Like all six-lane urban highways scattered with years of pulverized wreckage—nary an inch of shoulder for breakdowns, center lines that weave like spaghetti, out-of-control speeders passing each other on curves designed to be rounded by wooden subway cars, long-haul truck drivers pounding the roadway to pieces and blatantly nonsensical subverbal signage essentially declaring to the uninitiated driver, “No rules; make it up”—the Brooklyn Queens Expressway is a rock lyric waiting to be written, as are most New York freeways. Yet there is no great New York driving song, no “Roadrunner,” no “L.A. Woman,” not even a “Boys of Summer.” The New York driving experience—a hypercompetitive combination of finesse, bluff and obliviousness to an inhuman environment—remains one of the few aspects of city life to escape romanticization.
The reason is obvious: New York is lots of things—a city of immigrants, city of money, city of assholes, city of tall buildings, etc.—but one thing it most certainly is not is Atlanta, Phoenix or some kind of city where people drive.
To seal yourself off in a mechanical womb—unless someone is yelling at you in a foreign language or asphyxiating you with B.O.—is the antithesis of the New York experience, as the thinking goes. Driving causes your posterior to undergo unsightly ballooning while your connection to the eye-level, shoulder-bumping social fabric of the city withers, and you emit noxious fumes. Also, it is extremely unpleasant for the driver, unless his idea of fun is being tailgated by a livery cab with the brights on in the Holland Tunnel. New York punishes its drivers with miserable traffic, pocket-emptying tolls and required residence in places like Staten Island. Even the names of its roadways sound punitive: the Sprain, the Belt, the Throgs Neck, the Major Deegan.
And then there is the issue of the mayor, who does not like car owners and has made torturing, demonizing and impoverishing them official government policy for the last 12 years, to the extent one might ask: Why would anyone drive? What could be worth the trouble? Do drivers have an extra gland that metabolizes pain and suffering faster than other New Yorkers?
Enter Robert Sinclair, Jr., the manager of media relations for the American Automobile Association (AAA), who may lead the loneliest crusade in New York: He is the voice of the Lizard Folk, the voice of drivers. As the transportation debate has gotten more vituperative over the years, AAA has come to be the one organization willing to publicly take the side of car owners. (Mr. Sinclair himself, incidentally, does not look like a troglodyte. Not only does he not have a tail or pus-dripping scent glands, but he happens to be quite tall and handsome.)
There are many reasons a New Yorker might not want to drive in the city, such as the high tolls. In fact, Mr. Sinclair and his organization are suing the Port Authority for the excessive costs of traversing its bridges. (According to AAA, it’s “open season” on motorists in New York under Mayor Bloomberg.)
As a longtime driver myself, I was not unsympathetic to such views. However, I also knew that, for nondrivers, complaining about things like exorbitant parking costs and schemes to ticket drivers as much as possible are equivalent to smokers talking about the high price of cigarettes. If people aren’t actually happy you’re unhappy, they simply don’t care.
But then we started talking about the joy that driving in New York can be, a secret largely kept in the outer boroughs. “Driving on a good highway in New York, when there’s no traffic and you’ve got a nice view, is pure pleasure,” Mr. Sinclair said, listing the Belt Parkway in Gravesend Bay and the Cross-Island Parkway near Fort Totten as some of his favorite roads.
It’s true: New York City’s roads are magnificent. Think of what F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about crossing the Queensboro Bridge: “always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.” Or Park Avenue late at night and the thrill of surfing a crest of green lights. So much pleasure of this kind exists around the city—the Henry Hudson Parkway under the cliffs of Fort Tryon on a crisp autumn weekend—that you wonder if it frustrates the mayor to leave office without having done something about them. (Summer car-free hours on the Throgs Neck, anyone?)
New Yorkers do occasionally concede that driving can be, well, pleasant. Last year, Charles McGrath admitted in The Times that he “sort of enjoyed” driving in New York, using words like “fun” to describe the challenge of “getting where you want to go quickly and efficiently and without incident,” jostling with taxis and finding a choice parking space. He also outed his former colleague at The New Yorker, Bruce McCall, as someone “who drives everywhere” (though Mr. McCall, he noted, was Canadian).
