Riding the NYC subway


Knowing the etiquette is essential as a New York City subway passenger,

Knowing the etiquette is essential as a New York City subway passenger,

By Lauren Dillard

As a farmer’s daughter from just outside of Portland, Ore., I rushed to the DMV on my 16th birthday to test for my drivers’ license. Before moving to New York, I had driven a car nearly every day for the subsequent 11 years.
Now, with my 2007 Toyota Corolla parked at my family’s farm just outside of Gresham, I am committed to mass transit on the East Coast. Twice each week, I take one bus and two trains to get to work in Brooklyn. The journey takes about 90 minutes each way.
Riding the New York City subway with any regularity is the most impersonal personal experience I have ever had. While standing directly over someone, I try to avoid eye contact or touching them in any way.

I don’t always succeed.

For those who make mass transit part of their daily commute, it’s a religious experience. Brendan Truscott makes a three-hour (each way) commute from Connecticut each weekday.“You know the tricks, right?” he asked me one day as we shared the start of our journey home. Instead of walking the length of the train to make a connection, it’s smart to position yourself for the connecting stop. If you’re riding rush hour, heading toward the front or back of the train will give you a better, though not guaranteed, shot at a seat.

Lauren Dillard

Lauren Dillard

I pleaded with him to leave me behind as he sprinted to make our connection. I’ve worn athletic shoes and carried a change in my backpack ever since.

Without cell service underground, you are subject to your own preparedness. Whether or not I’ve downloaded a podcast for the trip, I cram headphones into my ears signaling that I’m not available for conversation or cash. I can politely ignore the preacher shouting at Manhattan-bound morning passengers or the gentleman playing his music out loud — again.

Once we arrive in Manhattan, the passenger demographics change. Black and Latino passengers disembark and a wave of mostly-white, clearly affluent passengers board for a few stops.

A friend who grew up in Queens — riding the subway when her parents thought she was staying with friends — advised riding in the first car near the driver during late-night travel.

“White girls won’t help you,” she said. She advised finding a clean-cut Black man if I need help.

According to the Metro Transit Authority, there were 677 million boardings at 421 subway stations in 2013. New Yorkers are very serious about Subway etiquette and safety, dedicating whole websites to the cause. Solicitation is not allowed. Neither is gambling.

Rail-InfoConformity is a virtue in such a densely populated place.

I have been doused in sticky sweet coffee as an exiting passenger shouted and threw her cup toward another passenger. I have made abrupt decisions to change train cars when exiting passengers left me alone with another passenger. I have walked many miles after mistakenly boarding the wrong train.

There’s something about shared vulnerability that makes the subway authentically New York. Even in coffee-stained pants, I’ve always made it home. Lauren Dillard is a Portland native who recently moved to NYC to pursue her interest in product development (read: mobile apps and more) and to be closer to her recently relocated partner, Andy. Her hobbies include hiking, science fiction, knitting (poorly) and sour beer.


Editor’s note: Lauren was part of the inaugural group of writers who helped me launch Voices of August four years ago. Back then, she was 18 months removed from The Oregonian newsroom, where she had done an internship following her graduation from Oregon State University. Aside from being a smart and witty young woman with experience as a search and rescue volunteer, she’s also something of a human Swiss Army knife, with writing, graphics and multimedia skills well suited to the digital age.

Tomorrow: “From Portland to Paris” by Patricia Conover


8 thoughts on “Riding the NYC subway

  1. Lauren, this is wonderful, and so great to know where you are. I heard you just as though you were telling me this while sitting in the newsroom, letting us know what to expect when we travel to NYC. George’s description of you as the human Swiss Army knife is perfect; you can do any and every thing. And thanks again for all your help while on the fifth floor as we started InDesign.

  2. My few experiences with subways were Tokyo and Toronto, in that order. I didn’t experience the super packed compartments that you see on the news, but you have to be prepared going in. I had not been to a subway and was in everyone else’s way. I hear you on etiquette.

  3. “‘White girls won’t help you,’ she said. She advised finding a clean-cut Black man if I need help.” I was not surprised by this advice, necessarily, but it was something I hadn’t thought of before and it made me say, “Hmmmm.” And as I hmmm it, I find it totally sound. (I only rode a few times in New York.) And “shared vulnerability” is always an amazing connection, tool, lifesaver.
    Cheers to subway etiquette, and thank you for the inclusion of the interesting comparison stats!

  4. This is timely as I am heading to NYC for a visit in a few weeks. I’ve told my partner we have to ride the subway so he can experience it (I grew up on the east coast but it’s been a long time for me). He asked, “It’s just like Max, right?”, to which I responded, “you have no idea!”. I think I won’t share this with him to keep my amusement going a bit longer. Take care of yourself back there!

  5. I am not surprised you wrote such an engaging piece on subway travel. I submitted a VOA piece on my trip to Taipei, but truth be told, I left out the most interesting part of the experience, which was riding on the Taipei subway trains every day. Almost all of my observations about Taiwanese people came from studying them in their subway cars.

  6. I’ve never been to New York, but have been on the Tube and the Metro. However, experiencing these things as a novelty from the tourist point of view is vastly different. I love the real and raw bits in this piece. Nicely done.

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