Sitting in the East River between Manhattan and Queens, the narrow strip of land beckons visitors with quiet streets, peaceful parks and gardens, and incredible views of Midtown skyscrapers.
The island is also home to a unique form of transportation – the Roosevelt Island Tramway. The aerial tram takes passengers back and forth between the island and Manhattan, rising 250 feet above the city in the process.
For $US2.75 – the same price as New York subway or bus fare – passengers get a front-row seat to some of the best views of the city from a perspective most residents don’t typically get.
Opened in 1976, the Roosevelt Island tram is one of just two aerial commuter trams in the United States. It transports 2 million workers, students, residents, and curious tourists a year.
I took the tram last week and discovered why it’s one of the best, and most affordable, tourist experiences in New York.
Here’s what it’s like to ride the Roosevelt Island tram:
Roosevelt Island is one of New York City’s hidden gems.
The narrow strip of land is nestled in the East River between Manhattan and Queens. It’s just two miles long and 800 feet wide.
Residents and visitors consider the island a peaceful escape from the bustle of city life.
Part of the fun of visiting Roosevelt Island is getting there. Although you could take a city bus or subway, the most exciting way to reach the island is by the Roosevelt Island Tramway.
The aerial tram takes passengers from the Midtown Manhattan station at 59th Street and 2nd Avenue …
… and drops them off at the Roosevelt Island terminal near the center of the island.
Throughout the four-and-a-half-minute journey, passengers get front-row seats to some of the best views of the city from angles you don’t typically see. At its highest point the tram is 250 feet in the air.
The spectacular views make the tram ride a tourist activity in and of itself.
A single ride on the tram costs just $US2.75 — the same as subway or bus fare in New York.
Passengers swipe their Metrocards and pass through the turnstiles just like they would with the subway or bus, too.
A new tram arrives every 7 minutes during rush hour and every 15 minutes during off-peak hours. It runs from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. or 3:30 a.m. depending on the day.
The crowd is usually a mix of work commuters, tourists, Roosevelt Island residents, and students and faculty of Cornell Tech, the engineering graduate school that opened on the island in 2017.
The interior of the trams resembles a wide subway car with fewer seats. Each car can fit up to 109 passengers, plus one attendant.
On my recent trip, I met Greg Paravati, who’s been a tram attendant since the system first opened 42 years ago in 1976. Unlike subway conductors, tram attendants stand alongside passengers and can interact with them throughout the ride.
He told me the best part of his job is meeting interesting people and getting to know the regular commuters. He’s struck up good friendships with some of them and he’s even been invited to some of their weddings.
Even though it was a cloudy day when I took the tram, I still got an impressive view of the East River separating Manhattan and Queens.
Several tourists were documenting their experiences, and many a selfie was taken.
As we descended into Manhattan, the tram passed surprisingly close to apartment buildings and offices.
By the end of the ride, we were hovering right above Midtown traffic.
My ride was perfectly smooth — it was a windy day, but I didn’t feel any shaking at all.
The tram is one of just two aerial commuter trams in the US (the other is in Portland, Oregon). It has transported 30 million passengers, mostly without incident, since it first opened in 1976.
But there was a notable incident in 2006 in which dozens of passengers were stuck hanging over the river for six hours after the cable system lost power because of a mechanical failure.
Rescue personnel were eventually able to bring the passengers back to land in wire rescue gondolas. No one was injured in the ordeal.
If the Roosevelt Island tram looks familiar, you may be recognising it from a memorable scene in “Spider-Man” from 2002. It’s also been featured in the movies “City Slickers” and “Nighthawks.”
Amazingly, many New Yorkers aren’t even aware the tram exists. But those who have taken it know it’s part of what makes Roosevelt Island such a nice change of pace from city life.