Friday, April 13, 2012

New York Driving Is Not for Wimps

This wasn't my first trip to New York City. In fact, I've been there a few times over the years but all those times I either wasn't driving or I was mostly driving out to the far end of Long Island and away from the inner city. But this trip was different. Not only would I be visiting the inner depths of New York City and its surrounding boroughs, but I would be driving in it as I visited almost four dozen locations among it over four days spread out through the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Harlem, and the Jersey shore. I knew it would be bad but I really wasn't prepared for quite how bad it actually was.

My first clue was when I picked up my rental car and they were going through the events that would cause me money such as golf ball sized dents, knicks in the windshield and scratched longer than four inches. What surprised me was that any damage to the bumpers were fair game and not counted against me. Really?

I'm struggling with how to accurately relay how New York driving is because it is like driving on a foreign planet where you don't know the rules ahead of time. In the course of my four and a half days in the city, I ratcheted up my aggressiveness while driving by a factor of ten and I would guess I was still a factor of ten short of the aggressiveness of the average seasoned New York driver. It wasn't so much rage that won the day though I saw my share of that directed my way but it was who was the bigger bluffer. Since it is all a blur, I think I will just try to demonstrate what I mean with a few verbal snapshots.


I'm not sure how anyone navigated New York City before the advent of GPS units for the car. I had one and still got off course more than once when the directional changes came faster than I could change directions given the traffic restrictions I was in. Not to mention that from the seat of the car, all of New York looks like the same ten blocks repeated over and over with no view of the horizon whatsoever. I felt fortunate when I could judge the location of the sun enough to get a sense of direction and that only happened perhaps a handful of times and when it did was only fleeting. I think my longest duration (mileage wise) on any one road was 7.8 miles when I was heading up north of Manhatten to a location. Other than that, the mean duration on a road was probably somewhere less than a mile.


Real estate is at a premium in the city which was expected so parking is also a premium. There were no parking lots that I saw so if you parked, it was on the street which meant that if you wanted to park legally, you better know how to parallel park or you are screwed out of the gate. Everywhere I went involved stopping in front of our desired location (double parked) to drop off one person while the other person, me, would drive around for the next twenty minutes looking for a place to park legally. This meant trying to navigate a snarl of one-way streets and keeping your bearings so that once you parked you could find your way back to your partner and then back to the car later on. Much easier said than done. People parked close so parallel parking was very hard to do at times and I even inadvertently used my bumper a couple of times making me thankful that they didn't count. As I was exiting my car, I once saw a lady with barely a few inches between her bumpers and the car on either end. I dumb foundedly watched her bump/crush her way out of the parking spot with no fewer than a dozen direction reversals. It was no wonder that crushed/bruised/missing bumpers were a common site in the city. Finally I mentioned the word legal when it comes to parking because so many people in New York City just double park. They simply stop in the lane of traffic, put on their emergency flashers and walk away. On many streets there were cars bumper to bumper parked on either side of the road with just enough room for two cars to barely pass by in the middle. Now when you have people double parked in both directions, which is a rule and not a chance occurrence, navigating them and the oncoming traffic was like a cross between the old game of Frogger and the game of Chicken.

Playing Chicken

As I said, the bigger bluffer usually got the right-of-way. Basically the rules were simple. Get your front bumper wedge in front of the neighboring cars bumper and the back of the vehicle they were following and you could move over to that lane. If you couldn't, you would probably literally still be sitting there to this day with people honking at you. Lanes were not relavent because if you stayed in the proper lanes, you would not get where you wanted to go. Instead, you had to use other lanes and then cut into the line or face sitting at an intersection trying to turn left across traffic for the next three years because the proper lanes were always more than full of cars. At a low point, I actually swerved around a turning car which had to stop for a old crippled guy to hobble across an intersection to get into my desired lane. The car I swerved around expressed their displeasure at my getting ahead of them by blowing the horn and the old guy expressed his displeasure by using his cane on the hood of the other car. That is the way New York driving works.

