Why I Drive

Photo: Lee Friedlander. © Lee Friedlander/Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.

Bless me, Father, for I have driven. I have taken my car in solitude when I should have taken an efficiently packed bus. I have motored through the quiet streets of Greenwich Village and joined the herd of steel-clad cattle pressed flank-to-fender at the mouth of the Lincoln Tunnel on a rainy Friday afternoon. I have committed car ownership and regularly paid for parking. And the worst of it is, I do this by choice—and I like it.

Urban transportation is no longer purely a matter of efficiency and comfort; it’s acquired a moral charge. Cyclists assert their saintliness by blowing through an intersection while engines idle patiently at the light: Traffic rules are for polluters. Pedestrians proclaim the moral rights that flow from vulnerability, and with good reason: 1,155 of them were seriously injured by vehicles in 2010, 152 fatally. Last week, when a driver plowed into the actor Michael Mc­Kean on the Upper West Side, those quick steel monsters started to seem even more demonic.

Driving, once considered an act of freedom, has been demoted to a form of depravity, especially in the city. “If we don’t start imagining a future with fewer cars, there might not be much of a future left to imagine,” writes Taras Grescoe in his new book Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves From the Automobile. His sermon to drivers is unforgiving: If you get snarled in traffic, it’s because you are traffic. Every time you caress the gas pedal, you threaten lives, inch the planet closer to calamity, give some sheikh more control over our foreign policy, and tighten the knot of urban dysfunction. The only remedy is abstinence. Park. Walk. Repent.

This is no way to conduct a debate on how to get around. Fulminating against drivers makes them feel beleaguered and resentful of changes that improve their lives. From behind the wheel, each new bike lane can look like an incursion into automotive territory, but it’s actually an amenity that gives us all more ways to travel and eases pressure on the roads. Streets designed solely as traffic conduits attract unsustainable amounts of traffic. For those who must—or choose to—drive, the best way to make the route more fluid is to help others ditch their cars.

“You can’t wish people onto buses—you have to build great bus lanes,” says transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, who has been retooling New York’s streets from vehicular pipelines into complex public spaces. “You can’t wish people onto bikes without creating an interconnected network. You can’t invite more people to walk if they don’t feel safe doing so.” Her policies are sometimes perceived as anti-auto, but she dissents: “It’s not Carmageddon. You can do more than one thing on the streets of New York.”

Our city would seem like fertile ground for an auto-temperance movement. It is the one place in America where large numbers of people never drive. (Unlike in Los Angeles, when our celebrities are involved in traffic accidents, they’re more likely to be under the bumper than behind the wheel.) New York has banned smoking in parks, evicted streetwalkers from the streets, and launched campaigns against calories and salt—can vehicular self-indulgence be far behind? Drivers are already feeling the pinch, what with new buildings consuming parking lots and gas stations, and bridge tolls spiraling into the double digits. If a carless future could take hold anywhere, it would be here.

But like prostitution, drugs, and gambling, cars are too useful, too profitable, and too enjoyable to vanish. Their ill effects can be mitigated. They can be made safer, cleaner, and smaller. They can even be drained of fun. Google is developing a driverless car, which is a bit like inventing a self-smoking cigarette or a slot machine that plays alone.

Driving for pleasure even has a rich tradition in New York. The first and fanciest automobiles, from firms like Simplex and Brewster, were manufactured here and raced at the Sheepshead Bay Speedway. A century ago, auto showrooms on Broadway and Park Avenue rivaled couturiers for chic, and Studebakers were built in Times Square. In the thirties, Robert Moses laced the city with scenic highways (and, later, tried to ram one through Soho), and Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1959 Guggenheim Museum was intended to evoke a garage ramp. Today, when you’re shuffling miserably along the Van Wyck Expressway, the urban glamour of the automobile seems like ancient history, but it has come creeping back. Last year, Range Rover rolled out its slimmed-down, glass-roofed Evoque with the tagline “A New Presence in the City” and an ad campaign that showed it gliding through (of all unlikely places to go for a joyride) Times Square. Mercedes-Benz recently opened a new Eleventh Avenue showroom so sumptuous that the apartment building above it was named in its honor. That dealership also offers the Smart Car, one of the adorable, European-style tinymobiles, along with the Mini Cooper and the new Fiat 500, that have adapted to the dense urban habitat. Parking, too, has become a deluxe activity: The city’s first $1 million garage space just went on the market. Then there’s 200 Eleventh Avenue, the condo designed by Annabelle Selldorf that features a garage with a view, just off each living room. No need to bundle up for a February slog to the parking structure down the block: Simply pad out to the Jaguar, signal the auto elevator from a dashboard remote, ride down to ground level, and ease through the gate for a spin through Chelsea.

Driving in the city is an extreme sport. Arriving from more placid places, you can feel the intensity spike as you home in on it. Lanes become notional, tailgating distances narrow, and you become more attuned to the body language of other cars. If you’re vigilant and blessed with good peripheral vision, you can often predict when another car will swing from the left to dart into a right turn.

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.

Why I Drive