New York City’s Best Subway Lines, Definitively Ranked

By: Brian Mangan

The Read Zone takes a look at the MTA New York City subway system, ranking the top eight and declaring a winner.

As a lifelong New Yorker, I have always been fascinated with the subway system.  Not only is New York City’s subway system iconic and historic, it is also one of the biggest, best, and most cost-effective in the world.

The NYC subway system has 468(!) stations – a massive total that is only 60 less than the combined total of all other subway systems in the country. The average weekday ridership on the MTA is calculated to be over 5.3 million, making it the most-used transportation system in the Western Hemisphere.  The system is made up of 24 lines, covering 660 miles of track.  Of course, being the lifeline in the city that never sleeps, the MTA subway operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  For the price of a single fare, you can travel from the northern tip of the Bronx, down to Coney Island at the southern shore of Brooklyn, out to Flushing, through Times Square, up to Museum Mile, or get out for a day at the South Street Seaport, traversing hundreds of miles of tunnels to do so.

Coney Island - Stillwell Avenue on the D/F/N/Q
Coney Island – Stillwell Avenue on the D/F/N/Q
All photos courtesy of Xavier Veal of ninjastatus.com

As part of my fascination with the subway, I have always wondered what the single best line was.  [Footnote 1]  The Straphangers Campaign does an unbelievable job of evaluating the subway lines on academic criteria such as cleanliness and frequency of service.  Others have discussed the merits of the lines in terms of fun.  However I have been unable to find a definitive ranking anywhere that combines all of these factors to give us a (admittedly subjective) winner.

As a New Yorker, I felt compelled to set the record straight.

In case you were wondering about my bona fides or biases, here you go. I’m 30, so minus the four years I was away for college (even though I was home in the summers), I have been riding the subway regularly, if not every day, for over twelve years. I went to high school in Manhattan, so I would take the 7, 2/3, and/or the A/C/E daily. After college, I lived or went to school off the F/R, 4/5/6, and N/Q. And, of course, as any New Yorker knows, you become extremely familiar with the trains near your significant others’ homes. I’ve had girlfriends in the Lower East Side (B/D/F), East Village (L/6), Upper East Side (4/5/6) and Harlem (1/2/3).

With that out of the way, let’s get to some rankings. The first part of ranking though is – what is the question? The Buzzfeed article doesn’t explain their rankings, but for me, it’s a combination of: 1) train cleanliness/comfort, 2) train reliability, 3) train frequency, 4) convenience of path/landmarks, and 5) speed of travel. Another way of asking it is this: “if you were stuck living next to one train line forever, which one would you pick?”

On to the contestants!!

Ain’t she a beauty?

First, we need to narrow down the field a little bit. The MTA itself groups the train lines into “families”, with trans that overlap for a substantial amount of time grouped together. There is no use ranking trains within a single “family” against one another as, for instance, the 2/3 run together for almost their entire trip, use the same train cars, and both go express through Manhattan. Therefore, I will select one representative from each “family” to represent the line, and then discuss our finalists in depth.  Much of the data for these decisions are going to be drawn from the incredible, amazing Straphanger’s Campaign Report Card. Check it out by clicking here.

The Big Families:

The A, C, E, Trains (Eighth Avenue Line)

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14th Street A/C/E/J

Representative: A Train: The A is the longest line in the city. It begins in Inwood, at the upper tip of Manhattan, and travels all the way down Eighth Avenue, into Brooklyn, and then goes all the way out basically to John F. Kennedy airport in Queens,  covering over thirty miles. The C Train presents an interesting alternative, but the A Train prevails, because the C Train goes local down the west side of Central Park and terminates at Euclid Ave, while the A Train makes an incredible jump from 125th Street to 59th Street.  The E is a distant third.

