Home Asides The dilemma of picking the best route

The dilemma of picking the best route

by Benjamin Kabak

By and large, most subway trips aren’t fraught with choices. If I want to get from, say, the northern end of Park Slope to the western edge of Washington Square Park, I take a 20-minute ride on the B train, and I don’t have to think about it. But what happens when two trains leave the same station bound for the same stop but take two different routes? How do we pick which one to take?

In the Internet age, apparently the answer is to ask Quora as one Brooklynite has done. The subway-related question is a simple one: “If an uptown F and A train depart Jay St./Borough Hall at the same time, which one will get to West 4th first?” Generally, the two trains seem to take the same amount of time to traverse the stops in between, and if anything, the F will arrive a minute or so sooner. But then other considerations take over. While neither train has seats, the A at West 4th St. is two flights closer to street level than the F.

Admittedly, these conflicts of timing are rare, but they always pose a dilemma. Is it faster to take the 4 from Brooklyn to Yankee Stadium or the D train? Should I take the F to Forest Hills or the E? And of course, if you leave from points in Midtown bound for JFK, neither the E nor the A is faster than the other. Choices, choices, choices.

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Jonathan April 20, 2011 - 11:47 am


The bigger issue is on three-train trips. If I go from Upper Manhattan to Park Slope, do I take the nearby West Side IRT local, then change to the express and walk from Grand Army Plaza? Or do I take the A (longer walk) and change at Jay Street for the F train? Or at Hoyt St for the G train? Or do I take the 1 to South Ferry and change for the R to 9th St (good to have a seat all the way down on the 1, for instance)? Or 1 to 59th, A to Jay, F to 7th Ave? Or 1 to 14th, change to F?

So many choices!

Benjamin Kabak April 20, 2011 - 11:56 am

My general rule of thumb for the transfer between the 7th and 6th Ave. trains at 14th St. is to avoid it if at all possible. It is a long and sketchy walk.

Steve O. April 20, 2011 - 11:57 am

I usually do whatever tripplanner.mta.info tells me 🙂

Max S. (WilletsPoint-SheaStadium) April 20, 2011 - 11:59 am

In terms of the JFK question, I would go E to Jamaica. More time on the AirTrain seems much more enjoyable than more time on the A train, not to mention there are some great food options in Jamaica as opposed to that middle of nowhere Howard Beach stop on the A.

Another factor regarding the F vs. A from Jay St to W 4th Street is the M crossing in front before Broadway/Laffeyette, which could have quite an adverse affect on the F’s timing.

Lawrence Velázquez April 20, 2011 - 12:04 pm

I go to JFK so infrequently that I’ll usually just dish out for a LIRR ticket 😛

Benjamin Kabak April 20, 2011 - 12:08 pm

From my current place, my actual JFK trip either involves four trains (B/Q or 2/3 to Franklin Ave. Shuttle to C to A) or backtracking by taking the F to Jay St. and switching to a Rockaway-bound A. The F/A combo is faster.

Donald April 20, 2011 - 3:44 pm

I would take the E to JFK because it is faster. Remember, not all A trains go to JFK. At Rockaway Blvd. it’s not uncommon to see people running to get off the train right before the doors close when they realize that their A train does not go to JFK. In contrast, all E trains go to Stuphlin Blvd.

Ron April 20, 2011 - 3:50 pm

Except those few that run over the F during rush hour.

Bolwerk April 20, 2011 - 1:01 pm

I seem to remember the PA advertising the AirTrain times to the terminals as the same anyway (Jamaica is futher away, but involves fewer stops).

Lawrence Velázquez April 20, 2011 - 12:02 pm

The dilemma I have most often is whether to take the local pulling into the station or wait for an express. If I have to wait too long for the express, I wasted time by not taking the local. And even if the express comes shortly, it can be slower than I’d like, and the local will win anyway, and I’ll kick myself for the rest of the day.

In Manhattan, I’ll tend to take whatever comes first, if I’m not going too far. Along Queens Boulevard, I’ll hold out for an express.

Steve April 20, 2011 - 12:36 pm

This is where countdown clocks can help you know how long you’ll need to wait for the express.

Bolwerk April 20, 2011 - 1:06 pm

I don’t think you almost never save much time risking a wait, and you have to go pretty far afield before the express saves you significant time in most cases.

John April 20, 2011 - 1:39 pm

The only time I think waiting for an express train really makes sense is in Queens. The E and F are consistent and reliable, at least during daytime hours, and skip a total of 10 stops between Queens Plaza and Forest Hills-71 Av. Otherwise it’s a crap chute. I find it funny when I see people rushing to transfer at 14 St-Union Sq from the 6 to the 4/5. The 6 is so much better! You are pretty much guaranteed a seat, and you will most likely fly past the 4/5 while it creeps at a snail’s pace on the express tracks, as it can often be seen doing.

