Home Subway History Red and green messages from the subway globes

Red and green messages from the subway globes

by Benjamin Kabak

Most straphangers likely have no idea what this green globe outside of the new Atlantic Avenue-Barclays Center entrance really means. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

As I took a walk around the outside of the new Atlantic Ave.-Barclays Center subway entrance on Monday afternoon, I chuckled to myself when I spotted a free-standing pole with a green globe on top of it. The subway globe strikes me as an iconic part of the subway system, albeit one that isn’t very old, and the globes themselves are supposed to broadcast a message to the public. These days, based on emails and Twitter comments I’ve received, no one really knows what they mean.

I’ve always associated the globes with the subway system and for good reason. Once upon a time, the globes were simply white with the word “subway” written through them. The color system in place today with red and green globes made their New York City debuts, so to speak, at around the same time I did. The MTA installed the globes in 1982, about a year before I arrived on the scene, and they were introduced as a safety measure.

One of Randy Kennedy’s classic Tunnel Vision columns from 2002 explores the history behind the globes, complete with a vintage Motel 6 reference:

The globes are always the first interaction that riders have with the system, sometimes a block or more before they even enter it. The globes are supposed to serve as a kind of beacon, announcing that the system is intelligible, that people are in charge down there, and that they have, in the comforting words of Tom Bodett, left a light on for you…

in the early 1980’s, mostly to try to prevent muggings, transit officials started a color-code system to warn riders away from entrances that were closed at night. The original idea was to follow the three-color stoplight scheme: green meant that a station had a token booth that never closed; yellow meant a part-time token booth (but in some places, with a token, you could still get in through a full-body turnstile); and red meant an entrance with no booth and no way to get in (though you might be able to get out, through one-way full-body turnstiles).

As the number of words in that description indicates, however, this system was much, much more complicated than go, slow down, stop. So the yellow lights were discontinued a decade ago to simplify things, transit officials said, meaning that the red lights would serve the yellow lights’ purpose, as well as the purpose that the red light used to serve. But then the MetroCard was introduced in 1994, meaning that many entrances that had been exit-only were equipped with full-body card-entrance turnstiles. And then, responding to concerns that the colored lights did not give off enough light, transit officials several years ago began installing what they call “half-moons” when station entrances were rebuilt. These are globes that have a colored top half and a milky white bottom.

I reached out to the MTA for their official take on the globes today, a decade after Kennedy re-introduced New York to this convoluted history, and even now, the meaning is malleable. A Transit spokesman told me that green globes indicate entry and exit 24 hours a day, seven days a week with a Metrocard, and that red globes indicate exit only. There are, he said, very few station entrances remaining with those red globes.

This subway globe in Times Square indicates an unstaffed entrance open only 18 hours a day. (Photo via Second Ave. Sagas on Instagram)

A simple survey of my daily commute, though, reveals a different meaning. The globe in the photo above sits atop the staircase that leads from the end of the Shuttle platform to the sidewalk outside the police station on 43rd St. and Broadway. This station has two iron maiden entrances, but it is unstaffed and open only from 6 a.m. to midnight. The red globe seems to indicate that no one is downstairs and the station closes — or at least that’s my interpretation.

Around the city, other red globes do indeed indicate exit-only areas, but some also seem to signal a part-time entrance. With fewer station agents, perhaps the MTA should reconsider the use of colors and associate red with a shuttered booth for those among us concerned with personal safety. For now, though, these colored lights seem almost vestigial, a reminder of a time when New Yorkers are far more worried about heading underground and encountering the wrong person or no one at all.

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Christian September 20, 2012 - 1:09 am

There is another free standing pole at the Broadway-Lafayette St station – I believe the free standing globe stands on the corner of Lafayette and E Houston, NW corner as the new entrance there is recessed from the sidewalk and between two buildings. I can’t think of any more though…they are very striking to see.

Matt September 20, 2012 - 8:17 am

Now that we’re living in the future, maybe they could put some two-color LEDs in white balls, and thus have the balls change color when the station opens or closes.

Frank B. September 20, 2012 - 9:12 am

They’re making it more complicated than it needs to be.

Green: 24 Hour Entrance.
Red: Not a 24 Hour Entrance.

Problem solved.

Pete April 17, 2018 - 2:14 pm

A company called Russell and Stoll, founded in the early 1900’s and had a factory on Barclay Street in lower Manhattan, was contracted to make the globes in the early 1980’s. I was a sales manager for R&S at the time (1972-1990) and the NYCTA wanted to identify the stations for safety reasons. Green, open 24hoyrs, Red, closed early after rush hour, etc etc. The R&S Company eventually moved from Manhattan to Livingston, NJ in the late 1960’s. The sales rep for the company handled the metro NY area. R&S designed and sold to the transit, but the transit owned the tooling. When R&S was sold to another corporation, the transit took possession of the tooling and found another source to manufacture for them. In 1906, the R&S catalog had various items for the transit manufactured in brass or statuary bronze alloys, and were a source for the building the transit system for several decades. The company also manufactured electrical products for the marine and shipbuilding industry, also big at the time in lower Manhattan. I am retired now, but recall very vividly what the company did back then to accommodate the needs of the transit authority. On a recent visit to Manhattan, I noticed many of the globes still functioning, mostly green and green/white combinations. The legacy lives on.

TP September 20, 2012 - 9:49 am

But then the MetroCard was introduced in 1994, meaning that many entrances that had been exit-only were equipped with full-body card-entrance turnstiles.

