Having returned recently from my first trip to New York, I have countless thoughts on it to share from a Torontonian perspective. First, I will talk about my impression of the subway system. I assumed New York transit would be far ahead of TTC and that I would return home depressed about Toronto's transit inferiority. In fact, I sort of found the opposite to be true: MTA made me appreciate TTC more.
When I first stepped into a New York subway station, it was seriously like stepping into a sauna. I don't think I've ever been so warm indoors before. It was astonishing to discover that, not only do New York subway stations have no air conditioning, but they seem to be effectively heated, as weird vents blast suffocating heat in your face in parts of the subway platform. On an already hot summer day, this is really terrible, to the point that the idea of taking the subway became unappealing and I often would have preferred to walk or cycle to my destination. Ostensibly the lack of air conditioning and the vents that exacerbate the situation are due to the subway system's old age (compared to Toronto's). If I go back it will be in the winter.
It generally felt like a rougher environment than TTC, like you had to be somewhat tough to utilise the system. I found this to be the case throughout New York; I couldn't imagine an elderly person surviving the city's perpetual crowds or navigating the labyrinthian subway lines. To make matters worse, there were an amazing dearth of escalators and seemingly endless stairs to climb, making for a sometimes exhausting experience, impossible for less agile and physically-able individuals. It also seemed dirtier than TTC, though this might be expected since there were so many more people at all hours. However, despite their greater usage, the subways seemed to arrive much less quickly/frequently than those in Toronto. Waiting for ten to fifteen minutes was common at most times of day and it seemed insanely long compared to TTC.
The subway trains themselves were rather similar to TTC ones, though there were subtle differences. They are austere, shiny, metallic trains, sort of ugly looking, with U.S. flags on the exterior (which made me think about how weird it would be to see a Canadian flag on TTC trains). As for the interior, there was no panel rising from the arm rests of the seats next to the doors. Whenever I need to stand up for a trip on TTC subways, I lean against the pseudo-glass panels if I can. I feel like it provides a little shelter of my own or something and I feel more comfortable there. On the MTA subway this is impossible, so I was comparatively adrift without my little spot to lean. I wonder if the lack of this panel is due to its potential to become another graffiti surface.
There was also no chime that signaled doors closing; instead, an operator's voice would pop up on the intercom declaring that the doors are now closing, which seems less effective and reliable than the TTC chime. Similarly, approaching stops were announced really weirdly: Sometimes they were marked in a little map on the wall adjacent to advertisements (which seemed like an ambiguous place to put it), but mostly they were announced live on the intercom (complete with bizarre feedback sounds). Conversely, TTC subway stops are announced through pre-recorded announcements before each stop, and I find the consistency and clarity this provides to be much more effective.
Aesthetically, MTA stations seemed as utilitarian and undecorated as TTC's, if not more (this made me wonder about the criticism of TTC's "bathroom tile" aesthetic*). However, I liked the MTA's Helvetica signage that I had heard so much about before visiting. It looked nice and urban and was easily legible, though more modern-seeming than TTC's signature typeface. Also, I liked how all the stations were integrated; the subway felt like a natural extension to the city, as though it arose on its own. I encountered no surface stations, only entrances on sidewalks (like St. Patrick Station in Toronto), so subway stations seem to exist almost completely underground. Lastly, I (obviously) liked 24-hour service and the far greater geographic coverage of the subway system, though it was concomitantly much harder to navigate than Toronto's. Ultimately it was comforting to return to TTC, for which I had a newfound respect.
*Hamburg's similarly tiled stations are some of the most beautiful designs I can imagine.