t official rules issued by the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA). You won’t find them plastered in the stations. But most New Yorkers understand them. Tourists on the other hand, well, it depends.

Navigating the subway is an adventure in and of itself. Sometimes, it falls short of expectations, and we New Yorkers can be very vocal in our displeasure. We suck our teeth, roll our eyes and curse. It’s obvious that parts of the train system are collapsing under the weight of the ridership. About 2.4 million people use the subway daily, making it the largest public transportation system in North America, and one of the largest in the world.

Here are a few things to remember when riding the NYC subway.

Watch Those Around You Without Making It Obvious


There’s no need to be paranoid, but be alert.

There are all kinds of characters on the train, day and night. The trick is knowing what to do when you encounter somebody who appears unhinged.

Most New Yorkers will continue to read or listen to music while the person carries on.  But sometimes, it can be disconcerting, even for us.

Don’t engage the person at all. Discreetly move to another section of the car or exit at the next station.

The Subway Is A Maze

Photo by Alexis Antoine

If you come from major cities with complex train systems like Paris, London or San Francisco, you’ll probably be fine in New York.

But the subway can be confusing for first timers because there are so many lines.

Most stations allow you to switch from uptown to downtown, except 86th Street in Manhattan. If you exit that station, you’ll have to pay another fare to enter again.

Some stations have a dizzying amount of exits and tons of stairs. And you can’t always rely on the escalators or elevators to work.

Ladies, Get Some Pepper Spray

Photo by Markus Spiske

Sexual assault does happen on the subway, and unfortunately, I speak from experience. My biggest regret is that I didn’t have pepper spray to thwart the assailant.

PSS Defense, a pepper spray store, writes, “many people carry small key chain pepper spray units or flashlight units with them during transportation, so they are easily reached in case of danger.”

Don't Be Duped By The One Empty Car

Photo by Patrick Robert Doyle

I’ve seen first time visitors make this mistake and regret it.

It’s the morning or evening rush hour, and all of the cars are packed, except for one.

The train stops, the doors to that empty car open and a horrible odor slaps you in the face.

If you don’t want to pile into one of the other cars, wait till the crowds thin out.

Personal Space Matters

Photo by Bailey Alexander

We are very big on personal space, especially in the COVID era.

It’s understood that bumping into others while the train is in motion happens. That’s not a big deal. Just be sure to apologize- anything less is seen as rude.

If the train is really packed and you know you can’t fit, please don’t force it.

The same applies with seating. If there’s a seat between two people and you’re spilling into their laps, that’s not going to work and they’ll probably tell you as much.

We also don’t like when you don’t cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze. Yes, that’s common sense, but sense isn’t always so common.

Staring Is Seen As Aggression

Photo by Oliver Cole

This may seem obvious, but in the concrete jungle of New York, staring is an especially bad idea.

I get that some people are really fascinating to look at. Maybe it’s their hair, clothing, tattoos or piercings. Like I said, the subway has some real characters.

But trust me, anything more than a glance is going to make for an uncomfortable situation.

Get Used To "Showtime!"

Photo by Joel Valve

Why go to Broadway when you can get a performance for free?

Breakdancers, guitarists, mariachi bands, spoken word poets, rappers- at some point you’ll see them all.

For most New Yorkers, the novelty wore off a long time ago. The possibility of being kicked in the face by somebody swinging from the ceiling is a concern.

Tourists on the other hand are mesmerized.  Show the performers some love with tips if you want.