CenSin April 20, 2011 - 7:53 pm

I’ve often smiled at the other riders on the slow train on the express track while taking a (6) to Grand Central–42 Street from Canal Street.

Steve April 21, 2011 - 10:32 am

I notice this speed differential on the C vs. the A between 145th and 125th, too. Why is it that the locals seem to run faster than the expresses? You’d think the expresses would be able to get up to a faster speed and hold it there longer. Isn’t that part of the point of the express?

Benjamin Kabak April 21, 2011 - 10:35 am

The 4 and the 5 slow down because the line is at capacity and station dwell times impact the trains further down the line. The C sometimes gets to 145th St. faster than the A after 125th St. because of switching. Just depends when and if the B and D trains are switching over.

Bolwerk April 21, 2011 - 2:10 pm

I don’t know if expresses were ever supposed to be faster, but the modern point of expresses is probably more throughput, not speed. Look at time tables. IIRC, the only impressive express is the E on Queens Boulevard. The others tend to save you a few minutes for a medium-distance trip, and probably aren’t even worth waiting for when it’s a medium or short trip.

ajedrez April 21, 2011 - 3:19 pm

I find that, off-peak, the 4/5 generally beat the 6, and the 2/3 generally beat the 1 at any time of the day.

Since my trips are usually fairly long (say, 42nd Street to Lower Manhattan), I find that it is faster to wait for the express.

tacony palmyra April 21, 2011 - 2:20 pm

Depends how far you’re going, obviously. I really don’t think waiting for the 2/3 to go from 14th to 96th is ever slower than taking the 1 all the way. Usually better to wait. The 4/5 gets congested and slow around Grand Central during rush hours, sure, but if you’re going all the way to 125th I don’t think the 6 is often beating it in the end. And I always assume that a lot of the people running from the 6 to the 4/5 at 14th are transferring ’cause they’re going past where the 6 ends or breaks off anyway.

It’d be nice if the countdown clocks were easier to see from the trains. Most of the ones already installed are too tough to view from the train to make a decision about transferring vs. staying. And it’d be even nicer if we could see the countdown times for other platforms, for instance for West 4th. AND (as I’ve mentioned here before) why not eventually incorporate the countdown clock information into the on-board announcements? “This is 14th Street-Union Square. Transfer is available to the 4 train, which is leaving in 1 minute.”

Lawrence Velázquez April 20, 2011 - 12:07 pm

Regarding choosing multiple-train routes, I tend to adhere to my entirely capricious personal preferences. I prefer the F over the A/C over the B/D, the 4/5 over the 2/3, and almost anything at all over the N/Q/R. No clue why.

Vladimir M April 20, 2011 - 12:17 pm

I live at W4 and used to work at Metrotech/Jay St a few years ago. I’ve found that if I took the F, and an A train departed Jay St. at the same moment, I would see it again upstairs at W4 just as I would be climbing to the exit. So yes, the F is faster but only by the time it takes to climb those two flights.

Ron April 20, 2011 - 3:54 pm

Along the same lines, I used to take the A from Queens and get off at Penn Station. If a C or E train was at 14th Street, I would take the local because it would put me closer to the exit and actually saved me time over the A despite an extra stop at 23rd St.

Spencer K April 20, 2011 - 12:34 pm

Ooof. Try the Astoria to Downtown Brooklyn route, as I did for over a year.

I kept changing it a few times (N -> Q @42nd, N -> F @34th, N -> 7 -> G skipping Manh), and honestly never found a great route.

Scott E April 20, 2011 - 12:59 pm

Whenever possible, the IRT tends to be the best route in my experience. The routes are relatively straight and direct (Whereas the IND meanders a bit, see the A/C/E and N/Q/R in Manhattan). The trains tend to operate on a more regular schedule than the lettered lines with the older signalling systems and (still, in some cases) older trains. If you’re not claustrophobic in narrower cars, it always seems to work best for me.

Bolwerk April 20, 2011 - 1:04 pm

Between the F and the A from Brooklyn, I think the choice is: the first one that comes. And the first one that comes might be a C. Any time you would save waiting for an optimal train in these cases is eaten up by waiting. Coming back, I would probably wait at the A/C platform rather than the F platform. Like a bad date, an A/C has a higher probability of coming first.

Benjamin April 20, 2011 - 2:46 pm

Google (who I tend to trust, I guess) says the A is only 11 minutes vs the C and F both being 12. But obviously, whichever comes first’d be the right choice.

