• Are you new to understanding New York City’s complex transportation system? Confused about how to navigate getting an MTA MetroCard or the OMNY payment system? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered with this quick guide. Plus, get an overview of the NYU shuttle system!

New York City may well be the city with one of the most complex transportation systems in the world. When I first arrived, it took me a full month to understand the correct directions for the different subway lines. In this article I’ll introduce you to the city’s intricate transportation system (hello, MTA!) and NYU’s own free transportation resources, such as shuttle buses and safe rides.

New York City Subway Lines

Subway lines in New York City have two directions: Downtown/Brooklyn and Uptown/Queens. The challenging part is that many stations have different entrances for each direction. If you use the wrong entrance, you’ll have to exit the station and buy another ticket. To avoid this, always check the sign at the entrance before entering. If it says, “Downtown & Brooklyn,” that entrance is solely for the Downtown/Brooklyn direction. Similarly, if the sign says, “Uptown & Queens,” you can only go uptown toward Queens from this entrance. However, if the sign doesn’t specify a direction, both directions are accessible from this entrance.

The entrance of a Downtown & Brooklyn subway station in New York City.
The entrance of an Uptown & Queens subway station in New York City.

A common frustration with the New York City subway is the occurrence of express trains that skip many stops. I’ve often mistakenly boarded an express train that bypassed my stop, forcing me to take another train back. Sometimes, when you are in a hurry, it can cause trouble. So it is always important to check whether the train is an express or local service before boarding. Typically, express trains feature square signs, and local trains round signs. Google Maps or Apple Maps can also confirm whether the incoming train stops at your intended destination. Apps can show you where the nearest subway station is and the lines you can take.

New York City Google Maps transit information from “Your location” to SUMMIT One Vanderbilt.
An express 6 train at the Brooklyn Bridge—City Hall/Chambers Street stop.
An approaching local 6 subway train.

When planning your journey, always add at least an extra 15 minutes to the travel time suggested by Google Maps and Apple Maps. If you miss the train that just left, the next one might not arrive for another 20 minutes. Trains stopping for 10-plus minutes in the middle of the journey is a frequent occurrence. My friend and I have missed the start of movies and musicals due to such delays.

There are various types of subway tickets available for purchase. Everyone can buy tickets through the ticket-selling machines found inside each subway station. If you’re only visiting for a few days, consider purchasing a one-time ticket, which is white and green. It can be used for a single ride.

However, if you’re staying for a longer period or living in the city, you might find an MTA MetroCard more useful. It can be used multiple times before its expiration date, as long as you don’t lose it. You can load it with funds using a credit card or cash at the machine. If you ride the subway twice or more daily, you could save money with a monthly unlimited MetroCard. Also, with the new OMNY machines in each subway station, you can tap an OMNY card, a contactless debit or credit card, or a smartphone pay feature like Apple Pay against the scanner and you’re good to go!

For even more about understanding the NYC subway system, check out this article!

Subway ticket–selling machines.
A hand swiping a MetroCard at a turnstile.

New Jersey Transit

If your travels take you further afield to New Jersey for concerts, performances, or just to explore, consider taking NJ Transit trains. These trains depart from Penn Station at 214 West 34th Street, New York, NY 10119. You can download the NJ Transit app to check train schedules and purchase tickets. Usually, there’s no direct line to MetLife Stadium. However, on days when MetLife Stadium hosts concerts (for example, Taylor Swift concerts!), NJ Transit creates a new line directly to the venue to facilitate the commute for fans. You can find updated information on NJ Transit’s website and app a day before such events.

The NJ Transit app interface.

I’ve taken NJ Transit to New Jersey for a Taylor Swift concert, an Ali Wong Netflix-taping stand-up performance, and to see Rent the musical on tour! There’s a multitude of amazing events to explore in New Jersey as well!

Two students on the floor of a Taylor Swift concert. Students seeing Ali Wong perform stand-up.

NYU’s Free Transportation System

New York University offers shuttle buses for students commuting between different NYU buildings and the Downtown Brooklyn and Manhattan campuses. You can find out about schedules and routes as well as where the stops are and when they operate on the University Transportation website.

For students who are more night people, like myself, you may find yourself studying in the library until midnight. If you live further away and feel unsafe going back to your residence hall, NYU offers free safe rides. These rides transport you from any NYU location to another between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., from the Downtown Brooklyn campus to NYU Langone Health. You can book these through the NYU Safe Ride app.

NYU shuttle bus parked on a city street.
An NYU Safe Ride vehicle.

Once you’re familiar with New York City’s various transportation systems, feel free to immerse yourself in the city’s myriad exciting events, including musicals, plays, concerts, museums, TV shows, and so much more! As we NYU students like to say, the city is our campus!

Tong Zhao is studying towards a dual degree in Film and Television and Business at Tisch School of the Arts with a minor in Producing and at Stern School of Business with concentrations in Marketing and Computing And Data Science. She became the Class of 2025 due to one extra year from the dual degree after entering the Class of 2024. She is from Lanzhou, China, and had one year’s study away experience at NYU Shanghai. She is a passionate fan of theatre, film, Taylor Swift, and K-pop. Her career goal is to become a film and theatre producer in the future.