A Local’s Guide to Being Slowly Choked to Death by New York City Traffic, in Five Vehicles
NYC gridlock can do to mobility solutions what whisky did to Dylan Thomas outside of White Horse Tavern, but with less humanity.
I've called New York City home for 15 years, though I've split my bid into a few stretches. It's always been a loud, aggressive, inconvenient, expensive place to live—these are some of its main selling points, in fact—but when I returned four years ago I found it had developed a charming new characteristic: it's become almost completely unnavigable. This is nice if you don't have anywhere to be on a Wednesday morning and were just planning to sit in your one-bedroom apartment all day, listening to the jackhammers and relaxing.
I've spent the last several years trying to figure out a way of getting around the city in an efficient and civilized manner, to alleviate the stress brought on by incessant murder fantasies and people in uniforms telling me to stop kicking things. At this, I have failed completely. But I did come to realize that there's a whole burgeoning industry built around the promise of a better, simpler, less expensive, more convenient way to get around: that industry is called Mobility, and I have no idea what it is despite several hours of research and also being a professional automotive journalist. Apparently something is about to be disrupted, and everyone's so worked up about it all they can do is shout buzzwords at one another.
However, I did use it as an excuse to expand my view of urban transportation. Here, a list of options for exploring the metropolis about which F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, "The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and beauty in the world," and where, if you're lucky, some dashing local might pleasure himself all over your back on the D train.
At least we don't have Bird scooters.
MTA NYC Subway
The New York City subway runs with the speed and comfort of a covered wagon train moving West through hostile territory circa 1850. Much of the signaling equipment pre-dates WWII. It's like being inside a fat wheezy dying animal, watching its circulatory system slowly collapse, and also you're late for work.
A four-mile intra-Brooklyn morning commute with one train change can take 45 minutes to an hour, but only if you're very lucky. While waiting for the train that isn't coming, you are treated to dank, smelly subterranean lairs with all the comfort and charm of an abandoned lunatic asylum that was built underground to keep everyone extra crazy. Avoid at all costs.
I've had a Specialized Allez road bike since I lived in LA, which offers cycling luxuries NYC can't compete with, like contiguous pavement and bike lanes marked with a better class of paint than Wite-Out. The streets in New York run the gamut from bucolic Brooklyn promenades to long stretches of bombed-out rubble that would delight an Afghan warlord, mostly the latter, so a mountain bike or even one of those ludicrous fat-tires is the better choice. New York has a hardened bicyclist culture, and for good reason: motorists hate us, pedestrians hate us, the city hates us, and tourists gum the whole thing up on CitiBikes, which weigh as much as a couch but are less maneuverable. It's not for the faint of heart. But if you're willing to dice on narrow streets with live cars piloted by maniacs, or god forbid Uber drivers, who are less predictable than the maniacs, it's an invigorating way to explore the city of New York.
It's worth the risk. Biking in NYC is phenomenal. Even amidst all the gaudy and mostly barren new megacomplexes, New York can be powerfully beautiful. Ride the West Side Highway bike path along the Hudson River in lower Manhattan on a sunny day—there's nothing like it. Stick to such wide, smooth, dedicated bike paths when possible; there aren't many of them and they likely won't get you where you need to go, but at least you can ride back and forth all day not worrying about construction.
The rule of construction in New York City as it pertains to bicycling is this: at any time and place you would even consider riding a bike, even in a hail storm in the dead of night on a whim in December, construction will be taking place exactly where you're trying to go. This means you'll be in the middle of a fast run, on time, in the flow, when suddenly you sense the road below you has been entirely stripped away and replaced with one long rumble strip covered in glass. You may have been tipped off by all the jackhammering, four-foot-deep trenches, and huge screeching trucks. This will go on for 13 blocks before being replaced with something much worse. You can try another road but the same thing is happening there, too.
On the plus side, you can weave through gridlock and mostly ignore traffic signals, until the inevitable moment where you're killed by some rage-filled dimwit in a 2006 Honda Civic who's simultaneously texting, vaping, and eating a bagel.