The 1, 2, 3 Trains (Seventh Avenue Line)

Representative: 1 Train: Although the 1 Train does not go to Brooklyn, the 1 captures the entirety of the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Columbia University, and the Cloisters, while the 2 and 3 go express and then tunnel under Central Park to finish in Harlem or the Bronx. Although missing Brooklyn and the Barclays Center hurts the 1 Train, the cultural significance of the Upper West allows the 1 Train to prevail as its family’s representative.  It’s also pretty quick on its local stops. The 3 Train is the second best line here, but the Brooklyn part of its trip does not make up for missing the Upper West Side or Yankee Stadium.

The 4, 5, 6, Trains (Lexington Avenue Line)

Representative: 4 Train: All of these trains have similar paths, beginning in the Bronx, and then traveling down the East Side of Manhattan in the same tube.  The 6 terminates downtown at Borough Hall, making it by far the shortest of the lines, and eliminating itself from contention. The 4 and 5 Trains have very similar paths in Brooklyn, making the Bronx the tiebreaker, where the 4 Train goes to Yankee Stadium and the 5 Train does not.  I would have loved to choose my beloved 6 Train, but the length of the 4 Train wins the group.

The B, D, F, M Trains (Sixth Avenue Line)

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The bustling 34th Street, Herald Square B/D/F/M/N/Q/R

Representative: F Train: This is probably the most difficult family from which to pick a representative, because each of the trains do such different things (although we will eliminate the M right away). The B and D begin in the Bronx, while the F begins in Jamaica, Queens. The F and D terminate in Coney Island, while the B terminates next door in Brighton Beach. The B captures the Museum of Natural History and Columbus Circle, while the F gets Roosevelt Island, Brooklyn Heights, and Park Slope. This one is too close to call, so the F Train wins the group because, according to the Straphangers Campaign, the F Train is the most frequent of the four trains.

The N, Q, R, Trains (Broadway Line)

Representative: N Train: These trains all begin in Queens, run through Manhattan, and then terminate in Brooklyn (or vice versa). The R is the least novel of these, a shorter and more local version of other trains, overlapping with the E/F/G for a while and the N/Q at others. Although it terminates in lovely Bay Ridge, it is not interesting enough on its own to defeat the others. The N and Q, on the other hand, are extremely similar and both cover incredible distances. It is a virtual tie, therefore, the N Train wins as it is local and runs at all times, as opposed to the Q which is a day time express and which terminates in Manhattan during off-peak hours.

One more note: the Straphangers Campaign ranked the Q Train #1 overall, while grading the N Train as merely average.  I don’t put stock into that rating, however, as the categories in which the Q Train outstripped the N Train were mostly silly, like “seat availability at rush hour.”  Real New Yorkers know that “seat availability at rush hour” should be 0% for all trains, always, if you are anywhere near the important parts of the line.

The Non-Large-Family Lines:

The 7 Train: The 7 Train connects Times Square with Main St.-Flushing, the third busiest intersection in the entire city. It also has Citi Field. The 7 Train obviously merits further consideration.

The L, G Trains: The MTA does not group these two together, but for the purposes of this project, I will. The G train is a travesty whose very existence brings shame to man’s thousand year history of technological progress. So, the L Train wins by default.

The J, Z Trains: The J and Z trains are three-borough trains, but peculiar in the sense that they begin in Manhattan, rather than an outer borough, and then tunnel through Brooklyn into Queens. These trains run on identical paths end to end, and their only claim to fame is the Lower East Side and Chinatown. These trains have little to offer, despite the commonality with Jay-Z, so as a twist, I’m not taking either the J or the Z Train to the finals, instead taking the best of the runners-up, the 2 Train.  You could say that we have eight finalists, but the J-Z ain’t one.

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As empty as you’ll ever see 14th Street – Union Square

The Elite Eight

1, 2, 4, C, F, N, 7, L

8th Place – 2 Train (61 stations): Ideal Midtown Line

Clean, fast, runs deep into Brooklyn and the Bronx while running express throughout Manhattan.  What’s not to like about the 2 Train?  The 2 Train will get you from Point A to Point B with aplomb, connecting you to important hubs like Penn Station, Atlantic Terminal, and Times Square.  