I had always thought green basically meant “main entrance with a booth” and red meant “secondary entrance that you can enter with a MetroCard but if you’re trying to haul luggage through this entrance it’s probably a bad idea.” Of course now that they got rid of half the booths and never updated the globe colors, that’s not true anymore, but whether the entrance is open 24 hours isn’t a factor. The south “14th St” 1/2/3 entrance on 12th and 7th has a red globe but it never closes.

Times Square’s many part-time entrances are infuriating. Whenever I’m there afterhours I’m scurrying around looking for the open entrances. I’d assume the night closures were instituted during the bad old days of Times Square. They should really make more 24 hours again.

bgriff September 20, 2012 - 10:45 am

Quite a few formerly part-time entrances and exits have been made 24 hours in recent years — for example some of the secondary exits on the 1 line in Chelsea used to close at 11pm or so but AFAIK are now all 24 hours. Clearly a bit more work remains to be done.

Andrew September 20, 2012 - 7:39 pm

A large majority of entrances that used to be part-time were converted to full-time when the booths were closed. Most of the exceptions seem to lead to private property.

Which Times Square entrances aren’t open full-time?

Nathan October 30, 2017 - 5:51 pm

The one on 43rd street is closed store fraction of the day.

Andrew October 30, 2017 - 7:34 pm

That one is very inconvenient to use except for track 4 on the shuttle. The train on track 4 only runs during rush hours. At any other time of day, you’re better off walking to a different station entrance.

Any other part-time Times Square entrances? (I guess I’ll wait until 2022 to hear back.)

SEAN September 20, 2012 - 9:55 am

What is the structure in the top photo (far right) in this post?


Benjamin Kabak September 20, 2012 - 9:59 am

The edge of the Barclays Center.

SEAN September 20, 2012 - 11:55 am

Ah ha, so that’s what it looks like. Hmmm, interesting.

Rickie September 20, 2012 - 11:10 am

Red and Green are pretty annoying colors to use for the 7-10% of males that are red-green color blind. They’re pretty much just on or off for us.

John-2 September 20, 2012 - 11:31 am

The globes coincided with other security measures, such as the closing of the passageways in and around Herald Square. As the safety concerns have lessened over the past 20 years and the use of Metrocards has made the high-entry turnstiles at secondary entrances more viable, the differences between the entrances have lessened.

The new globes are basically the equivalent of the old orange dome-shaped lights on street lamps or fire call boxes that just let people know from a distance where the boxes were located — putting them out as stand-alones like that lets people know from a block or two away where the subway entrance is. But the MTA probably should look at redefining their color choices, to where green means 24-hour low-turnstile/emergency gate entry, while red means closed at night and half-red (or a triumphant return of the yellow globes) would mean 24-hour high turnstile entry, as to warn people with large objects like luggage, boxes or strollers not to use this stairway.

Duke September 20, 2012 - 11:57 am

The meaning of the red globes is inconsistent, and even a green globe doesn’t guarantee you want to use the entrance if it’s a station where you have to enter on the right side of the street for the direction you want to go. I look for the globes to find an entrance, but to check whether I should use it I read the signage rather than relying on the globe color.

stan September 20, 2012 - 12:12 pm

there are red globes atop the walled-off entrances to the bedford-nostrand station on the G. i assumed that red meant ‘CLOSED’.

BrooklynBus September 20, 2012 - 6:30 pm

I remember when the IRT entrances had one blue globe and one white globe.

Someone September 23, 2012 - 8:34 pm

Green= Entrance/Exit, and 24 hours/day
Red= Exit Only, OR part-time

pete September 25, 2012 - 8:34 pm

The mugging globe colors should return. Red, card swipers, no working MVMs, sleeping bums, drunk bums, and chocolate sellers. Green, booth clerk will call NYPD if card swiper or bum showing his junk.

stuarto uws September 26, 2012 - 8:10 am

It is time for NYC to install an iconic subway marker icon a la (pardon the pun) the Paris Metro or the London Tube symbol or even our own PATH – open or not could simply be A posted sign – our bus stop signs are uniform & generally well marked

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Fabio August 7, 2021 - 1:36 pm

I think that it is necessary to clarify about the true meaning of these green and red lamps.

I know that green lamp means ALWAYS a 24/7 entrance, but I don’t know if this means also that is it possible to reach the 24/7 booth from that same entrance. Every station in NYC has at least a 24/7 booth, but is it possible to reach the 24/7 booth from every green lamp entrance? In this photo of a green lamp entrance in Times Square (https://www.dnainfo.com/new-york/20130412/times-square-theater-district/man-dies-times-square-subway-station-fdny-says) is possible to read this indication (enter with or buy the MetroCard ALL TIMES. Agent on duty 7.30 am-12pm or see agent at 42 St). Does mean that if a person hasn’t a MetroCard and he wants buy it at 3am, must he use another entrance (in this case at 42 St) or is it possible to get to the 24 hour booth at 42 St through this same entrance before of the turnstiles? I think that it is important to know if the green lamp means only 24/7 entrance or also always 24/7 booth!

About the red lamps there is another question. Some red lamps entrances have exit-only, but I noticed that most entrances with red lamps have almost all this indication: enter with or buy the MetroCard ALL TIMES and the agent on duty is part-time (to see for example the photo in this site: https://techsponyc.com/new-york-transport/). Therefore, even these entrance are 24/7 with the MetroCard! In conclusion, what is the TRUE DIFFERENCE between the green and red lamps?

I hope in an exact reply. Thanks.


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