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Finding Your Way Around Gotham

With its skyscrapers, crowds, and mysterious odors, New York City may be intimidating and confusing to newcomers. But rest assured, there is a method to the city's madness. After some practice and with a little guidance, you will easily navigate throughout the metropolis. So if you're fresh off the bus, here's a basic guide to finding your way around.

The Basics

Know two things before you travel in New York: the addresses of your origin and your destination. Go to Google Maps or, click "Get Directions," and insert the addresses into the appropriate boxes. (Other options, such as a GPS device or a smartphone app, are also helpful). Then follow the steps given to reach your destination. Even though I've been in the city for several years, I still use Google Maps to find my way. If you're going to an audition, definitely double-check the address and your route. Some websites even give you a street view of your destination so you know what it looks like.

New York City is divided into five boroughs: Brooklyn, the Bronx, Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island. You will most likely spend a lot of time in Manhattan, so I'll thoroughly explain its layout.

Stick to the Grid, Kid

Most of Manhattan consists of intersecting avenues and streets. Thanks to the Commissioners' Plan of 1811, whose makers wanted "to unite regularity and order with the public convenience and benefit," the borough is laid out in a grid pattern north of 14th Street, with the streets and avenues numbered sequentially.

If you're standing in the middle of Manhattan, think of uptown as north, downtown as south, toward the Hudson River as west, and toward the East River as east. The streets cut east-west across Manhattan, and the avenues run north-south (or uptown-downtown).

Just north of Houston (pronounced "HOUSE-ton") Street is First Street, and the numbers increase as you go uptown. From First Avenue on the east side of Manhattan, the numbers increase as you go west. Streets and avenues run parallel to each other, respectively. Broadway crosses Manhattan more or less diagonally.

Most avenues have been renamed for part or all of their length (only First, Second, Third, and Fifth have not). Some, like Sixth Avenue or Avenue of the Americas, go by both names. Two additional avenues were built among the original ones: Lexington Avenue, which is between Third Avenue and Park Avenue (formerly called Fourth Avenue), and Madison Avenue, which is between Park and Fifth.

Fifth Avenue is the dividing line between the east and west sides of Manhattan. Central Park also acts as a divider between 59th Street and 110th Street. Lower Manhattan, below 14th Street, is the oldest part of the borough and its streets are neither neatly organized nor logically named. Definitely figure out your route before you walk around any of its neighborhoods, such as the West Village or the Lower East Side.

If you need to find a Manhattan location without using the Internet or a map, there is a trick you can use, but it applies only if the address lies on a street, not an avenue. The building numbers increase as you move either west or east from Fifth Avenue, and between each avenue there are about 100 address numbers. For instance, the Lyceum Theater, Broadway's oldest surviving theater, is at 149 W. 45th St., so starting at Fifth Avenue and walking west on 45th Street, 1 to 100 West 45th Street will be between Fifth and Sixth avenues, 100 to 200 West 45th Street will be between Sixth and Seventh avenues, and so on.  

Transportation Galore

New York City operates the most intricate mass transit system in North America and has the highest rate of public transportation use of any city in the United States. With about half of New Yorkers taking mass transit, the Big Apple is the only American city where more than 50 percent of households do not own an automobile. Most city transit is operated by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Check out the MTA's website for schedules and for TripPlanner, which allows you to figure out a trip's route, mode of transportation, and cost.

If you're traveling via subway or bus, you'll definitely have to purchase a MetroCard. The cost of a subway or local bus ride is $2.25. (For a SingleRide ticket, which is sold only at vending machines, it's $2.50.) There are three types of MetroCard: Pay-Per-Ride (or Regular), Unlimited Ride, and EasyPayXpress (which refills itself automatically).

For those traveling a lot to work and auditions, an Unlimited Ride card is the best bet. It offers weekly and monthly options, with the 30-Day Unlimited Ride the most economical for most people. That one costs $104, which might be a strain on your wallet, but a worthwhile one. The card is good for unlimited subway and local bus rides. And if you buy it from a vending machine with a credit, debit, or ATM card, the MTA automatically protects it against loss or theft.