There’s just nothing special about it culturally, which is why the 1 Train (discussed below) earned the right to be its family’s representative in the first place. This is the highest that I can, in good conscience, rank a runner-up. If it were being ranked by itself, the 2 Train would probably be in the top four overall.

7th Place – L Train (24 stations), Hipster Express

The L Train, although useful and interesting in that it cuts across 14th Street and leads passengers into the trendy Williamsburg neighborhood, is too short and does not capture enough of Manhattan to be considered a serious contender for the title.  The L Train gets points for its new subway cars and good service, as well as for its convenient connections to the major trains at 8th Avenue, 6th Avenue, and Union Square but, ultimately, this is a train that derives its unique value only from Williamsburg.

Highlights:  Union Square, Williamsburg.

6th Place – F Train (45 stations), a Real New York City Train

The F Train runs a reliable commute between some of the largest residential neighborhoods in the city, connecting Forest Hills and Jamaica in Queens with residential neighborhoods like Park Slope, Carroll Gardens, and Kensington. While in the city, the F travels down affluent and underrated Sixth Avenue, then cuts across the nightlife on Houston before going into Brooklyn. It also services Roosevelt Island.

So whether its a daytime work commute or a night on the town, the F Train gets plenty of use and performs well, as one of the cleaner, newer trains.  Unfortunately, the F Train does not get Times Square, Atlantic Center, or uptown.  The F Train also gets demerits for slow-ish service and, when I lived there, seemingly endless construction.

Highlights: Bryant Park, Rockefeller Center, Tiffany’s, Herald Square, Macy’s, West 4th Street, Bleecker Street, Houston Street, Delancey Street, Metrotech Center, Prospect Park (west side), Coney Island

5th Place – A Train (65 stations), The Long Haul

First, the bad. The A Train is related to the C Train, which has, for four straight years, been ranked as the worst subway service in the city in terms of quality by the Straphanger’s Campaign. The C Train also uses the oldest trains in the city (although they are upgrading now, I believe) and the A Train is right ahead of them in quality.  The A Train is better, but suffers from many of the same flaws.

Nonetheless, the A itself has an interesting path which warrants consideration. The A Train’s northern terminal is 207th Street in Inwood, in upper Manhattan. It runs down the Upper West Side, like the 1 Train, but follows a more workmanlike path, traveling down St. Nicholas Avenue until it reaches Central Park West. Once it intersects with the 1/2/3 at Columbus Circle, it is the most westerly subway line, traveling down Eighth Avenue before traversing through TriBeCa and into Brooklyn. After passing through Brooklyn Heights, the A travels down Fulton Street, parallel to the important Atlantic Avenue. The A Train also gets major bonus points for connecting to John F. Kennedy Airport and the Rockaways.  Unfortunately, the A Train gets too many demerits for service quality (but also sentimental bonus points for being part of the line which serviced the World Trade Center).

Highlights: Washington Heights, Central Park West, Museum of Natural History, Columbus Circle – Time Warner Center, Port Authority Bus Terminal/Times Square, Penn Station, West Village, Washington Square Park, Canal Street, TriBeCa, World Trade Center, Brooklyn Bridge Park.

4th Place – 7 Train (21 stations): The International Express

The 7 Train is a train that is primarily working-class in character. Useful primarily for commuters, the 7 Train efficiently connects Times Square, Grand Central Station, and Flushing, Queens, which you may be surprised to learn possesses the third busiest intersection in all of New York, the intersection of Main Street and Roosevelt Avenue. Aside from its historical and cultural importance, you may be surprised to learn that the Flushing Main-Street stop is the single busiest stop outside of Manhattan.

The 7 Train, in addition to holding a monopoly on Citi Field, home of the Mets, also passes through Flushing Meadows Corona Park, the home of the 1964 and 1939 World’s Fairs.  It is fitting, of course, that Roosevelt Avenue, above which the 7 Train runs, is known at one of the most (if not the most) multicultural stretch of avenue in America.  As the Times put it:

That an Indian woman buys Mexican tortillas in a Korean grocery store in a Turkish-Romanian-Irish neighborhood isn’t unusual.

