NYC Subway Facts from the Most Basic to the Fairly Obscure

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NYC’s subway system is a never-ending source of fascinating things, and I’m not just talking about all the stuff that is used as fodder for Subway Creatures. With over 100 years servicing the people of New York, the subway has racked up volumes worth of stats, facts, and trivia. Let’s go over a few of the most interesting NYC subway facts from the most basic to the fairly obscure (to the general public. Railfans, I know this is nothing compared to the minutiae that you know 😂).

NYC Subway Facts Level 1: The Basics

  • If laid out end to end, the mainline tracks of New York’s subway system could stretch from New York to Chicago (about 661 miles). If you include the tracks in the system that aren’t used to transport the public, like the tracks in the rail yards, then the 840 miles worth of tracks could almost reach Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 
  • Times Square is the busiest station in Manhattan and in the subway system overall. The busiest stations in the other boroughs (in descending order) are Flushing-Main Street in Queens, Atlantic Av-Barclays Center in Brooklyn, and 161 Street-Yankee Stadium in the Bronx.
  • The Broad Channel station in Queens is the least-used station in the subway system.
  • The A train has the longest route, traveling 31 miles from 207th Street in Manhattan to Far Rockaway in Queens. The 42nd Street Shuttle (S) is considered to have the shortest route, going between the Times Square – 42nd Street station and Grand Central Station.
  • Brooklyn’s Smith-9th Streets station on the F/G line is the highest station in the system at 88 feet above street level, while Manhattan’s 191st Street station on the 1 line is the deepest station in the system at 180 feet below street level.
  • The longest distance between stations is from the Howard Beach/JFK Airport station to the Broad Channel station on the A line (3.5 miles).
  • Each time the train pulls into a station, the train conductor is required to point to a zebra-striped board in front of them called the conductor’s indication board. Doing this means that the train has stopped correctly within the station and can safely open the doors for passengers.
  • If you’re ever late to work because of a train delay, feel free to lay the blame on the MTA. They will email or fax you a “late letter” on request.

NYC Subway Facts Level 2: Stuff You Read Once and Promptly Forgot

  • Brooklyn is the borough with the most subway stations with 170, followed by Manhattan with 151, Queens with 81, and the Bronx with 70.
  • The subway system as we know it, Manhattan-centric, with not enough routes spread out through the outer boroughs, mostly came into being during the first three decades of the twentieth century. Its lack of development since then can be blamed on global events such as the Great Depression and World War II, the expense of constructing new lines, and lack of political will from the city and the state.
  • Matthew Ahn currently holds the record for navigating the entire subway system in the shortest amount of time, (21 hours, 28 minutes, 14 seconds), but he achieved this in 2016 before the Second Avenue line was opened. Anyone up to create a new record?
  • October 29, 2015, marked the highest single-day ridership with more than 6.2 million people taking the trains that day.
  • Annual subway ridership hasn’t dipped below 1 billion riders since 1994, with the exception of 2020.
  • Even though the modern air conditioner was invented in 1902, the first air-conditioned subway cars didn’t hit the tracks until the summer of 1967, and even then, the MTA’s whole fleet of trains weren’t fully air-conditioned until 1993.
  • There’s a New York Public Library branch within in the Lexington Avenue-51st Street station. If you enter the station at Lexington Avenue and 50th Street, you’ll find the Terence Cardinal Cooke-Cathedral Library, one of the smallest library branches in the NYPL system. (Note: that this branch is temporarily being repurposed as an IDNYC enrollment office.)

NYC Subway Facts Level 3: You’re a Bigger Nerd Than I Am If You Already Knew These Things

  • The Great Northeast Blackout on November 9, 1965, caused 800,000 passengers to be trapped in the subway. I do not envy the people who had to be evacuated from the trains that were stuck in tunnels under the East River.
  • Fourteen million gallons of water are pumped out of the subway system on a dry day. The subway’s tunnels and stations are in constant battle against the groundwater and other water sources that the subway tunnels put off their natural course.
  • Your MetroCard swipes are being tracked and recorded in the Automated Fare Collection (AFC) Database. While its mainly is used to facilitate free transfers between the subway and the bus, this database also prevents your MetroCard from being able to be used if you report it stolen or missing, and it is even used by law enforcement to confirm suspects’ alibis.
  • During the subway system’s opening day on October 27, 1904, Mayor George B. McClellan was tasked with operating the train from the City Hall station north a couple of stops. However, Mayor McClellan had so much fun driving the train that he didn’t want to give up the controls, getting the train all the way up to 103rd Street without much assistance. Could you imagine any of our more recent mayors as subway engineers?

Thanks for taking a trip down the NYC subway facts rabbit hole with me! What other interesting NYC subway facts would you add to this list?

But before you go, if you liked this compilation of NYC subway facts and you like what I do here at Shiloh in the City and want to continue getting to know New York’s history, culture, and things to do with me, sign up for my email list and follow me on social media. Thanks for reading!

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