View Full Version : Truly, Madly Driven: City Car Owners

April 6th, 2003, 07:35 AM
April 6, 2003
Truly, Madly Driven: City Car Owners

FOR 90 minutes each weekday morning Steven Haft, a film producer, casts himself in the role of Modern American Dad. At precisely 7:15 a.m., he pulls his Mitsubishi Montero out of the garage and loads up his three children, ages 6 to 14, for school. "I feel very Ward Cleaver about it," he said.

One small difference though: The Beaver lived in the suburbs, where ferrying the brood around in an S.U.V. has become an avocation for many parents. Mr. Haft, 50, on the other hand, lives in an apartment on East End Avenue in Manhattan, a city famous for potholes, tedious traffic, roulette-style street parking and $25-an-hour garages.

His morning excursion, which involves drop-offs on both sides of Manhattan as well as Riverdale before arriving at his Midtown office, would give the average highway-only driver heart failure and inspire derision from New Yorkers who consider a Metrocard a badge of honor. But Mr. Haft is unbowed. He will do anything for the pleasure of driving. In fact, one of the things that convinced Mr. Haft to move three years ago with his wife, the humorist Lisa Birnbach, from an apartment closer to the Lexington Avenue subway line was "having a really great excuse to have to take the car everywhere."

It turns out that Mr. Haft is not alone in his determination to drive in a city that seems to taunt those who long for the open road. As most Manhattanites compete for taxis and subway seats, a small but quietly defiant group of Manhattanites drive their cars daily, going to great lengths and often great expense to construct a life that mirrors suburbia in its veneration of the automobile.

Bruce McCall, the writer and illustrator who chronicles the purgatory of Manhattan driving and parking with a Blakian intensity, cut his teeth in Detroit as a copywriter for car companies. "I am wedded to the automotive solution," he said.

Every weekday Mr. McCall drives his wife 15 blocks to work, and usually drives himself to lunch. He has not been on the subway in 15 years, and as for cabs, he said: "Every time I take one, it's an admission of defeat. I don't know what the principle is but I seem to be defending it fiercely."

Traffic experts suspect that an increasing number of Manhattanites are using their cars as a primary means of transportation. Although tracking studies are not up to date, Sam Schwartz, a private traffic consultant, said he believes that the number of drivers has risen significantly over the last decade as the result of the liberalization of parking regulation in the Giuliani era, an influx of affluent people and fear of terrorism after Sept. 11, 2001.

Mr. Schwartz said that as of the mid-1990's, at least 12 percent of the cars that venture each day into the city's central business district defined as Manhattan below 60th street were owned by people who live in the borough, often less than a mile or two away. "It could be above 12 percent now, but even that is not insignificant," he said. "If there was a 12 percent reduction in traffic, you would really be able to feel it."

Drivers, however, are entrenched. "I consider using my car unnecessarily as one of the great joys of my life," said Peter Boyle, the actor, who, like Mr. Haft, lives on East End Avenue. Mr. Boyle starts most days with a stroll to the bank for a roll of quarters (he considers it unsportsmanlike to use a garage when he is out and about). He takes his Mercedes station wagon everywhere, even to Elaine's, which is only a block or two away from his home. "Being dedicated to your car here is a test of your patience and cunning," he said. "And there's better radio reception than in the house."

Whatever their reasons, Manhattan drivers do seem to have one thing in common most grew up in places where cars meant freedom.

Judy Hart, who is married to a screenwriter, decided to "live like a suburban housewife with a Ford Explorer," even though her home is in the East 70's. To that end, she drove her two children to and from private school for 12 years. A legend in the elite school set, Ms. Hart developed a ferry service for others as well. Her children's schoolmates would wait at designated corners for the "Hartmobile." "It was much nicer than the bus," she said, "I brought juice and water for them all."

Many Manhattan car enthusiasts acknowledge that theirs is not the most civic-minded of urban pursuits. Ms. Birnbach, conceded that she feels "politically terrible" about how much she and her husband drive in town. "Being a good New Yorker is merging with people," she said, "being a bad New Yorker is being isolated in your car." But driving her children around she takes over for Mr. Haft when he's not around gives her time with them that is often hard to find. "When you're in someone's cab, your kid may not say what she's really thinking there's the radio and the guy is on the cellphone," she said. "But when you're alone with her in your car after school and they're sort of exhausted, they vent."

