For recent NYC transplants, the subway system is a secret hiding in plain sight. There are four hundred and sixty eight subway stations scattered across Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens which connect twenty-four subway lines. In other words, pretty much anywhere you are in the city, there's a subway that can take you where you need to go (potentially with a transfer or two). It's time to demystify the subway.
The first subway opened in New York City in 1904. Then, like now, the subway system was the answer to over-crowded roads and New Yorkers' need to move around the city quickly. The system expanded rapidly over the next century and, today, over one billion subway rides are taken each year.
So let's start with the basics. Every subway line runs in two directions: uptown (north) and downtown (south). Some subway stations let you take either direction once you get inside, but most of them have one entrance per direction so make sure you take a look at the station sign as you head down the stairs to make sure you are headed the right way. If it's going the wrong direction, take a look across the street and you will usually find the entrance you're looking for.
One of the most attractive features of the subway is its cheap fare. Although recent fare hikes caused quite the uproar among Subway regulars, a subway trip costs $2.75 per ride (less if you buy a multi-ride pass), still one of the best deals in town. The station turnstiles don't take cash, but most subway stations have multiple ticket machines right near the station entrance. If you are going to be taking the subway every day for work, consider purchasing an unlimited ride monthly pass for $116.50, which isn't a great bulk rate anymore, but still a lot more convenient.
Now you're on the platform ready to go! You'll notice that most platforms have a couple of train lines running on them. Usually these are local and express trains (much fewer stops on the same route) or sometimes it's two lines that run on the same path for a while before splitting up when heading out of Manhattan. Before you get on the platform, take a look to see your different options and just watch for the line symbols on the front and side of the train.
There are several great resources for train directions, which are particularly important if you want to transfer trains (which doesn't cost extra). Google Maps is always an old standby, but HopStop.com, a site which specializes in subway transit, does a great job taking into account line closures for maintenance so you don't find yourself waiting for a train that never comes.
One last parting thought, at some point, you will get on the wrong train. Everyone does it. Consider it part of your New York initiation. Just try not to go too far. Happy travels!