E-BIKE RATING: A+, but you have to bear universal loathing, and it's possible they only function if you're delivering food
2019 Cadillac Escalade
New York City is one of the test beds, along with LA and Dallas, for GM's Book by Cadillac, a monthly subscription service that lets you reserve a selection of cars (ATS-V, CTS-V, CT6, XT5, and Escalade) via an app, and comes with insurance, roadside assistance, and a concierge service that includes vehicle delivery. This is essentially the same thing as requesting a press vehicle in my line of work, which doesn't come with an $1,800-per-month fee, so I just did that. I went with the Escalade because it's roughly the size of an NYC studio apartment, but far nicer, and in a city of 8.6 million people you take extra space and quiet wherever you can find it.
If you must be stuck in traffic, and you will be stuck in traffic, try to be stuck in traffic in an Escalade. The normal bloodthirsty madness still surrounds you, but you're pampered and protected; it's like facing down a drunken mob of sadists with clubs, but you're in a tank, and the tank has lovely heating and cooling leather seats, a 16-speaker stereo system, and many places to store things like ordinance and coffee cups.
You're better off just driving it into the East River than trying to park it on the street, but it can be done, just not legally. (No matter where you park, something the size of an Escalade will always be within 15 feet of a fire hydrant.) I piloted it around Chinatown one afternoon for a video shoot; my average speed hovered around 8 mph, but I always had the right of way, lesser vehicles not wanting to joust with what appeared to be the Javits Center rolling slowly down Canal Street. Plus, if you park it in front of somewhere fancy, you can usually bum a cigarette from the group of black-car livery drivers standing on the curb who assume you're one of them, just out of uniform. This is also a great way to hear war stories from former NYC cops, many of whom become drivers for high-end livery services.
RATING IF SOMEONE ELSE IS DRIVING YOU AROUND IN AN ESCALADE: A+
Polaris Slingshot SLR
A total wildcard: three wheels, so low you can run a hand along the ground as you drive, and as much weather protection as whatever you happen to be wearing. (Though the Slingshot itself is totally weatherproof—you can hose down the interior, including the infotainment system, if the mood strikes.) You can park it anywhere you can fit a large Barcalounger.
It's silly fun—manual transmission, 1,750 pounds wet, and 173 hp and 166 lb-ft from the same 2.4-liter 4-cylinder once found in the Chevy Cobalt. Turn the ESC off and it will do neat little slides as soon as the idea pops into your head. Not to mention it had more pictures snapped of it in traffic than every Ferrari, McLaren, and Lamborghini I've ever driven through New York combined.
It's also surprisingly comfortable, depending on how much exhaust you're sucking behind some massive delivery truck at any given moment, which in New York is usually a lot. Plus, in NYC, you have to wear a helmet—three-wheelers have to obey motorcycle laws—which dampens the fun a bit if you're wearing a full-faced lid like I was. Still, with the music turned up and its open cockpit, the Slingshot is a great way to see New York, which can be a breathtakingly beautiful city—something you tend to forget when you're grappling a surprisingly strong Stroller Nazi for the street vendor's last $10 plastic umbrella. If someone set up a rent-a-Slingshot business in Manhattan like they do with Vespas on Nantucket, they'd make a killing.
If you do find yourself with this extravagant toy, feel free to go full Slingshot (even though they say never to go full Slingshot). I've seen these driving around the city tricked out with crazy LED displays, music blaring, the occupants similarly loud and glowing—that's the way to do it. You can't exactly dip a toe in the three-wheeled roadster world, so you might as well go big with it. "Screw you, New York, I'm having fun anyway," is a key attitude for living here. The big drawback: unlike an actual motorcycle, you're stuck in the same traffic as everyone else, and they're all looking at you.
A motorcycle is hands-down the best, most dangerous way to get around New York City, and the Zero DSR electric motorcycle is at once an extravagant and common-sense commuter bike for NYC—a tall (but not too tall, at just over 33 inches), comfortable, sturdy adventure-style bike with plenty of suspension travel to soak up those endless stretches of lunar surface that pass for roads here. At least until the inevitable moment where you're killed by some rage-filled dimwit in a 2004 Civic who's simultaneously texting, vaping, and eating a falafel.
The DSR has a colossal 116 lb-ft of torque—the race-bred Ducati Panigale V4 has 95.5—so it's tame to call it blisteringly quick. Because it's electric, that speed is best used in short bursts lest you zap the battery; this is good, because rush hour lasts 18 hours a day, so you'll be very lucky to get in any short bursts whatsoever.
