I make no attempt to hide my dislike of New York City’s car-friendly atmosphere, particularly the existence of free parking.
But I’m not an idiot – I’m willing to take advantage of something when it benefits me inordinately. So when I needed my car for a few consecutive weekends, I decided to store it on public property in between.
To soothe my mind from the potential ethical conflict, I treated this as an opportunity to see first-hand the “windshield perspective” many of my fellow residents have of our city – and to learn about some things I could do better when I’m getting around in my usual ways.
What I learned about driving – and about myself:
Urban driving is a high-pressure activity. You have so many things going on at once. Maintaining a safe distance; being aware of opening doors, jaywalkers, and bikes; weaving around double-parkers; minding traffic signals; trying not to stall with manual transmission. We humans, popular wisdom be damned, are not good at multitasking.
I got impatient. This is highly unusual for me, but driving occasionally cracked my stoic façade.
When you have to wait an eternity for a light to change, you feel entitled to drive as soon as it turns green. So when a pedestrian begins to cross right at that time, it’s irrationally infuriating. It’s easy to see why some drivers will blast through to “make up the time” – even though it’s only a few seconds. This is another safe-streets issue.
Box-blocking is worse in a car, because you can’t maneuver around the offenders as on foot or on bike. Having to wait through an entire extra cycle – courtesy of a few selfish drivers – cost many of us several minutes of our lives. (The horror!)
I slowed down when space was tight. Road narrowing is a key engineering tool for safer streets. When parked cars are close on both sides, you naturally approach the situation with more caution, because more things can go wrong.
Lessons I will fold into my everyday life:
Cyclists are hard to see. I was on high alert for bikes, but I got surprised by a few on streets without dedicated lanes or sharrows. When riding in the future, I’ll keep in mind that drivers are already distracted by several other things (see above) and might fail to put my safety as a top priority.
Pedestrians put themselves in unnecessary danger. Why do we as peds stand in the middle of the street waiting for our turn to cross? This is especially true in bad weather, such as rainstorms and blizzards, when cars are tougher to control and visibility is limited. Really, just wait on the sidewalk and it will all be fine.
Look both ways. Always. Surprisingly (or not?), I saw three cars going the wrong way down one-way streets.
Some things I liked about driving:
When it’s good, it’s really good. Somehow, I had great luck finding convenient (and free!) parking spots in my neighborhood. And if there’s no traffic, there’s no faster way to get from point A to point B in the city.
You get unique views. Robert Moses designed New York’s highways for “pleasure drives”, like he had enjoyed as a kid in the 1910s. As a result, many roads feature cool scenes unavailable to your plebeian walker or cyclist. These include the upper roadway of the Manhattan Bridge, the Henry Hudson Parkway, and the exit ramp from the Lincoln Tunnel in New Jersey (my favorite view of Manhattan).
You can have a private karaoke session. There’s something alluring about being able to sing along to “Get Lucky” without fear of reprisals from neighbors.
Finally, one last thought: it’s hard to make a good radio ad.