Ever wonder what’s up with those colored globes outside subway entrances?
While today they are significantly just for looks — a vestige of a bygone transit era — the Poké ball-like orbs once represented an entire color-coded system to help New Yorkers navigate public transportation.
“Have you ever noticed these lights when you get onto the subway and did you know these are not just for aesthetics? It actually served a purpose,” said John Friia, the creator of NYC fact-focused TikTok account @hereinnyc in a recent educational video that shed light on the spheres.
“The subway globes were first installed in the 1980s when tokens were still being used,” he explained in the clip, which has been viewed over 403,000 times.
Friia went on to break down the three globe colors — green, yellow and red — and their meanings to his 169,000 followers. Green, he explained, initially meant an entrance was open 24 hours and sported a token booth. Yellow — the only one of the three colors which has now been phased out entirely — meant a station was open with a part-time token booth, and red implied an entrance was exit-only and did not have a token booth.
Curious about the meaning of the subway globes that are designed as half-moons? Nothing, according to Friia. During the 1990s, the City of New York decided that the globes should give off more light, he said, noting that the half-moon design was a way of having them shine brighter while maintaining their existing color pattern and aesthetic.
The introduction of the MetroCard in 1997, however, made the originally straightforward colored orb design significantly more complex.
“In theory, the concept sounded simple but there was some confusion especially when the MetroCard was introduced,” Friia said toward the end of the clip, which managed to condense the spheres’ entire history into just 42 seconds. “Some of the exit-only spots were converted to a regular entrance with a MetroCard machine. The yellow ones were phased out, and today in general the green means it’s a subway entrance and red is still an exit only with some exceptions.”
Friia told The Post that this specific history clip was inspired by his ongoing “Subway Secrets” series on TikTok, in which he analyzes elements of the NYC transit system from a historic perspective.
“I always assumed the red just meant exit-only, but there was more to it,” he said via email. “When I found out there were even yellow globes too, then it made more sense for the reasoning of having them. I guess we can say the globes were the MTA’s version of traffic lights for subway commuters.”
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