Road Rage

I lost track of the number of times I was honked at for not driving fast enough or aggressive enough for the driver behind me but the incident I'm about to relay to you really took the cake. While sitting in outer of the two lanes that were about to turn right onto the George Washington Bridge, a third lane in the go straight only lane were trying to cut into my lane. As I stated, this was almost mandatory at times to get anywhere. But one fellow tried to create a fourth lane in oncoming traffic and cut off one of the cutters in the third lane and was trying to cut me off. I had been sitting in this lane through several traffic light cycles and had enough so I kept close to the bumper in front of me so that he couldn't get his bumper in between without simply bashing in the side of my car. He honked his frustration as well as the guy whom he cut off and I drove onto the bridge and forgot about it for a couple minutes. That is when I saw the same van come roaring up through traffic violently cutting people off in his attempt to reach me. I knew what was about to happen at that point. He was going to attempt to cut me off by violently swerving in front of me and hitting his brakes. I sped up and got my bumper within a couple feet of the bumper ahead of me (which at 45 miles an hour was insanely close) and tried to maintain the gap while the van pulled along side me violently mashing his accelerator and brakes and swerving like he was going to smash into me while he expressed his displeasure that I hadn't let him into the actual turning lane from two lanes outside of it. After what felt like minutes of this but was probably less than thirty seconds, he roared off and disappeared.

Thick Skin

In order to actually make it to where we were going, sometimes you just had to put your car into play and have thick skin. While waiting at an intersection to cross when the light turned green, turning traffic would fill up the lanes across the intersection leaving no room for you. In a normal world, you would sit waiting for space to open up before cross the intersection so not to block the intersection should the light turn read while you are sitting in it. However in New York world, all this did was cause people to drive around you filling up the void and leaving you no closer to your destination. So I did what I had to do. I drove into the intersection inevitably blocking it up when the other direction got the green light and then listening to people honk our their frustrations until I was able to progress enough to clear the intersection. You get used to it.

Ratcheting It Down

By the end of day four, I must say that I was beginning to become accustomed to being super aggressive while driving. I cut people off at will and even honked at cars not driving aggressive enough. I became part of the problem. So after decompressing from a day of flying back to the midwest, it felt odd driving back here in Iowa. For days afterwards, I found myself in situations where in New York I would have swerved around someone who wasn't aggressive enough with their left turn across traffic or would have have honked my horn to show my displeasure at them pulling out in front of me or cutting me off. I always had to mentally check myself and remind myself that I was in Iowa. Fortunately after my limited exposure, I was able to shed the aggressiveness fairly easily. But it makes me wonder what someone with a longer exposure does when they come to the laid back driving style found here in the midwest. Do they ratchet down their driving or simply proceed thinking we are just easy pickins' when it comes to driving?


R. Sherman said...

I've never had to drive in NYC, but I have driven in Paris. From what you describe, Paris was not as bad, though bad enough. Perhaps, they treated me well, because I was driving a car with German plates.



Ron said...

"I became part of the problem"

Haha, that's the funniest thing I've read in a while. :)

It is amazing how a different environment brings out radically different behavior in people.

Ed said...

R. Sherman - That could very well be. I had a rental car with Jersey plates and thus perhaps the lack of respect.

Ron - I don't know how many times I found myself thinking that what I was doing behind the wheel was crazy. But even then, the other half of my brain was saying do it if you want to survive.

Ron said...

Yep, survival takes priority.

Three Score and Ten or more said...

As a guy who spent most of his life in the theatre, I have quite a few old friends and former students who live in New York City (as well as several relatives). Almost none of them even own cars. Those who do, mostly garage them out of the city, and only use them to travel. The rest get where they are going on the subway,(which can be an experience of its own) by bus and by cab.
This may be why, in London, in much of the city, it is illegal to drive a private car.