In fact, EVs like the Zero are decidedly best suited to a commute—two short rides separated by an extended break that can be used for charging. With the 18 kWh battery you can get 105 miles of mixed-riding range, or 132 with the optional Power Tank, which adds the weight of another heavy battery. For highway riding at 70 mph, those range figures are reported at 78 and 97 miles respectively, but after several entirely unscientific high-speed test runs during a suspiciously traffic-free afternoon on the Belt Parkway—possibly due to some nearby terrorist attack—I would wager a large sum of someone else's money that those figures are generous, or possibly absurd. Opening the throttle is like poking a hole in the battery and letting all the electrons spill out; you see the gauge start falling immediately, and mild panic kicks in because you know you have more chance of touching the moon than guessing your way to the nearest charging station. Even with full juice and the big battery, I would plan an 80-mile highway trip very carefully.
(The Zero has an app, but it can't help you with that—it can show you the rides you've taken but can't help you plan a route, which would be the more helpful function considering you're not on a bicycle and aren't worried about how many calories you've burned.)
It's also good for the city rider because it's simple. There's no powertrain maintenance required—there are no spark plugs, oil filters, timing belts, clutch cables, or fuel hoses. There's no chain, either, since the direct drive motor delivers power via a carbon-fiber belt. It's also cheaper to recharge than it is to refuel, though given the average New Yorker is as likely to have access to a private pool as a private garage, charging is rarely passive; you can't just plug it in when you go back to your fourth-floor walk-up.
It's simple, too, in that there's no clutch or shifter, though try telling that to your left hand and foot, which waggle about trying to make the familiar shifting motions—and since there's no neutral, the bike's either off or fully on, which means you need to lose the habit of tweaking the throttle at red lights lest you silently hurl yourself into the back of some massive, exhaust-spewing delivery truck.
Ah, right: it's silent, which is a problem. On a motorcycle, you need cars to hear and feel you coming.
Lane-splitting is about as illegal in New York City as marijuana, which is to say not especially unless the cops are looking to have a problem with you. But legality isn't the issue with lane-splitting; it's all the attempted homicide. It's not uncommon for a New York City driver to notice a motorcyclist approaching on the shoulder, crank his wheel, and apply the throttle in an attempt to block the rider's unimpeded travel at worst, or if all goes well, to murder him with blunt force trauma.
So of course one still splits lanes—what would be the point of a motorcycle otherwise?—but, you know, carefully. Except there's no such thing as careful lane-splitting when you're on a perfectly silent black motorcycle, which doesn't even emit a vibrational warning in the manner of exhaust pipes, so you just appear in traffic like a ninja, shocking a 2010 Civic driver into dropping his phone, vape pen, and pizza into his lap. (On the upside, he will barely have time to attempt to murder you.)
Motorcycles are dangerous enough without a stealth mode, and so any NYC commuter with a modicum of animalistic self-preservation will choose not to split lanes, at which point you might as well be in a Slingshot—except no lumbering herd of Midwesterners will stop to take your picture at a red light, so there's that.
HERE'S WHY: At ten bucks short of $20K with a Power Tank and quick charger, the DSR is blindingly expensive for the amount of bike you get, and the lack of sound is a legitimate safety concern. But the maintenance and fuel savings accrue over time, and more importantly, every time I parked this bike on the street at night, I'd come back to find a few people standing around it in the morning, just looking at the thing. Most knew it was electric, and everyone was curious about it. And, to a person—everyone of them a motorcycle rider, from a young local doctor to a 50-year-old Polish construction worker to a hardcore Brooklyn hipster who moved here two years ago from Des Moines—they all said the same thing with the same wide-eyed grin: "It's the future!"
I was shocked by the uniformity of the response, and how much I preferred it to the typical "car-guy" reaction to electric vehicles, which goes, roughly: BOOOOO! BOOOOO! FUCK ELECTRONS! BOOOO!
I wish a long and healthy life for the gas-powered motorcycle, particularly my own, but when I imagine a city full of electric motorcycles—and calm, hushed electric cars that are driving themselves and not trying to murder anyone—it appears in my mind a quieter, cleaner, cooler, saner city in which to spend all your money on restaurants and rent.
But where would be the fun in that?