I’m in New York City for a few days for work. I’ve never particularly enjoyed the uncomfortable, often jam-plagued taxi ride from JFK into Manhattan so this time I thought I’d take the train.
New York only built the Airtrain to JFK a few years ago, but even that development was half-hearted. The Airtrain is really a glorified shuttle to a rail junction in Jamaica, Queens, where passengers can transfer to either the Long Island Railroad or the subway. It all works well enough, and I reached my midtown Manhattan destination in about 50 minutes.
But woe betide new visitors to New York who venture onto the Airtrain. I can’t recall a public transport experience in the developed world that did less to help newcomers figure out what to do.
Getting from the terminal to the Airtrain isn’t bad, but there the problems start. There are two tracks, but there’s no clear signage to explain that one track is purely for a shuttle between JFK’s many terminals. The other track connects to the subway system. I expected big signs saying something like: “For Midtown Manhattan, take the Airtrain to Jamaica, Queens, and transfer to the E train.” You must be joking. No help whatsoever. Not even any obvious system maps that I could see.
If you get to Jamaica without trouble, further information cluelessness continues. You need to pay before you leave the Airtrain, even though there were no signs at the JFK end explaining the need for a ticket. I think a lot of visitors will expect the relatively short journey to be a free service.
I knew I had to pay, so I walked up to one of the ticket machines. “Single ticket or Metrocard?” What’s a Metrocard? “Ordinary Metrocard or Airtrain Metrocard?” Explain the difference, please. Of course, I figured it out, but didn’t someone consider that public transport from a major international airport will attract all sorts of people, many unfamiliar with New York.
All that said, I think I’ll probably use the Airtrain as a first choice in NY in the future. It’s inexpensive, reasonably fast and comfortable compared to most NY taxis.
At dinner this evening, I told some friends about my unsatisfactory experiences. They declared that it was consistent with New York. If you don’t know, why should we tell you? I concluded that there’s an Augustinian impulse to the culture: the difficulty of attaining the knowledge is part of the reward.