John Kaehny, executive director of Transportations Alternatives, a nonprofit traffic watchdog group based in Manhattan, is not sympathetic. "It's outrageous, snobbish behavior and a huge imposition on society as a whole," he said of those who insist on driving. "Economists estimate that each vehicle in Manhattan does $1.50 a mile of damage in noise and congestion, not to mention how it weakens the infrastructure. This is not what Manhattan is about. It degrades everyone's quality of life."

A spokesman for the city department of transportation, Tom Cocola, said that Manhattanites wed to their cars add to a congestion problem that in the long run hampers the city economy. "We can understand instances where people opt for cars, such as parents dropping their children off to school," he said, "but nonetheless we encourage Manhattan residents to follow Mayor Bloomberg's lead and take mass transit. Other options include bicycling and good old-fashioned walking."

According to anecdotal reports from mechanics and garage attendants, Manhattanites who rely on their automobiles fall roughly into three groups: those who can afford the more than $300 monthly fees for a garage, entrepreneurs who use their cars for work as well as play (their flexible hours help them avoid rush hour) and budget-minded drivers who park on the street, their vehicles often held together with baling wire and duct tape.

The upscale drivers seem to live largely on the Upper East Side, with a high percentage in areas like Sutton Place and East End Avenue, far from public transportation and near garages. The plucky street parkers tend to cluster in neighborhoods like the East Village or far west Chelsea and Clinton. These neighborhoods, also far from the subway, have fewer meters and fewer parking regulations than more crowded areas.

"If you're crazy enough to really use your car in Manhattan, you're either a rich car lover or the mellow type who looks like they miss the 60's, driving around in a heap all day that you should have gotten rid of years ago," said Michael Bagwin, an owner of Bagwin Brothers, a Queens repair shop popular with Manhattanites. "Basically there's no one in between, no regular Joes."

It's not hard to figure out what category Andrew San Marco fits into. A 38-year-old commodities trader who lives on Fifth Avenue and 68th Street, Mr. San Marco keeps three of his five Mercedes in the city and drives to his office near Wall Street each morning. He leaves his uptown garage at precisely 6:45 a.m. and pulls into his downtown garage "exactly 14 minutes later," he said. "I catch the same lights every day. It's down to a science."

While many New Yorkers wince at the idea of subjecting a new car to potholes and the manhandling of garage attendants, Mr. San Marco has bought 25 Mercedes in the last four years for his personal fleet, he said, trading them in every eight months or so. "I know I'm a nut, but the fact is that even if I have to go just a block," he said, "I still take my car. I feel naked without it."

Caleb MacArthur, a 27-year-old writer who lives in a studio on Avenue C near Seventh Street, belongs to the other end of the spectrum. When he agreed to move with his girlfriend to Manhattan from Portland, Ore., last year, keeping his 1983 Subaru hatchback was a nonnegotiable demand. So instead of bartending to pay the bills, which he had done in Portland, he took a job using his car to deliver for a wholesale florist on West 26th Street. "I've had that car since I was 16 and I just don't feel whole without it," he said. "For me, it's like having a pet. You don't just dump it when you move to an inconvenient place."

Generally, he said, he is able to find an overnight parking spot within seven or eight blocks of his apartment. Every morning by 5:30 he pulls up in front of the shop and puts on the hazard lights. Within minutes he is back with five or six plants to be delivered. "I virtually never park, at least not in a legal space," he said. "But I'm very fast. I drop off the stuff and I fly." In the last year he has received only nine tickets, he said, with obvious pride. He calls them the "the price of doing business." One day he plans to pay them.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

April 6th, 2003, 08:57 AM
To cut expenses, I've decided to get my car a studio apartment. I'll be able to visit it more often.

April 6th, 2003, 09:36 AM
Best laugh I've had in quite a while (I don't drive)...

April 6th, 2003, 11:25 AM
And with the MTA bus and dubway fare rising to $2.00 in early May, don't expect these car lovers to shed their keys anytime soon.

April 11th, 2003, 07:12 PM
You don't need a car if you live in New York. Just walk, take the taxi, bus, or subway.