Honk! Vrooom! New York Is a Drivers’ Paradise

The Pro-choice argument

“The day we leased the car and got the keys was like my 16th birthday all over again,” Melissa Walker, a 30-year-old writer, Park Sloper and leaser of a silver Saab 9-3 sport wagon told The Observer in an e-mail message. “I felt a great sense of freedom, like I could go to a beach other than the A-train Rockaways, like I could hit a Rhinebeck B&B at a moment’s notice, like I could go to Fairway and load my groceries into a trunk just like a suburban girl!”

Ms. Walker is a classic example of the post-suburban, proto-urban car chick. Born and raised in North Carolina, she began saving for her first set of wheels when she was 10 years old. When she was 15, she went ahead and purchased those wheels—a 1988 Ford Festiva which she dubbed Ferdinand—despite the fact that she was still too young to drive. At 16, she finally realized her dream when she got her license and, with it, the right to range free and wild across the Circle K-spotted hills of the Carolinas.

“It was definitely the biggest deal in the world,” she said later on the phone.

Ms. Walker might have continued indefinitely in this state of automotive bliss, but sometime after college she moved to New York, where owning an auto simply seemed too expensive and too complicated. For half a decade, she lived her life in the carless lane. But then she met a boy, and the boy also loved cars, and so, when they finally moved in with each other, they decided the time had come—no, not to get married. Or have a baby. The time had come for that other, newer rite of pseudo-urban adulthood: to lease a car.

“We went ahead and did it, and we’re really happy,” Ms. Walker said. “It’s able to give me more choices, in terms of the grocery shopping, or being able to pick up a piece of furniture that I see on Craigslist that I love. I haven’t done that yet, but I always think, I could.

“It kind of softens the inconveniences of the city,” she concluded.

“Convenience” is one of the main mantras of the nouveau automobile set. Convenience—not necessity—since most drivers will acknowledge that they don’t really need a car (few of them live in, say, Canarsie) and they don’t generally drive long distances, unless they’re heading out for the occasional jaunt to New Jersey, Long Island or their parents’ house in Vermont. (According to a spokesperson at Transportation Alternatives, roughly one-quarter of all automobile trips in New York clock in at one mile or less; approximately three-quarters of all trips are five miles or less.)

And yet, while most of them don’t need, they want, because cars, they say, make life feel a little easier, make the city seem a bit more manageable—as if New York, with its 656 miles of subway track, was just another boonies-locked, consumer wasteland.

“I drive out of my way to go to a gym where I can park,” confessed Ms. Allen, the bubbly L.A. girl, who splits her time between writing and bartending at the Lock Inn. “I just think it’s more convenient.”

Ms. Allen delivered this statement as she stood on the corner of North First Street in Williamsburg, clutching the keys to her boyfriend’s Jeep. She had just taken her dog, Roxy, to get spayed at the vet, and the poor beast was stretched across the back seat of the car. Ms. Allen insisted that she wasn’t actually much of a fan of auto culture, that she could easily do without a vehicle and would never have purchased one herself. But as she posed next to her honey’s SUV, flashing a bright smile, all that seemed to be missing from the scene was Seann William Scott and a Continuum Transfunctioner.

This tableau of the cute girl and the big car—with or without the neutered cur—is uncannily common in Williamsburg these days, despite its oddly Teflon reputation as the home of the hipster. While it’s still possible to stumble on the odd, tricked-out hearse or pass a small Tour de France’s worth of bicyclists (biking is big there), gently distressed Volvos—thanks, Ma and Pa!—are equally ubiquitous, as one recent visit revealed.

In the short distance between North Fourth and North Ninth Streets on Driggs Avenue, The Observer counted nine of these family-friendly vehicles glinting in the sun. Most of the them were classic four-door types, but there were also two-doors and wagons, old Volvos and new—a whole menagerie of in-state and out-of-state vehicles littered with everything from tennis racquets to Pottery Barn catalogues to an Atlas of the five boroughs. The total afternoon Volvo-count came to 23.

But perhaps the real sign of the car culture apocalypse—the hint that, when it comes to wheels at least, Williamsburg and Winnetka might not be so different after all—is the sobriety check that cops have set up on Meeker Avenue, near one of the on-ramps to the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. No one can say exactly when the checks began or whether they are a direct response to the influx of postcollegiate boozers. (The New York Police Department did not respond to a request for a comment.) But several sources agreed that they first noticed them sometime within the past year—a floating barricade of police, batons and breath-a-lizers, just like back home!