In popular culture, these people tend not to have happy fates—New Yorkers who drive end up experiencing cosmic retribution along the lines of Sherman McCoy or turn into Travis Bickle. Driving in the city, the authors seem to be saying, is an unnatural act—one of the few unnatural acts the city does not take pride in promoting.
So why do it? Why not avail oneself of the world-famous, all-encompassing public transportation grid? Is it because, as Jonathan Lethem once wrote, “People in cars weren’t New Yorkers. … They’d suffered some basic misunderstanding”? Had they not seen the subway entrances and wondered where those dark passages led? Did they not feel the vibrations underfoot and become curious about where they came from? Why hadn’t anyone told them that for a mere $2.50 they could travel anywhere in the city? (Well, almost anywhere.)
To answer some of these questions, I sought the counsel of Jonathan Peters, a professor of finance who studies transportation in New York. Mr. Peters teaches at the College of Staten Island, where we met in an empty parking lot on a scorching July day. Mr. Peters rolled up in a muscular white pickup truck, the sort of car one imagines Jeanette Sadik-Khan blowing up in her dreams with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.
“Hop in!” he shouted, before unleashing a verbal cannonade I comprehended none of except the words “I’m going to try to watch my mouth and not say anything outrageous!” Mr. Peters, who comes from Great Kills, speaks at the rate of three to four words per second (I timed him) and has a Staten Island accent that seems to kick in like a malfunctioning fuel injector whenever he is stuck in traffic. He began in the same manner as Mr. Sinclair, enumerating a seemingly endless list of reasons why a person in New York would not want to drive.
“Look at these roads!” he shouted. “Grade D!” (A term used by traffic engineers to describe a road that because of traffic is “approaching unstable flow.”) “This should be B or A!” We were driving on what Mr. Peters termed “a 17th-century cow path that’s been forced into service as a major arterial.” Indeed, the road twisted and turned violently as it wound through a suburban neighborhood, and Mr. Peters’s truck was having a hard time staying on it. Luckily, as Mr. Peters himself pointed out, there were no sidewalks and, therefore, no pedestrians to force into the bushes.
“It’s not the road’s fault,” Mr. Peters said, as I gave up the attempt to keep notes so I could focus on not being flung into his lap. “It wasn’t built for this kind of traffic.” The problem, he explained, was Moses: Staten Island had “just enough Moses for mayhem,” meaning in the 1960s the borough had implemented Robert Moses’s vision of an infrastructure serving suburban commuters—mainly through zoning laws encouraging dense development—but then cruelly abandoned the plan before building an adequate transit system, leaving far too many people with cars and not nearly enough capacity to serve them.
“We’re missing key components,” Mr. Peters boomed. “Staten Island is zoned like its inner Queens, but we didn’t do the transit infrastructure. And now you have this. Look at it! It’s two lane-minimal, and it’s expected to handle major arterial load.”
It sounded like a recipe for mass psychosis. “And what comes out of it is aggressive driving,” Mr. Peters said, adding another reason to avoid driving: “People say Staten Islanders drive wild.” He sounded skeptical, before expertly showing me a move called “chiseling,” where a car, instead of merging onto a highway, head-butts its way in.
So again the question: Why drive, especially when science shows (as in a recent study at the University of California, Irvine) that hellish driving situations like Staten Island can actually produce mental illness years down the road?
Mr. Peters became even more animated. “What do you want Staten Islanders to do?” he shouted. The pickup was gaining speed as we headed toward the Bayonne Bridge. “There are three thousand counties in the United States. Do you know which one has the longest commute?” The pickup, now on the bridge, was zooming toward the smokestacks of New Jersey. Mr. Peters gestured backward. “That one. Every time the survey gets done, Staten Island comes in dead last, 3,000 out of 3,000. We also have the highest level of extreme commuting, meaning 90-plus minutes to get to work.” He made sure I understood this included commuters using express buses, the ferry and other forms of public transit. “There are no good options,” he repeated. Earlier, he had told me he “sometimes gets into these discussions [with city planners], and there’ll be like a ‘j’accuse’ moment. They’re like, ‘You drive too much, you bad people out there on Staten Island.’ And I’m like, ‘J’accuse who? J’accuse you for not having infrastructure that’s appropriate!’” Now he showed me what we had crossed state lines for: a parking lot in Bayonne next to a station for the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail. The lot was filled with New York license plates—commuters who had traveled to a different state in order to use its public transit system to get to work, probably in Manhattan.
