Publication Date

December 1, 2008

Perspectives Section

AHA Annual Meeting

New York has some unique etiquette codes, especially regarding transportation.



Cabs on the street are either on duty, off-duty, or already have passengers on board. It can be difficult for a non-New Yorker to discern the difference. A cab is available when the number on top is lit. If the number and the “off duty” light are both lit, then the cab is off duty and presumably will not stop to pick up passengers. If the driver is on the way to the garage and you are going his or her way, then maybe you are in luck. The safest bet is to stand at curbside with your hand raised and hope for the best.

You have little or no chance of getting a cab between 4 p.m. and 5:30 p.m., and never on Sundays at 4 p.m. Although the city insists that cabbies do not all go off duty at once, all New Yorkers know that they do. To preserve your health, do not join another person hailing a cab on a particular corner. If you do, it could come to blows. Simply move to another corner.


Do not even think of taking a bus until you’ve bought a MetroPass, available only in subway stations and some newspaper stores (but not kiosks). Bus fare is a flat $2 but you need coins if you don’t have a MetroPass. Paper money doesn’t work.

Although subways will take you rapidly uptown and downtown in Manhattan, the best way to get cross town is on the buses that run on major east/west streets like Houston, 14th, 34th, 42nd, 57th, 72nd, 79th, 86th, and 96th. Look carefully at the diagrams at the bus stops—some buses veer off to the avenues when you least expect it. If you use a wheelchair or need the bus to “kneel” to climb the front steps, signal the bus driver. The new buses are fully accessible and bus drivers are at their most courteous when working with people with disabilities.


The most dependable, and often the fastest, way to cover short distances is by foot. Generally speaking, 20 blocks equals a mile. Walking rapidly (as most New Yorkers do) you can cover about 20 blocks in as many minutes. Avenues (which run north/south) are spaced further apart than streets (which run east/west), so count them as double blocks on the East Side and triple blocks on the West Side.

Think of New York streets as highways and never stop suddenly or obstruct traffic. If you need to consult your map, make a point, or simply consider whether you are in the right place, pull over into a doorway. Lacking that, go into the nearest store.


If you’re not in a museum or other public building, go into a coffee house, buy their cheapest item, and while they are preparing your order, use the bathroom. You will usually have to pay in advance.

Paying for things in NYC

Don’t bother bringing your checkbook. Local merchants won’t accept personal checks. It’s not that they don’t trust you. It’s just that they don’t trust you.

Tipping is required in cabs, restaurants, and, increasingly, in food shops. Waiters now expect 20 percent tips. The only thing you prove by not tipping is that you are cheap. If you want to be a “real” New Yorker, you can drive the service person crazy with small talk, idiosyncratic requests, and complaints, and then give a bad tip. On occasion, the waiter will strike back by loudly calling you back to get your bus fare.

Cell Phones

These are strictly forbidden in museums and most art galleries. Sometimes guards even stop you from using suspect Blackberries. Unfortunately, cell phones are not forbidden on buses, in restaurants, or on the street.

The authors are members of the 2009 Local Arrangements Committee.