Friday, July 10, 2009

Car Ownership in the City

I am always surprised when someone living and working in Manhattan or Brooklyn also possesses a car. To me, one of the chief reasons to live in these places is to enjoy the privilege afforded by good public transportation of getting around the city without the burdens of car ownership. It is, after all, incredibly inefficient to deal with a car in New York. It’s much too expensive to keep your car in a garage and far too onerous to park it on the street. But don’t take my word for it. Here is the official word from New York’s Department of Transportation (DOT): "Parking in New York City is difficult. Finding a legal space on the street can be time-consuming and parking in a garage is often very expensive, especially in Manhattan. How do you resolve the parking problem? Take public transportation whenever possible, but if you must drive, make sure you allow plenty of time to find a parking space or be prepared to pay a garage as much as $20 per hour in Midtown." People with cars who rely on street parking have to build their entire week around alternate side of the street parking regulations, and on some occasions have been known to keep hourly vigils that allow them to get the jump on their neighbors competing for prime parking locations. But even if parking weren’t such a nightmare, the challenge of getting from here to there in a car would still remain. Most times of the day you can’t get anywhere without becoming hopelessly entangled in traffic jams, and there really doesn’t seem to be any hour, night or day, that is predictably sane. The chance of running into a construction zone or being slowed by an accident is quite high. And don’t get me started about those famous New York City parades and special events!

Last May I had to drive a rental truck from Manhattan’s Financial District to the Chelsea area within an hour in order to avoid paying a penalty. Even by New York standards this is ordinarily quite easy to do. But as I drove along the various routes toward uptown, I was turned away by police officers again and again. Finally, I asked someone what was going on and was told the City was preparing for the Pope’s official visit to Ground Zero! (something that wouldn’t be occurring, by the way, for about 5 hours). I finally convinced one kindly officer to allow me to make my innocent way through the police barrier, but it was touch and go for about 45 minutes and I just barely made my deadline.

So why drive in New York City? First of all, I work on Staten Island, a place shockingly bereft of good public transportation, so I am sympathetic toward those who must travel to places like Staten Island or New Jersey for work. In most cases, a car is a necessity if you live in the City but work elsewhere. But for those who live and work in, say, Manhattan, I am less understanding. Oh, sure, it’s nice to drive to Connecticut on a whim, and I’m certain it would be difficult to access your favorite golf course without an automobile. But aren’t these a few of the concessions we make to live in such a great but congested place? According to at least one estimate, 12% of the cars entering Midtown everyday are registered in Manhattan. That seems crazy to me and doesn’t appear to serve anyone’s interests. In the end, I suppose, the American attachment to the automobile is just too strong, even if it means ridiculous parking fees, constant worries about finding a place to leave your car, and traffic that usually moves at an infuriating crawl.


  1. Right with you on this on, 3NY. Now, in San Diego, the second city of the most car-crazy state, you might think the opposite is true, and, for the most part it is. I can find street parking downtown most of the time within a block or two of where I'm going and the city owns garages where you can park all day for $5 (in by 9 and out by 5) not to mention the surface lots that fill the undeveloped plots especially in the East Village. And we own two cars, parked in our building in spaces that the city required the builder to provide.
    Still, we plan to go to one car when one of them reaches its dotage. We went from driving 20-24000 miles per yr to about 6000 when we moved downtown and started walking to all the places (shopping, errands etc) we used to drive to. And the more people living centrally, the less we'll need to drive for the services we need.
    Mindset is everything, and the automobile industry created the American mindset around transportation. See where it's gotten us.

  2. Thanks, DB, for this perspective on West Coast Car Ownership, and for the important recognition that the automobile industry is accountable for a big part of this mess. Ironic, though, isn't it that these same companies are now virtually dead, and that their decline is also ultimately rooted in greed.