Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Citizens Union


Testing the Tour Guides


Three articles in this series:
• Testing The Tour Guides
• The Tour Guides Complain
• Test Your NYC Knowledge

What is the tallest building outside of Manhattan? Is the Ansonia Hotel famous for its performing seals or a rooftop farm? Which famous New Yorker invented the telephone - Alexander Graham Bell, Giuseppe Garibaldi or Antonio Meucci?

To be an official New York City tour guide you not only have to be able to answer these kinds of questions, but to expound on the topic with details, dates, and lore - and wow out-of-towners and native New Yorkers alike.

New York is one of the few cities in the United States that requires tour guides to be licensed. But when I took the tour guide licensing examination years ago, it became apparent that the source material used was out of date. Fortunately, I caught the errors in the test and was able to prove my case. My experience was far from unique.

As bad as the errors was the assumption in the test that being a tour guide was an endless litany of sound bytes. A tour guide can never be effectively replaced by an audiotape, though you would not have known this from the old test.

That is why I was happy to accept the assignment from Consumer Affairs Commissioner Gretchen Dykstra to construct a new examination for tour guides. It took me over two months of long days and nights, until my mind was swimming, and questions would come to me in dreams.

Many issues needed to be addressed in the new examination. Since there are no "official" training programs for New York City tour guides, applicants often demonstrate a wide range of backgrounds, orientations, and knowledge. To resolve this disparity, there are suggested readings from several major tour texts: Gerard Wolfe's New York: 15 Walking Tours, the classic Blue Guide New York, or Christine Metzger's New York. In addition, there are several New York City web-sites strongly recommended for study purposes.

All questions on the tour guide licensing examination are mini-commentaries, so that the tests become a learning tool. Each question includes a little "story" that will hopefully become part of a sightseeing guide's tour presentation.

Tour guides must be able to speak fluently on a range of topics from screen idols to architecture and from fine art to fine dining. A tour guide must be knowledgeable and flexible to accommodate the widely varied needs of different audiences. That's not all. As the chief representative of the client, a tour guide must direct the bus driver, interface with clients, resolve emergencies, know where buses may legally drive, coordinate admissions, make lunch recommendations, and find the elusive clean restroom - all while creating an imaginative route and providing sparkling commentary. (Not bad for a position that, in some major quarters, pays less than $13 an hour)

That is why the 150 questions on the examination cover a wide range of topics, among them:

  • Legal Tour Bus routes / Legal Passenger pick-up/drop-off locations
  • General New York City Knowledge
  • New York City History
  • New York City Neighborhoods and Landmarks
  • Ethnic Studies and Immigration
  • Museums, Art, and Culture / Music, Theatre, and Dance
  • New York City Literature
  • Religion and Religious Sites
  • Architecture and New York City Planning
  • Ethnic Foods
  • Public Sculptures of Noted People
  • Residences of Noted People and "Walks of Fame" in the City

A number of tour guides, including experienced professionals, have voiced several concerns about the test. [See The Tour Guides Complain by Norman Oder]. Commissioner Dykstra has indicated that she has already moved towards addressing these concerns. I also feel that some seem to have misunderstood the intentions of the commissioner.

The new professional licensing examination will not be an easy one for those unfamiliar with the city, but it should present few problems to the majority of experienced and dedicated tour guides. The goal of the test is to enhance the quality of tours, and thus increase the public understanding and appreciation for the glories of New York City.

I designed the following quiz especially for Gotham Gazette readers who want to challenge their own New York savvy. They are not the exact same questions as those offered in the professional licensing examination for tour guides, but they tap into the same vast treasure trove of New York City legends and lore. "I should like to live a lifetime on every street in New York," the short story writer O.Henry once said. "Each house has a drama in it."

Justin Ferate, formerly the director of tour services for Gray Line New York, has been offering tours of New York for more than 20 years.

Books and websites for tour guides

Three articles in this series:
• Testing The Tour Guides
• The Tour Guides Complain
• Test Your NYC Knowledge

Resources for Tour Guides


Blue Guide New York
General NYC guide
von Pressetin Wright; Miller and Seitz
W. W. Norto 2002.

A Possible Blue Guide Alternative: New York
General NYC guide
Christine Metzger
Konemann 2000

New York: A Guide to the Metropolis
Walking tours of New York City
McGraw-Hill 1994

NYC and Company Official NYC Guide
Obtainable at no cost from NYC & Company,810 Seventh Avenue

Start and Run a Profitable Tour Guiding Business
Another option is to borrow this, or a similar book, from the library.
Braidwood, Boyce & Cropp
Self-Counsel Press 2000


• NYC Department of Transportation
• NYC Metropolitan Transportation Authority
• MTA Arts for Transit

Optional list of texts:

AIA Guide to NYC
Willensky & White
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 2000

Ethnic New York
This excellent text is currently out of print, but is available in lending libraries. Copies may be purchased via amazon.com and other used book sources (Ethnic histories, neighborhoods, food, and merchandise) This book can prove to be a valuable text for tours.
Passport 1996

Manhattan,Block by Block: A Street Atlas
Tauranac Maps 2000

Great for tour routing.

