New York’s grid is broken (long-ish)


The car that spoiled me–the 59 T-bird I drove in College. I gave it up when I moved to NYC.

For the better part of nine years, I’ve been a really self-righteous individual when it comes to automobiles–my household didn’t have one, we didn’t need one. But on Saturday, we’ll be going to a fleet sale for a rental company and we may well come home with a vehicle. That’s because lately it has become apparent to us (I’m part of a couple) that we need a car again.

Not a conclusion I wanted.

I should explain that one of my prime reasons for moving to NYC in the first place is that I wanted to get rid of driving. Cars, especially older cars that people like me can afford, had/have an uncomfortable habit of being undependable. And when they break, they’re expensive to fix. In 2006, our Pontiac Grand Am gave up the ghost for good. This was after repeatedly pouring money into repairs and dealing with problems that seemed to be designed for planned obsolescence–friends who’d bought similar Japanese cars were not watching their cars fall apart, even at double the mileage on our Pontiac (a brand that no longer exists, and for good reason). And so we gave up driving–for the next nine years, we bummed rides or rented from Zipcar when we needed to go somewhere not convenient to mass transit. I also did a lot of bicycling–if you’ve followed this blog, you know that earlier this year, I clocked 10,000 miles on my four-year old bike. Also, the bike has now paid for itself–300+ commuting trips versus 600 subway fares at average $2.50 per pop.

Funny thing about suddenly not having a car–you find you have oodles of pocket money . The expenses really do add up, especially in Brooklyn (which had one of the highest rates of auto-theft in the US for many years–a separate story, but the NYPD didn’t put any energy into investigating car theft for several decades. Insurance was sky-high as a result). We had no coverage on our Pontiac except liability, we drove less than 6,000 miles a year,  I had a clean driving record, and we STILL were paying a pretty hefty bill for insurance every month. Add to that the repairs and maintenance, the occasional parking ticket, and putting gas in it, and it contributed a big share to our monthly expenses. And (after doing the math), we were surprised at how much we could afford in making up for a car. Six or seven car service rides a month, three taxi trips to Manhattan, an occasional Zipcar rental over a number of days and we were still doing better than breaking even.

So what changed? What does this have to do with NY’s grid being broken?

Simple. The subway transport system was not designed to get people from Brooklyn to Queens or Queens to the Bronx (and vice versa). It was designed to get everyone to Manhattan. As my pal Debs (an amateur historian who’s written about the history of Brooklyn) points out, the Subway transit grid was designed to move people in and out of Manhattan. And it wasn’t built because the city was full of visionaries. It was built to make residential real estate valuable. All those farming communities in Brooklyn (and later Queens) were turned into housing, and the real estate moguls who paid for train right-of-ways got big returns on investment. What wasn’t profitable was building train lines between Brooklyn neighborhoods or between Brooklyn and Queens. Those commuters used Brooklyn’s famous trolleys. And in the 1950’s, Brooklyn’s trolleys became a victim of The General Motors’ anti-transit conspiracybought up and replaced with GM buses. As a result, a train or bus trip from my part of Brooklyn to Bushwick was (and still is) an undertaking of  at least hour (more like an hour and a half) even though the physical distance was (and still is) around eight miles. I know because I’ve done the bike ride–it’s nasty and the streets are both dangerous and ill-paved. 

And why do I have to go to Bushwick (or Williamsburg or a host of other neighborhoods that nobody used to go to)? We go to these places because most public spaces in Manhattan formerly used by arts groups and activist organizers are no longer around. My old church at Washington Square (which supported arts work and had a soup kitchen and homeless shelter) got clobbered with huge cost increases after 9/11 (insurance alone quadrupled) and that, coupled with hostility from the church hierarchy, sealed its fate. The Brecht Forum (a longtime venue for lefty events) closed its doors last year as well. Most ‘cheap’ venues in Manhattan have been bought up and turned into high-priced boutiques. When restaurants for middle class types can’t afford to stay open, how can non profit arts organizations make a go of it? I like this quote from a recent article titled ‘Why I believe New York’s Art Scene is doomed‘: The white-hot real estate market burning through affordable cultural habitat is no longer a crisis, it’s a conclusion.” The quote came from Robert Eames, who was moving his arts organization Galapagos Arts from NY to (wait for it) Detroit. Meanwhile, Gawker called out a clueless NY Times article, a denialist piece of merde that glossed over the displacement-driven end of cultural opportunity in the five boroughs. 

Ditto for jobs–Manhattan has become the home of finance and legal jobs, and much of the work I used to enjoy (and do well, and be paid for appropriately) has left. And jobs in outer boroughs increasingly requires a car (though parking will be a bear). It takes over a half hour to get the two miles and change from my apartment to my current job because mass transit wasn’t designed to take me there*. If you do the math (I do the math constantly), that puts me at a horse-cart rate of speed to get from point A to point ‘this is where my paycheck will Be‘. And the sketchy nature of my current work nabe is such that I’m not sure that my bicycle (the go-to plan B for commuting) will be there when I’m ready to go home. A non-driving friend got a great arts teaching gig that requires him to go from school to school. His TEACHING rate is enviable; but once you factor in the (non-compensated) transit time, he’s skating into the single-digit-per-hour range. 

And I blame the leadership of the city and state (from both parties) for this situation. To reiterate, one of the main reasons I came to NY many years ago was that I wanted to be free of having to own a car. Thanks to the political leadership that we’ve had since the 80’s, we’ve broken a century-old transit grid and haven’t replaced it. The city will have an extra one million residents in a decade or so, and the increasingly inadequate transit system is already over capacity. The plan to put tolls on East River bridges to pay for the billions needed in new subways and buses will never pass (Albany will see to it). Congestion pricing is dead in the water. And with private cars crowding NY’s streets, buses won’t be able to be a dependable option for people going to jobs.

Larger point: as a climate activist, I know exactly what buying a car means to the world. It’s burning gasoline and using up non-renewable components (seven gallons of oil per tire burned up) and putting out lots of thermal pollution (run the car’s AC and the thermal exchange drives up the outside temperatures).  The increasingly beleaguered city drivers are angry, distracted (stand on a street corner and count the drivers who are texting or doing Google lookups while their 4,000 pound metal machine moves cluelessly down the street), and overstressed. When I was doing regular bike commuting to Manhattan, I used to cruise past gridlocked cars–now I’ll be the driver sitting in traffic. In the nine years since I gave my car the heave-ho, private schools have proliferated around me, with much of the parking taken for schoolbuses even as neighbors have been forced to start driving. Parking issues are going to be an extra two hours a week out of my life at minimum. And complaining about traffic is all about denial. I WILL BE the traffic I’m complaining about.

Wish me luck on Saturday. Or not.

*Admittedly, a half-hour commute is not a big deal. the problem is the impermanent nature of the jobs I’m taking–a recent one-day gig in Williamsburg was an hour and a half each way because the place was off the subway grid and the walking distance to the place was undo-able.


  1. It’s a shame. Los Angeles is even worse.

  2. LA is worse because the transit rot got embedded right after WW II, when suburban building went crazy. It was GM that destroyed the LA trolley system in the early 50’s, and LA got built as interconnected suburban sprawl communities. Not unlike Long Island, really, and for much the same reason. NYC, Chicago and a few other cities had enough mass transit that was out of reach of GM to keep some of their transit grid.

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