No mention of the 7 could be complete without reference to John Rocker, former all-star pitcher, who had his own very famous views on multiculturalism: “The biggest thing I don’t like about New York are the foreigners. I’m not a very big fan of foreigners.”  He complained in specific about the 7 Train, saying that “you’re [riding through] Beirut next to some kid with purple hair next to some queer with AIDS right next to some dude who just got out of jail for the fourth time[.]”

Nonetheless, the 7 Train perseveres.  In fact, in typical New York fashion, I think that the line, and the people who happily populate it, got stronger thanks to the criticism.

Ironically, the 7 Train actually ranked worst – dead last – in car announcement quality last year. But I suppose if you had to choose one line to have impossible to understand announcements, the international 7 line would probably be the best. (note: the 7 is now getting new cars, yay).

Highlights: Times Square, Port Authority Bus Terminal, Bryant Park, Grand Central Station, Long Island City, Queens Boulevard, Woodside Long Island Railroad Station, Roosevelt Avenue, Citi Field (Mets), US Open Tennis Center, Main Street-Flushing, Flushing Chinatown.

3rd Place – 4 Train (54 stations): All Business

The strength of the 4 Train, aside from connections to Yankee Stadium in in the Bronx and the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, is that it’s line is the only game in town when it comes to the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The 4 Train grants access to a wealth of museums and residential neighborhoods, and does so quickly and efficiently.

Its path through midtown, down Lexington Avenue, is not “fun,” but it means business, as the 4 line connects offices in Midtown East to Grand Central Station, Wall Street, and the Supreme Court in the Bronx, Manhattan, and Brooklyn as well as all of the local Federal Courts. If you are in the city on business, and you take the subway, you’re probably taking the Lexington Avenue line.

Also, the Lexington Avenue Line is fast, and super clean. People complain that it’s overcrowded, and it is, but the train runs quickly, comes often, and uses the newest and most awesome cars. Not much else you can ask for.

Highlights: Bronx Botanical Garden, Yankee Stadium, Guggenheim Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, Midtown East, Grand Central Station, Union Square, St. Mark’s Place, City Hall, Wall Street, Bowling Green, Brooklyn Borough Hall, Atlantic Terminal-Barclays Center.

2nd Place – 1 Train (38 stations): Old New York
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The classic 72nd Street 1/2/3 Station

If you’re looking for a train which is the equivalent of a stroll on foot through New York City’s rich history, look no further than the 1 Train.  The 1 is in no rush, going local from 242nd Street, just above the northern tip of Manhattan, and running down though South Ferry. It is a very close to being a one-borough train, but that’s okay.

The 1 Train begins in affluent Riverdale, in the Bronx, passes Fort Tryon Park and the Cloisters, then travels down Broadway through Columbus Circle, capturing the best of the Upper West Side (think Seinfeld). It then runs down Seventh Avenue to its terminal at South Ferry, where it connects with the ferry to Staten Island (major bonus points).  On the way, the 1 Train hits major important subway stops at Times Square, 14th Street, and Chambers Street, and is the closest train to affluent Battery Park City.  Lincoln Center?  1 Train.  Columbus Circle?  1 Train.  Boat Basin?  1 Train.  The historic Greenwich Village music scene (as pictured in Inside Llewyn Davis)? 1 Train.

The 1 Train misses out on outer-borough highlights, but its cultural significance more than makes up for it.

Highlights: Washington Heights, the Cloisters, Columbia University, Upper West Side, Museum of Natural History, Lincoln Center, Columbus Circle-Time Warner Center, Theater District, Times Square, Penn Station, 14th Street, Greenwich Village, Canal Street, Battery Park City, South Ferry-Staten Island Ferry Terminal.