The Food Lover's Guide to the Real New York
The Food Lover's Guide is out of print, but is available in libraries. Copies may be purchased via amazon.com and other used book sources.) Other sources may also be used. The examination asks a few questions about descriptions of popular ethnic foods.Alperson and Clifford
Prentice Hall 1987.

Guide to Manhattan's Outdoor Sculptures
Out of print, but available via amazon.com and other used book sources.
Gayle & Cohen/ Prentice Hall

The Street Book
Origin of Manhattan street names
Fordham 1990.

Budget Cuts In Transportation


Budgets reveal priorities and politics, and never is this more true than when the budget needs to be cut. The importance of Staten Island voters to a Republican mayor was therefore evident on June 8 when Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced $90 million in budget restorations. Keeping the fourth boat on the Staten Island ferry in service during rush hour was one of nine restorations proposed by the mayor. This budget cut would have saved $2.4 million annually by reducing the ferry schedule from every 15 minutes to every 20 minutes.

Other cuts proposed in the mayor's budget show how the city's current budget woes are likely to affect New Yorkers' daily lives. The budget details also show how budgets can drive transportation policy in ways both good and bad.

Winners and Losers

The mayor proposed to cut the city Department of Transportation's budget by about $50 million, or about $48 million after the ferry restoration. Under the mayor's proposals, fewer streets would be re-surfaced by city crews, saving $7.2 million. This is the biggest single cut in the transportation department budget.

Smaller cuts would eliminate East River bridge necklace lighting ($75,000 savings) and fire callbox lights maintenance ($472 million savings) and reduce bridge preventive maintenance ($1.34 million savings).

Some "cuts" are really improvements, however. A prime example is $4.9 million in maintenance and electricity savings resulting from switching traffic signals to Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs). Not only do LEDs save money but they are brighter and far more visible.

Another example is an increase of $4 million in revenue from expanding the commercial parking program, which the Department of Transportation says will improve traffic flow. In the current program in Midtown Manhattan, trucks and other commercial vehicles are charged escalating parking rates to encourage short stays and thus free up parking for the next driver making a delivery.

Other items listed as budget cuts are actually ways to dip into the citizenry's pockets a bit deeper. For example, cutting subsidies to privately operated bus companies will save $8 million and result in express bus fares rising from $3 to $4, keeping in line with the fare increase by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority..

Some of the mayor's proposed cuts are simply catching up to reality. The mayor proposes to save $324,000 from the elimination of vehicle transport on the Staten Island ferry, which were in fact eliminated after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Beyond the transportation department budget, the mayor proposes to raise $65 million a year for the next three years through the sale of 900 new taxicab medallion licenses (300 a year). Whether environmental constraints will prevent the city from issuing the full 900 remains to be seen, but the first 300 is probably a safe bet. This initiative is not only good news for the budget but good news for taxi riders, who have had a notably hard time finding a cab even with the recession. This is a case of the budget driving good policy.

All of these figures pale in comparison with one of the biggest and vaguest items in the mayoral budget, $200 million in "regional transportation initiatives." About one-half this savings could come from the MTA taking over the seven city-subsidized private bus companies that serve eastern Queens and parts of the other boroughs. The city and Metropolitan Transportation Authority have discussed the MTA taking over the lines and assuming at least some portion of the financial responsibility. Officials said at a State Assembly hearing on June 4 that the framework for a deal should be completed by June 30.

Many complexities need to be resolved, including who will foot the bill for bus service, putting in doubt whether a deal will be made any time soon. If a deal is made, it might be good news for not only the cty budget but also riders on the private lines, who have had to put up with years of substandard service. It might be bad news for the MTA' current riders, however, who may have to shoulder the $100 million or more cost through future fare increases.

According to the New York Post , the mayor' budget also envisions additional cuts in the city's subsidy to the MTA, which again, could result in transit service reductions or quicken the next fare increase.

Saved by the State Budget Deal

Some other possible cuts were averted when the State Legislature and City Council approved $700 million in higher taxes. The most visible cuts in the mayor's "doomsday" budget included eliminating the elderly and disabled fare subsidy to the MTA and private bus lines, increasing the fare on private bus lines to $2, cuts in service on the private bus lines, reductions in street maintenance, cleaning and pothole repairs, cutting Staten Island ferry service from half-hour to hourly on nights and weekends, and a 50 percent cut in the city's subsidy to the MTA for van service for persons with disabilities.

Bruce Schaller is Principal of Schaller Consulting, which provides research and analysis to government, business and non-profit groups seeking to identify and meet customer needs in the transportation sector. He is also a Visiting Scholar at the Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University.
















Print Friendly and PDF

Editor's Choice

Gotham Gazette: Fixing City's 'Non-Functioning' Board of Elections Relies on State Fixing City's 'Non-Functioning' Board of Elections Relies on State Gotham Gazette: De Blasio Continues Deliberative Approach to Appointments De Blasio Continues Deliberative Approach to Appointments Gotham Gazette: Despite Expectations, Design-Build for New York City Not Approved in Albany Despite Expectations, Design-Build for New York City Not Approved in Albany Gotham Gazette: De Blasio and The Complications of Vetting Campaign Donors De Blasio and The Complications of Vetting Campaign Donors


The comments section is provided as a free service to our readers. Gotham Gazette's editors reserve the right to delete any comments. Some reasons why comments might get deleted: inappropriate or offensive content, off-topic remarks or spam.