Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.
A car is often—even usually—the wrong tool for the job in a dense urban setting. And using the wrong tool makes you frustrated and impatient.
The car ahead of me on the one-way Brooklyn street pulled up to the curb. The driver hopped out, leaving his door open, and strode across the crowded sidewalk into the lunch counter on the corner of Fulton. He disappeared inside.
I tried to edge my Honda Zipcar around his parked vehicle so that I could continue on my way, but another car, illegally parked at the opposite curb, made the passage so narrow that I wasn’t sure I could make it. I inched forward, calculating my odds. Would I scrape the sides of one or both vehicles? Tear off a mirror? Behind me, I could see the traffic backing up. My heart rate escalated steadily. My palms were sweating. There was no sign of the man who had gone in to grab a hot dog, or whatever. His passenger looked like she was engrossed in her phone.
Someone behind me honked. My adrenaline spiked. In a desperate attempt to bring the missing driver back to his abandoned vehicle, I hit my own horn one time, two times, three.
Just like that, I had turned into a person I hate.
Don’t get me wrong, I like to drive when I'm not in the city, but as a resident of New York, I almost never have to get behind the wheel. I haven’t owned a car since about 2006, and even when I had one, I only used it for taking trips out of town, never from place to place within the five boroughs.
On a recent weekday afternoon in the middle of the holiday season, however, I found myself with a difficult geographical challenge that involved picking up my son and a friend at a birthday party in an industrial section of Queens (laser tag!) and then delivering them in under an hour to another event in central Brooklyn. There was no way it was going to happen by subway, our usual travel mode. Since it was only about a nine-mile trip, I thought this might just be a job for car-share. I downloaded the Waze app especially for the occasion, assured by my friends who drive regularly that it would make the trip as smooth as possible.
Within minutes of picking up the vehicle near my house, however, I found myself stuck in this stressful bottleneck behind the guy getting a snack. Already I had been honked at by other drivers twice, once for yielding to pedestrians in the crosswalk (the honker zoomed around me and through the intersection, just behind some people on foot) and once for no discernible reason.
Very consciously, I try to approach urban driving with calm and deliberation, following all the rules, proceeding within the speed limit with due care, and never honking unless there’s danger involved (that’s the law, by the way). I am hyper-aware of the grave responsibility of driving a car, because I write all the time about how easy it is for drivers to kill people with their vehicles.
But here I was, quickly reduced to cursing at the world outside my metal and glass bubble and honking myself, trying to get the attention of the guy who had left his car like a piece of used Kleenex in the street. The time it took me to become a monstrous ball of impatience: about 10 minutes. Just add car.
Eventually, I got up my nerve and squeezed past the obstacle without incident. Right around the corner, I encountered another obstacle: a slow-moving construction vehicle blocking another one-way street. I didn’t honk, but I seethed.
Over the next three hours, I traveled a total of about 19 miles (there was one stop to pick up the kids, which took about 15 minutes). That’s right: 19 miles in three hours. Waze kept me off the always-hideous Brooklyn-Queens Expressway for most of the time, but surface streets weren’t much better. There was not a stretch of more than a few minutes at a time when I was not being obstructed—mostly by other cars, often double-parked or parked illegally in travel lanes, sometimes just backed up in the pre-holiday rush.
At one point, I sat and watched bus after bus glide past me in a dedicated bus lane—a piece of infrastructure of which I wholeheartedly approve— and simmered with resentment. When I saw other drivers flagrantly using it for a block or two, risking a steep ticket, I admit that I occasionally thought about joining them.
It was an infuriating way to spend the afternoon. The whole time, I kept reminding myself of the old saying: You’re not in traffic, you are traffic.
Seduced by the perceived convenience and speed of car travel—even though I know better—I had fallen into a ridiculous mess of my own fabrication. I could feel it transforming me second by second from a person who loves my city and the people in it into a detached and unhappy observer of street life, for whom cute babies in strollers, old folks with canes, and people riding bicycles were just impediments between me and the next green light.
We got to our destination half an hour late. In the end, it probably would have taken us about the same amount of time to make the trip by subway, even counting the walks to and from the stations. That was one lesson I came away with.
The other was something I have known for a long time but keep learning over and over. The car is often—let’s say even usually—the wrong tool for the job in a dense urban setting. Using the wrong tool makes you frustrated and impatient. It can quickly turn you into a jerk, even if you are a decent human, as indeed most people are. It sours your attitude and leads to stupid, impulsive behavior. When the tool you are using is a car, that can mean injury or death for the people around you. Even if all you’re doing is honking and spewing fumes, you’re making the world worse. Not to mention yourself.
When I dropped the Zipcar off in the parking lot and walked away, I felt the exhilarating sense of freedom that I always do when I leave a car behind forever. I also felt a mixture of empathy and bewilderment as I looked at everyone around me who was driving. It’s always a good thing to try to see things from other people’s point of view, and I’m glad for the renewed compassion I feel for people in cars. But I still like my city, and myself, a lot better when I'm not behind a windshield.