1st Place – N Train (39 stations): The Highlight Reel

The N Train does not cover quite as vast distances as some of the other trains on this list, like the A Train or the 4 Train, but it is the train with by far the most interesting, highlight filled path.

The N Train has its northern terminal in Astoria, Queens, where it works its way through a working class neighborhood (with a connection by bus to LaGuardia airport) into Manhattan. Its other end is again working class, heading through Sunset Park and Bay Ridge, Brooklyn before terminating at Coney Island.  Both Astoria and Bay Ridge are major cultural centers in their respective outer boroughs, so the fact that the N Train connects them both is a major plus.  In addition, the trains used on the N line are new, therefore operating cleanly, brightly, and reliably.

However, it is in between these extremes that the N Train truly distinguishes itself.  In Manhattan, the N Train travels across the south side of Central Park, then slices down Broadway, heading through the Financial District into Brooklyn.  In doing so, the N Train touches so many of New York City’s most important places: skyscrapers, music halls, sports arenas, and so many other cultural landmarks.  The N can also connect you conveniently to just about every other train, intersecting with the 1/2/3/4/5/6/7/B/D/F/M within the space of eight subway stops (between Lexington Avenue/59th Street and 14th Street/Union Square).

Thanks to its 1) cleanliness and reliability, 2) connection to two of the most important outer-borough neighborhoods, and 3) run through almost all of lower and midtown Manhattan’s most essential destinations, the N Train our winner.

Highlights: Ditmars-Astoria, Bohemian Hall Beer Garden, Long Island City, Trump Plaza/Apple Store/FAO Schwarz, Central Park South, Columbus Circle, Theater District, Times Square, Bryant Park, Herald Square, Madison Square Park, Flatiron Building, Union Square, New York University, Bleecker Street, City Hall, Court Street-Brooklyn, Metrotech Center, Atlantic Terminal-Barclays Center, Fourth Avenue-Park Slope, Coney Island

Conclusion

So there you have it, when ranking the trains for a combination of: 1) train cleanliness/comfort, 2) train reliability, 3) train frequency, 4) convenience of path/landmarks, and 5) speed of travel, this New Yorker’s top five is the A, 7, 4, 1, and N.

All in all, it’s an amazing system which I defend to people all the time (and we get to be excited about a new line soon).  I would love to hear what YOU all think about this — which train do you think is best?  It’s an extremely subjective exercise, so there may be lots of different opinions, but in all my time reading online about this, I’ve never seen any popular surveys on the topic, so I figured I’d step in.

These are my results — be sure to tell us what you think in the poll and the comments below.

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Brian Mangan is an attorney born and raised in New York City and is a big-time subway enthusiast.   Seriously, folks, we’re one of the only big cities in America where happy hour is possible on a whim, drunk driving is nonexistent, the bars stay open until 4am, and people from all socioeconomic classes have the ability to travel to work and play at the nominal expense of a monthly Metrocard.  Lucky.

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Footnotes

[1] When I first started this article, we were in the middle of March Madness … last year, 2013. The project then languished until a friend of mine (thanks, Adam!) sent me a link to this Buzzfeed Article, The Definitive Ranking of New York City Subways.

The Buzzfeed list is not a perfect list. In fact, the top-voted comments pan the article, saying things like “Brandon Franz: I don’t know where to begin with what is wrong with this article,” and “Janeen Michelle: This article was seemingly wrote by someone who watched 2 episodes of “Girls”, then deemed themselves an expert on NYC transit system.”

I happenned to enjoy the article and the other work from that author.  Yes, we all know that the majority of Buzzfeed articles about New York are written by transplants. But I get it. Many of us have been lucky enough to have been born here and grow up in the greatest city on Earth. For those who have traveled to be here, who have earned being here, I definitely understand the urge to want to become a part of it, to feel as if you share part of your identity with this beast, and that you understand it.

[2] Photo credit for all of the photos in this article go to Xavier Veal of ninjastatus.com.  I strongly suggest you check out his project, “Last Stop,” which has photos from every single subway stop in the city.