“And these are the people who can afford to pay the toll on the bridge, plus the gas and the fee to park in the parking lot. Over there”—he nodded back toward Staten Island and shook his head—“there’s not a lot that can.”
The last person I consulted for this article was dead: my father-in-law, Edward K. Pak.
Edward was a Korean immigrant who owned an air-conditioning and refrigeration repair business in New York City—in other words, he was one of the begrimed handymen in dented vans you see all over Manhattan on weekdays, their windshields tiled with orange parking tickets, a ladder, a glass plate or some kind of equipment sometimes lashed unsteadily to the exterior. For 25 years, Edward spent between three and six hours per day on New York’s roads, which by my count equates to one-seventh of his life during this period. To be in the refrigeration repair business means putting yourself at the mercy of your clients, who in Edward’s case were mostly 24-hour delis and restaurants located all over the city—Flushing, Times Square, Dyker Heights, Hunt’s Point. Many days, he spent more time in his van getting to his clients than fixing their faulty machines.
I found this maddeningly difficult to understand. It’s true Edward’s personality was well-suited to the job. Only a certain kind of person can spend his life waiting to be summoned to fix a malfunctioning sushi case—not the kind who says, “It’s my daughter’s birthday. I’ll be there tomorrow.” Given all the time he spent putting up with traffic, Edward should have had a little box checked on his driver’s license authorizing him to careen around the city like a lunatic, but he was the opposite of those drivers who whip around corners in Midtown, freezing pedestrians in their tracks. Often, he was the slowest car on the road by 20 miles per hour. He had a weird habit of coming to a dead stop in the middle of intersections to see if anyone needed to run the light.
Most of us think we would lose our minds if we had to spend our lives immobilized inside a metal cage, toe-tapping our way forward on industrial monstrosities like the Gowanus and the Kosciusko. We think the frustration alone would kill us. So much of what makes driving in New York a skull-exploding experience is dealing with humanly created impediments, such as rubbernecking or a dignitary’s convoy—delays that don’t have to exist, strictly speaking. In my father-in-law’s case, it was worse, because as a commercial driver he was unable to use certain roads, including the FDR, the Brooklyn Bridge and several of the Midtown avenues. But neither that nor anything else about driving seemed to bother him to any great extent—or, at least, he rarely complained.
For years, I had an interpretation of Edward’s equability that was as condescending as it is widespread in other people, I believe, which is that driving had caused him to check out. He didn’t lose his mind because he wasn’t there, as no one forced into such a routine could be.
I began to rethink this last summer while Edward was in a hospice in the Bronx, dying of cancer. Every day, I had to drive two hours from Staten Island, where I lived, weeping some of the time, frequently stuck in traffic, trying to divine the mindset of all the drivers next to me, because it suddenly seemed important to understand what my father-in-law’s experience on these roads had been.
When I arrived at his room, what Edward wanted to talk about was driving. The hospice was in a neighborhood of the Bronx that was new to me, and Edward wanted to exchange notes about the routes one could take there, the shortcuts around traffic, the trouble spots and places to buy cheap gas or get a bite to eat. He knew he would never drive again, but exercising the knowledge he had built up over the years gave him pleasure—what lane to be in when transiting from the Gowanus to the Belt, which bridges to avoid during certain times of day, how to execute a run across Midtown in the shortest possible time. None of this information was stable; the map was constantly shifting, acquiring new pieces and losing others. And since Edward was constantly having to figure out how to get from a client on the Upper West Side to Knapp Street in Brooklyn, his variables were even more perplexing. I felt like a fool; here I had been thinking of driving as some kind of curse, while Edward had been compiling a live atlas of the greatest city in the world.
Driving home at night, I tried to keep my eyes on the road, but I couldn’t stop myself from turning sideways and looking at the other drivers on the Van Wyck and the Belt. Who were they? Why were they out there? Did they enjoy flying down the freeway at unsafe speeds? (There is no safe speed on the Belt at night.) They say one of the problems with driving is it doesn’t foster a sense of community, with everyone closed off inside their armored bubble. But as these anonymous strangers and I would move in adrenalized concert toward the illuminated spans of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, one of the most rapturous sights in the city, I knew there was no one else I’d rather share it with.