The New York City subway is one of the world's oldest and most extensive mass transit systems. Last year it racked up more than 1.6 billion rides, and it operates 468 stations. It runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

First, pick up a free map at any subway agent's booth or download it from the MTA website, and always carry it with you until you know the system very well. I still carry a map with me. and are excellent resources to use before riding the subway.

Once you enter a subway station, you'll see several turnstiles. Hold your MetroCard with the MetroCard name facing you, insert it into the slot on top of the turnstile, and swipe it through in one smooth motion. If it works, the turnstile will click and display "Go." If it doesn't, calmly try again. If it fails again, watch the display for the reason: The card may be expired or not have enough money on it.

After passing through the turnstile, read the signs to find your train. Pay attention to everything on the sign, not just the color-coding. If you haven't used a map, the MTA website, or HopStop to figure out which line to take, then the subway agent, who sits in a glass booth near the turnstiles, can be helpful—though these booths and their attendants are becoming scarcer as the MTA cuts its budget.

As your train approaches, you'll be able to see its letter or number. Many lines have both local trains (which stop at every station) and express trains (which skip some stations). Normally, local and express trains headed in the same direction board on opposite sides of the same platform. But sometimes, due to track repairs or police emergencies, the local train runs express or vice versa. Listen for announcements from the conductor or on the station P.A. system and read the signs posted on the platform.

During rush hour, subway cars can become very crowded. Try to have a general idea of how long you have until your stop. If there are a lot of people in the car, try to move toward the doors ahead of time. If your stop arrives and there's a crowd blocking you from the door, it's okay to say "Excuse me," carefully nudge past people, and push your way to the door. New Yorkers are used to such tactics and won't consider it rude.

As the train starts moving, if you realize that you're on the wrong train, do not panic. Calmly get off at the next stop, then board a train heading in the opposite direction, which will return you to the station you just left. If necessary, ask an MTA worker. Recently, the MTA began placing automated signs in many stations that tell you when the next train will arrive.

After midnight, trains on many of the major subway lines run every 20 minutes, but the later it gets, the longer you may have to wait. Some lines have no night service. Sometimes, but especially late at night, waiting for an express train to arrive takes as much time as riding the local, so you might as well take the local train if it shows up first. Remember also, if you see a lot of people on the platform, that's usually a sign that the train will arrive soon. And late at night, try to take the subway with a group of friends. While the crime rate is down these days, there is still safety in numbers.


Bus stops are found at street corners and normally have a tall, round sign with a bus emblem and route number. Many stops also have a Guide-a-Ride, a rectangular box displaying route maps and schedules. Local bus routes are designated by a letter followed by a number. Routes with an M run mainly in Manhattan. B is for Brooklyn, Bx for the Bronx, Q for Queens, and S for Staten Island. Routes with an X run express. On some of the more popular routes, the MTA offers Limited-Stop service in both directions. If a bus arrives with an orange "Limited" card in its window, then it makes fewer stops, generally at transfer points and major attractions.

As the bus pulls up, read the destination sign on its front. As you board, hold your MetroCard with the black stripe on the right and the MetroCard name facing you. Dip the card into the fare box directly in front of you, then the MetroCard will pop out. If you don't have a MetroCard, then you will need exact fare: $2.25 in nickels, dimes, and quarters (dollars and pennies are not accepted).

If you're not sure whether the bus is going to your destination, ask the driver. If you pay your fare with a MetroCard, you can transfer free from local bus to subway, subway to local bus, or local bus to local bus within two hours of the time you paid. On Unlimited Ride MetroCards, all transfers are free. You cannot use an Unlimited Ride card on express buses, but you can purchase a 7-day Express Bus Plus MetroCard. An express bus ride costs $5.50.

