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travel plans
my affair with driving in new york city
by jeffrey d. walker
pop culture

When I travel, I prefer to do it by car. If I’m going on a trip, and time and distance make it at all possible, I will drive. I’ve got a thing about the open road.

I had 4 boxes of “Hot Wheels” and “Matchbox” cars that I loved to play with as a kid. My Dad and I would watch NASCAR races frequently. I know that a road trip from New York, where I live now, back to see my family in North Carolina offers me a good time to think and reflect if I’m alone, or to gives me a ten-hour-plus uninterrupted conversation with any passengers. I grew up in a suburban North Carolina, which meant that a car was the exclusive way to visit most friends, go to school and to shop. Buses are slow, planes are usually expensive, and trains usually have weird schedules.

I don’t know which of these factors more influences my love of driving. But I sure do love it.

Open road trips take you past places you see less frequently. When I travel the east coast, I can take the larger interstates, like I-95, I-80 and I-81, which allow 50 M.P.H. or higher landscape views of the cities they pass. Or, if I’m in less of a hurry, I sometimes take the slower, more scene routes, Like U.S. 1 & 9 through New Jersey and NY 17 through the Adirondacks. Here I see farmland and small towns.

No matter what routes I take when I’m criss-crossing the states, I tend to get a real thrill out of my drive. This is not so when one thinks about daily commuter driving.

When I first started daily commuting in North Carolina, I was much less excited. In and about town driving just doesn’t have the same appeal. You usually get stopped at a bunch of intersections, or just generally pass the same things from day-to-day. Sometimes it gets so commonplace that you end up leaving your house and arriving at work, and you can’t even remember anything about your drive at all. Driving in town in most places can be a little boring for a driving enthusiast. Almost automatic.

In my mid-twenties, I moved to New York City. Most commuters in New York City do not drive. Most visitors to New York City would typically be advised not to drive themselves. Gridlock. Construction. Pedestrians. And that’s on a good day. Parades, protests, marathons, bike races and other events may cause road-rage inducing hold-ups. I, like most people, tended to get to work using public transportation. And when I did drive, it usually was terrible. 9 out of every 10 drives would involve gridlock, or construction, or pedestrians or something else. Yuck!

Vanilla Sky featured Tom Cruise driving his uber-expersive sports car through the Times Square without any traffic in sight. But in New York City, just like in the movie, this scene is only a dream. And that is unfortunate for driving aficionados, because New York City also has some of the best streets to drive along on the eastern U.S. seaboard in my opinion. Broadway is a great street to drive down when it’s clear. I used to have band practice a lot in studios between 26th and 40th streets. It was great to file out between 8 and 10 p.m. during the weekdays, when the streets were clear of commuters, and motor all the way south past all the shops, through Chinatown, past City Hall and then loop back around to cross over the Brooklyn Bridge.

Of course, that trip happening clear of traffic happened once in a blue moon. In my time living in the Big Apple, I’ve only had a few driving experiences that lived up to my expectations. Trips where there were no serious traffic holdups. Trips where it seemed as though every light I hit was green. Trips where you can really enjoy how nice it is to drive in New York City.

One night before 9/11, I once had a virtually clear run down Manhattan’s West Side Highway from the George Washington Bridge all the way down to the World Trade Center. The water on your right, the ships moored alongside, cruising all the way down to the former twin towers cutting up and through the sky’s darkness. I don’t know if they changed the timing of the traffic lights since the fall of those towers in 2001, but I haven’t made it all the way down without being stopped for several traffic lights in lower Manhattan ever since.

There’s a wealth of bridges and tunnels in and around the New York City area. More than marvels of engineering achievement, these add spice to a driver’s enjoyment by allowing them to traverse treacherous waterways without incident and with flair, whether you prefer gawking at the cords, steel and concrete draped overhead that hold you above the currents, or the closely-confined, florescently lit concrete claustrophobically forging your path underneath. Both methods are enjoyable departures for those who like to drive when, of course, they are not bottlenecked at the entrance and / or exit by a flood of other vehicles.

The F.D.R. up the east side of the river. Brooklyn’s Bay Parkway down by the ocean. Park Avenue. The roads that cut through and underneath Central Park. The BQE, whether your elevated above the neighborhoods, or where the roadway has been cut below, bisecting former neighborhoods by six-lanes. These and other roads are just a few that make daily driving in New York City like no where else I’ve ever driven. Each of these, perfect experiences, were it not for the nightmare of others sharing the roadway.

I finally left New York City. It wasn’t the traffic that drove me out, though that could have been a good enough reason. Far away from the hustle and bustle of N.Y.C., I’ve found roads that are typically unencumbered. I found parking mostly free and easy to find. Gridlock, or construction, or pedestrians do not impede 9 in 10 of my drives. Driving in town now is mostly uneventful. I’m sure it won’t take long before driving in town is a little boring. Almost automatic. I can drive when I want, but daily driving excitement, or at least that potential for in-town driving excitement that rarely but unexpectedly presented itself in New York City, is fading fast like mile markers in my rear-view mirror.

I guess there’s always a road trip.


A practicing attorney and semi-professional musician, Walker writes for his own amusement, for the sake of opinion, to garner a couple of laughs, and to perhaps provoke a question or two, but otherwise, he doesn't think it'll amount to much.

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sandra thompson
8.22.05 @ 7:18a

I can't really comment on driving in the City because even though I've lived in it or near it for a total of about four and a half years of my life, I didn't drive much. Subways, busses and cabs were my means of transport there. But I can support you on your comments on the boredome of commuting, having done that for about 30 years total. When I lived in New Jersey the road trip back to Florida was exciting. I-95 had not been completely built yet, so it was a constant on again off again progression with rural roads and interstate highway juxtaposed in truly bizarre ways. I almost always had hitchhikers for at least part of the journey. I never left a hippy in South Carolina after dark, for instance. Ah, yes, those WERE the days!

jael mchenry
8.22.05 @ 11:44a

This is SO opposite to my experience. I really don't like driving. Luckily I hardly ever have to do it, and when I do, it's usually on those "unencumbered" roads you're talking about, out of the city.

Otherwise, give me the train any day. Or a walking commute. When it's not 90 degrees, that is.

sloan bayles
8.22.05 @ 12:59p

Driving up to Boston last week, I took I-95 from Raleigh. To my surprise, when I arrived in NY I was going right through the Bronx. Not a bad experience, but it surprised me to look up while at the red light and see I was on the Bronx Expressway. I will say, I hate the NJ Turnpike. No choices of where to stop for gas, etc. except where they want you to fill up. Since I obviously didn't know my way around any of the towns, the Sunoco's got my full service of gas and eating.

joe procopio
8.22.05 @ 7:39p

I refuse to drive in the City and thus, never have. But you know where's worse? DC. Why does everyone there want to kill me?

And I've driven the 10 and the 5 in LA.

tracey kelley
8.23.05 @ 2:27p

I love road trips - long, winding road trips, interstate is fine.

But city traffic, in any city, sucks big time.

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