Once you get into the lurching, irregular groove of city driving, it has a perverse adrenaline kick. Sharp as a forest beast, you process the crackle of random stimuli at a rate that would make a processor blanch. The other day, in the 30 seconds it took to drive one Manhattan block, I registered a double-parked SUV, a weaving bike messenger, a bus muscling abruptly into my lane, a jogger sprinting across the street as the light changed, an eighteen-wheeler filling the center lane, a massive pothole at my right wheel, and, at the corner, a walker gripping half a dozen dogs eager to bound into oncoming traffic. Somehow, my brain filtered those relevant observations from the streaming data of awnings and mailboxes and jackhammer noises and passersby. If mental exercise can slow the aging process, then driving in New York just might be the fountain of youth.
America’s transportation-policy wars play out as if people were born into different modes of travel—as if the allocation of dollars for roads, bridges, and public transit were a Darwinian struggle for habitat. But like many New Yorkers, I am a transportation omnivore. I walk several miles most days, bike to meetings when I can (reserving the right to show up slightly mussed), ride the subway when it’s cold, hail a cab as a last resort, and take my own car when the parking-tolls-traffic-distance-weather-cargo calculus tells me that it makes sense. I have accumulated a multimodal memory bank of stratagems and landmarks. I know to avoid the treacherous bike lane along Sixth Avenue, where to wait on the subway platform to be near the exit at my destination, and how to bypass the trafficked Queens section of the LIE by looping around on the Cross Island Expressway. I know where you can usually find curbside parking in Woodside, and I know not to waste time hunting for it in Chinatown.
Each form of locomotion offers a specific way to understand our progress through the physical world. The subway’s point-to-point zoom makes an abstraction out of distance. At the other end of the spectrum, ambling along a sidewalk at a toddler’s pace makes each curb loom like a mountain range, and turns a piece of gum embedded in the pavement into a source of infinite mystery. Driving, too, produces a distinctive mental geography. It helps link locations that are physically close but psychologically distant. Thanks to the car, a friend who lives six miles away in Inwood is practically my neighbor. I can have a Thai lunch in Ridgewood and then hop over to Prospect Park, a trip that would otherwise present me with the preposterous choice of taking four subways or two buses, or else zigzagging through the Lower East Side. Residents of the Bronx community of Shore Haven can practically reach up to touch the underbelly of planes landing at La Guardia, but if they want to catch a flight the orthodox way, it’s either a twenty-minute drive to the terminal or a 90-minute odyssey by bus. Public-transit-bound New Yorkers tend to stick to their habitual goat trails, but drivers sweep across the city in complex migratory patterns that make New York’s ecosystem more diverse.
New York is not always clogged with traffic; many parts of it rarely are. Even so, too many cars ply the city’s streets, and there’s no shortage of suggestions for how to winnow that number down. The bike-share program being rolled out in July is supposed to nudge people into making short hops on two wheels rather than four, and the Bloomberg administration has also been encouraging car-sharing programs and phasing in smart meters to cut down on cruising for spots. A report by NYU’s urban-policy think tank, the Furman Center, argues that the city should scale back the amount of parking that developers are required to build. Recent trends suggest that the most effective tactic would be to wait. Believe it or not, the amount of traffic entering the central business district has been falling for a dozen years, even as the population has grown. Young Americans are buying fewer cars than their predecessors did, possibly because they’re congregating in cities and hiking to work. It could conceivably be that road congestion, like opposition to gay marriage, is one of those seemingly eternal facts of life that are destined to fade away in a generation.
More likely, thinning the worst traffic will take a concerted effort along the lines of a compelling plan proposed by Sam Schwartz, the Koch-era traffic commissioner who would reconfigure tolls to nudge trucks over the Staten Island bridges so that they would bypass Manhattan altogether. He would also build three new bike-pedestrian toll bridges and institute tolls on the East River bridges. The idea of cutting off free passage from other boroughs into Manhattan is sure to renew the anger that killed the 2007 attempt to pass congestion pricing. But it’s precisely the daily users of those nightmarish choke points who should support his plan. Instead of spending so much of their lives quietly getting older on the toll-free-but-static Queensboro Bridge, they could pay the equivalent of a monthly Metrocard for a roadway that actually works. The idea is not to penalize people for using their cars, but to give everyone a choice about how best to get from here to there.
If New York is to become a better habitat for automobiles, it should never be cheaper to drive than to take a less convenient form of transportation. To put it another way: Saving time should cost money, and vice versa. That way, car-haters can stop spluttering about the ills of driving and let the rest of us whip around the city in motorized tranquillity.