John-2 April 20, 2011 - 3:44 pm

Going the other way — A/C or B/D traveling between Columbus Circle and West Fourth Street?

al April 20, 2011 - 5:12 pm

Southbound, its close. Northbound goes to IND 6th Ave.

Paul April 20, 2011 - 4:01 pm

This kind of thing comes up a lot for me. For example, how would you tackle traveling between midtown (say Penn Station or Herald Sq.) and Atlantic/Pacific in Brooklyn, say at 11PM?

There are many options: the B/D, the N/Q(/R), the 2/3. If you’re on 5th Ave. is it worth walking to Park Ave to catch a 4/5 (with potential transfer from a 6)? What about an A->B/D transfer at W4th?

I find that you stand to gain or lose 10-15 minutes or more if you make this choice incorrectly, and the lack of arrival boards at many of these hubs (particularly in the areas *between* the trains) makes it much more challenging.

Alon Levy April 20, 2011 - 4:12 pm

If you leave from Midtown to JFK, the E beats the A by about half an hour, accounting for the longer AirTrain trip. The A crawls in Queens, takes a circuitous route, and comes every 15 minutes vs. the E’s 4-6.

The main dilemma trip for me is not home to JFK – I take the 1 to 59th, switch to the B/D, and thence to the E – but rather home to downtown Brooklyn. I need to go to Atlantic-Pacific; usually I’ll take the 1 or the 1/2 to 42nd and switch to the N/Q, but the way back, when it’s late at night, I’ll take the 2/1 all the way to avoid a long transfer.

Paul April 20, 2011 - 4:30 pm

Yes, this is what I was pointing to as well. Arrival boards could make a huge difference in this case: late at night, the next Q might be leaving in 3min versus the next 2 train leaving in 19min. That Q could catch up to the last 2 train that already left the station at 42nd and get you home faster. It’s a shame there’s no easy way to determine that from underground (without a smartphone app that has the schedules).

Alon Levy April 20, 2011 - 5:14 pm

Since the platforms are different, it would be best if such boards were visible from all platforms as well as the major entrances. I’m annoyed they do not have boards on the platforms at 96th, where they’d help me decide whether to switch or stay on the 1.

Hank W. April 20, 2011 - 7:50 pm

Yes. Also at 34th St A/C/E and 1/2/3. It’s a real roll of the dice since you have to decide between local or express as local/express have different platforms for trains headed in the same direction. Really annoying and if you guess wrong it can mean a long wait in off-hours or if there’s some sort of delay.

CenSin April 20, 2011 - 7:50 pm

A dilemma I’ve faced frequently is travel between Flushing and Coney Island. One of the biggest annoyances I face is the fact that the MTA decided to change the (N) and (Q) routes to their current forms.

The (N) runs express in Brooklyn, and the (Q) runs local. Even if the (Q) leaves Coney Island first (which it usually does about a minute to three minutes earlier), the (N) seems to get to the Manhattan Bridge first or at least catch up to and overtake the (Q) at DeKalb Avenue. Along Broadway, the (Q) is express and saves about 3 to 5 minutes over the (N), which must serve some well-used local stations. The dilemma in this situation is figuring out which train will reach Queensboro Plaza in the shortest amount of time from Coney Island. If the (N) were express in Brooklyn and Manhattan, it would be a no-brainer.

Late at night, I’m usually inclined to take the Coney Island-bound (F) at Roosevelt Avenue since taking the (7) all local from Main Street–Flushing would be a guaranteed slow ride. Although it’s local in Manhattan and Brooklyn, trying to get the (Q) at Queensboro Plaza guarantees I’ll be riding local along the majority length of the (7), and most other trains have stopped running express. I could catch the (Q) at 34 Street–Herald Square, but each transfer taxes my travel time heavily and negates the time-savings of taking an express.

C-Lo April 21, 2011 - 8:56 am

As a new resident of Queens who works in Northeast Bronx, route choice has become highly important to me. Trying to get to the Bronx through Manhattan from a local stop exactly in the middle of two express stops (Roosevelt and Forest Hills), I was always trying to figure this out. M train to 51st, then the WORST transfer to the uptown 6? R train to 59th, then the SECOND WORST transfer to the uptown 6? M or R to the F at Roosevelt, then to 63rd and Lex to walk/transfer to the uptown 6 at 59th? And then waiting for the uptown 6 that goes all the way to Pelham Bay Park? No matter which route I chose, it takes 90 minutes.

However, taking a bus from Middle Village to the 7 in Jackson Heights, going to Flushing, then getting on the bus that goes across the Whitestone Bridge takes only 60-70 minutes. Seems a shame, doesn’t it?

Al D April 21, 2011 - 9:36 am

Even more so that it’s about a 35 minute or less drive (depending on your actual point of origin). But you’d be a perfect Triboro RX rider.


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