To signal the driver to stop, push one of the tape strips located between the windows or, on newer buses, one of the "Stop" buttons found on the grab bars. You need to signal the driver about one block before your stop. Use the rear door to exit.

For late-night safety, Request-a-Stop service allows you to ask to be let off at a location that is not a bus stop. It's available from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m., seven days a week. Just let the bus operator know where you want to get off. Request-a-Stop is not available on Limited-Stop buses.

There are times when a bus is more practical to use than a subway. For example, if you're at Lexington and East 68th Street and need to get to Lincoln Center, on the other side of Central Park, crossing Manhattan is often faster via bus.


Taxicabs can be a quick way to reach your destination—unless there's heavy traffic, in which case they're quite slow. Regardless, cabs are the most expensive form of transportation in the city. Yellow medallion cabs are the only ones allowed to pick up hailing passengers. Whistling for a cab over the noise of New York City only works in the movies. Instead, stick your arm in the air to flag one down. When the numbered sign on the cab's roof is lit in the center, it's available for passengers. If the light is off or the sign is lit only on the edges, the driver is off-duty and won't respond to hails.

Private livery cabs, usually black, also transport passengers around the city. You have to phone for one in advance, as they're not allowed to pick up hails on the street (although a bill allowing them to do so is awaiting the governor's signature). If you decide to take one, discuss the price before you enter. In general, avoid taking cabs that aren't yellow until you get to know the city better.

When you enter the cab, tell the driver your destination's cross streets, such as 44th and Broadway. Taxis accept both cash and credit or debit cards. Drivers normally can't break anything bigger than a $20 bill. The initial fare is $2.50, then it's typically 40 cents for every 1/5 mile, or four blocks. Tipping is customary and the amount is up to you.

One way to avoid a huge fare is by splitting a ride with friends. Officially, cabs can take no more than four riders, but they must take you anywhere within the five boroughs you want to go. To file a complaint or report lost property, call the Taxi & Limousine Commission at (212) 692-8294. Be sure to note the cab's ID number or the driver's name. For more information, go to the city Department of Transportation website or the TLC site (where you can also report lost property).

Taxis can be expensive, but if you're alone late at night and don't know the city well, they may be your safest option.

On Foot and Bicycle

When you have the luxury of time, New York is a great place to enjoy on foot. For those of you who walk for exercise, a mile in Manhattan is about 20 blocks going uptown-downtown or four blocks going east-west. Biking is also an excellent way to work out and a growing form of city transportation.

Over the last two years, there has been a 33 percent increase in commuter biking in New York. Bicycles are always permitted on subway trains and buses, but try to avoid bringing them on during rush hour. Two websites can help you find bike routes: Google Maps, which now offers directions for bicycles, and, whose routes are based on the city's official NYC Cycling Map and user advice.

In June 2009, the city finished painting 200 miles of bike lanes, and more are being added every year, although most streets still lack them, meaning cyclists ride in the same lanes as automotive traffic. Green bike lanes are adjacent to the sidewalk, while protected bike paths are on the street but are shielded from traffic by parked cars.

Many paths lie along the city's parks and waterfronts, and cyclists must travel in the direction of traffic unless signage says otherwise. In shared lanes—marked by "sharrows" (chevrons and bike symbols)—drivers and riders share the lane. Aside from the general hazards of biking in city traffic, beware of double-parked cars that block bicycle lanes and car doors that open unexpectedly. Be aware of your surroundings while biking, and always wear a helmet.

Asking for Aid

The Big Apple's reputation for coldness is generally undeserved. I have seen New Yorkers help tourists by carrying their bulky luggage down subway steps. I've also witnessed people give up their bus seats to pregnant women. Many New Yorkers are nice people, but most won't ask if you require assistance. If you do, politely ask someone for help—an MTA worker would be best—and he or she will likely respond in kind. But if you follow the general guidelines listed here, soon you'll be navigating the city like a pro.

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