Wednesday, June 04, 2008

What I'll Miss About New York:
#17 — The Carless Life

They overcharge you for the extra tank of gas at the rental car agency. Well, really, they don't overcharge you, but you have to bring it back completely empty in order to take advantage of their faux discount. C'mon: Who brings a car back to the rental agency completely empty?

So I buy the extra tank of gas right before I return the rental car when we're on vacation or attending someone's wedding — however, other than these occasions, I haven't bought a tank of gas in three years. You see, I don't have a car.

I know people who live in Manhattan and have automobiles. These friends aren't necessarily rich – it's just that they're comfortable paying for a luxury that is altogether unnecessary in this borough. And luxury it is. You can have a monthly parking spot (if one is available) across the street from my apartment for a paltry $800 per month. As reported in the New York Times, spaces further downtown push well into the six figures.

A few months ago, I noted that there are lessons to be learned when you don't have a car. First on that list is that you don't ever buy more than $40 worth of groceries because, well, you can't carry them. Your trunk is whatever you can carry in your own two hands, so don't go buying multiple hams.

But that's just the tip of the iceberg.

A city needs two elements before most of its residents are comfortable going without a car. First, it needs the requisite density. It's easy for me to go without a car because the 100 yard radius around my apartment contains 2 grocery stores, 2 banks, 2 drug stores, a clothing store that my wife is convinced is a front for the mob, one of the best Jewish delis in the world, and 5 restaurants including a bakery, a Dunkin Donuts, and a Starbucks. I just don't need to have a car to get the stuff I need on a regular basis.

The second element that the city needs is a commitment to public transit. Of the cities I've visited, only New York really gets this — even if San Francisco and Chicago understand to a lesser extent. A commitment to transit improves the lives of all citizens, but it especially lightens the load of the lower middle class and the working poor.

In the Bay Area, folks in a lower socio-economic tier who desire to be homeowners move to places hither and yon from their place of employment. Though they might work in Palo Alto, they'll live in Tracy — a city that Google maps claims is "1 hour and 10 minutes" away. During commute times, I'd be shocked if you made the trip in under 2 hours each way.

Compare this commute with someone living in the outer boroughs yet working in Manhattan. Someone living in Rockaway Park might have a commute of a similar time duration if they work in Manhattan, but they're not driving. No $4.00 gas. No focusing on the road. Wanna read, work, or do the crossword puzzle? Be my guest.

Beyond benefits to the less affluent, not having a car benefits everybody. It means that you're going to interact with people during your daily commute and your errands. There's simply no avoiding it. You're not rolling around in a metal box with wheels — you're on the sidewalk, trying to stay out of the way of other people with your $40 of groceries, rubbing elbows with rich and poor, neighbors and strangers alike. No one rides first class on the subway and the sidewalk does not have a "Yuppies Only" section (Wait, that's Park Slope, isn't it?).

By October, we'll have a car. Hell, we'll have two. And I'll enjoy having a car again. Buying more groceries. The mobility to head off in any direction I desire. But in returning to the John Wayne Yankee car culture, I'll lose something that I had these past few years hoofing it with my fellow New Yorkers.

What's this? After living in New York City for three years, I'm returning to California. These are the parts of my New York experience that I'll miss the most.

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