Subway track platform and escalators at Herald Square station in New York City | LivingIn
Guide to NYC

The Unofficial Rules of the Subway

March 12, 2019

The New York subway system is one of the most efficient means of getting around the city. According to, approximately 5.6 million people take the subway every single weekday. That’s a lot of people with whom to share the same train space. Whether you’ve been riding the subway since before you could walk (children under 44 inches tall ride free!), or are just now beginning to join the crowd, we can all use some tips to make the daily commute better for all 5.6 million of us. This list of unofficial rules of the subway was designed to do just that.

Getting to the tracks

Know which side of the escalator to stand on

New York is one of the only cities where most everyone knows the unspoken rule of the escalator: stand to the right, walk to the left. Even if you are commuting with other people, the rule remains: stand single file on the right, rather than side by side. For New Yorkers, chances are good that we’re in a rush, and in that case, the escalator is a means to an end, not a ride. Leaving the left side clear for those who wish to walk is not only polite, it helps ensure we all catch our trains on time. Thankfully, this rule is taken very seriously in New York.

Boarding the train

Position yourself properly

When you’re on the platform and about to board the train, step aside and let the deboarding passengers off first. Then board. This is always the right thing to do. Alternately, when you’re on the train and it comes to a stop, step aside to let other passengers on or off—especially if you happen to be standing by the door.

Resist the urge to hold open closing train doors 

Just missing a train is never a good feeling for any New Yorker. It can be tempting to shove your foot in the door to prevent it from closing, knowing it will pop back open and allow you to squeeze through. But subway announcements remind passengers to never hold the car doors open. And if you do this at rush hour, the looks you’ll get from fellow commuters won’t be pleasant.The good news is that trains run frequently during commuting hours, so there is almost always another train coming shortly behind. When it’s late at night, though, when trains often run 20 minutes or more apart, you will find New Yorkers are much more forgiving to those who hold car doors.

If the train is crowded, move to the center of the car

Moving to the center of the car allows for more passengers to board the train, and it can make the difference between late and on time for commuters on crowded trains. 

While aboard the New York subway

Stay off the train if you are sick

A subway car is a fairly confined space, with dozens of riders all breathing the same air. It sounds obvious, but if you need to sneeze, cover your mouth. Especially important is avoiding the train when feeling particularly unwell. Not only does this help protect your own immune system, but sick passengers who require medical attention cause significant delays. So, please remember to cover your sneezes and coughs, and protect yourself and others by avoiding the crowded confines of the subway car when feeling especially sick.

Respect your fellow passengers 

Being conscientious by not leaning on poles makes sure that everyone has something to hold onto while the train is moving. By only taking up the room you need while sitting, and not placing your bag where someone else could sit, you help make sure as many people as possible can have a seat. And bonus points to you if you give up your seat when an elderly, pregnant, or disabled person boards the train. You’ll not only be a hero to one person, but you just might inspire others to do the same.

Respect the space you are all briefly sharing 

Food is officially prohibited on the NYC subway, but few mind if you eat a snack on the train as long as it doesn’t smell (no pungent take-out!), and as long as you don’t leave a mess behind. Also, if you’re listening to music or watching a movie, always listen with headphones. We all have different tastes in music and movies, and many just want quiet on their daily commute.

Getting off the train is straightforward, just follow the exit signage, And as long as you walk up the escalator or keep to your right, you’ll be at your destination in no time—and so will your fellow commuters.

Ride the subway every day but want to learn more about it? Check out The Evolution of the Subway Car Design. Want to check out some truly inspired subway art? Here’s a sampling of some of that underground art. Want to take the subway to one of our favorite destinations in NYC? Explore our guide to Getting More Out of NYC in the New Year

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