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« Maui, Plain and Fancy | Main | Women (and Men) Today »

April 02, 2009

Cities Where Cars Are More Trouble Than Worth

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I love cars and have driven them in many of America's largest cities.

But even I have my limits to this practice. There are some places where I try to avoid driving if possible. If I lived there and didn't need to leave town often, I wouldn't even own a car; I'd rent when necessary.

Car-unfriendliness comes in two main flavors. One is the street layout; some cities are very hard to navigate. The other is parking; street parking is restricted or impossible to find and parking lots and garages are rare or expensive. In some cases a city will strongly offer both features -- central Boston, for instance.

Back in the early 1960s I used to drive into New York when I had a weekend pass from Ft. Meade, Maryland or Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania. I usually stayed across the river in Hoboken at the Theta Xi house at Stevens Tech and then rolled into the city to see a girlfriend who lived in Queens not far from Laguardia. I found street parking in the neighborhood, given some effort. On Sundays I usually could find parking in the east 60s or 70s in Manhattan if I got there early enough, say by 10 a.m. That was 45 years ago, and I'm not sure such stunts still work.

(Manhattan driving tips from that era: (1) focus on the cars in front of you and ignore those behind; (2) never make eye contact with pedestrians.)

Washington, D.C. was a much smaller metro area in 1962-63 when I was stationed nearby, and weekend street parking was still possible. Sunday mornings it was fairly easy to park in the Mall if I was in a museum-going mood. But the street pattern -- all those diagonals such as New York Avenue that L'Enfant sketched out -- made getting around town a long, frustrating chore.

As you might guess, Boston, New York and Washington (their central parts anyway) are my three least-favorite driving venues.

Philadelphia and Baltimore, on the other hand, weren't nearly so troublesome. Well, Philadelphia was a hassle if you wanted to traverse it southwest-northeast rather than simply get into or out of center city. That was because of the street-highway pattern. Nevertheless, I had a car when I attended Dear Old Penn. I'll also confess that I usually drove it only on weekends, leaving it parked on Pine Street otherwise.

A borderline case is San Francisco. I drive in it when I visit California, but find the parking situation annoying.

I find Chicago fairly easy to get around even though the going can be slow. The cost of parking in the center is pretty high, however.

Cars are necessary in Los Angeles, Detroit, San Jose and Houston, but driving there isn't always pleasant.

Looking over what I wrote above, I conclude that there are few American cities where driving isn't worth the trouble. There usually is trouble of some sort, though not the show-stopper variety.

European cities are another matter because they tend not to have grid-pattern street systems. That said, I've driven in Vienna (though not inside the Ring), Brussels, Lyon, Bordeaux, Munich, Dresden, Glasgow, Leeds and Dublin as well as a number of smaller places such as Florence, Bristol and Dijon. It wasn't always a picnic.

My own city, Seattle, is probably difficult for strangers to drive because it is chopped up by water and steep hills. I know many of its ins and outs, so it normally presents few problems. The biggest hassle is the freeways; the region needs more of them and the local politicians and effete citizenry would never consider that solution.

Later,

Donald

posted by Donald at April 2, 2009




Comments

I can only speak about Manhattan. I still drive in from upstate and my experience has been that a parking space can be found without too much trouble on the far west side, both uptown and downtown, on the weekend. That's the key: coming into town on the weekend. Sunday is easier than Saturday but both are doable. Of course, once you've found your spot you hoof it. Best time to drive into the city is a summer weekend, when the swells have decamped to the Hamptons. Manhattan is almost relaxed (and almost car friendly) on summer weekends.

Posted by: ricpic on April 2, 2009 10:17 PM



San Francisco is awful for cars mainly due to the parking situation. Most nights are impossible to find a spot and on weekends, forget it.

Posted by: JV on April 2, 2009 11:34 PM



The two biggest hurdles of DC driving - beyond the excess of cars on streets not designed to accommodate so many of them and the dearth of parking spaces that are a problem in all cities - are the one way streets and those goddamn circles. Getting stuck in a circle between two cabs is a unique kind of hell.

But I got used to DC driving pretty quickly and eventually laughed at friends who took the Metro into a car-friendly neighborhood like Friendship Heights or Van Ness because they didn't want to drive in DC. Not to say that I am masochistic enough to drive during rush hour when I don't have to. No matter what a license plate says I can always tell the experienced city drivers from suburbanites because city drivers understand that in narrow streets and tight corners you'll periodically have to move your car so another can get around you. Suburbanites make road rage faces when they have to do this.

Posted by: hello on April 3, 2009 1:17 AM



You think parking in Chicago is expensive? The Mayor just sold off all the parking meters to a private company, and rates in downtown got jacked way up. However, one can get by in Chicago without a car, thanks to a fairly comprehensive transit system. (I do.)

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on April 3, 2009 3:35 AM



As a middle-class Manhattanite I haven't even owned a car in 30 years. (Thinking of writing a memoir someday entitled "My life as a car renter.") So life as a driver in NYC is almost as mysterious to me as the hotels-in-Manhattan question is -- heck, I live here so it just doesn't come up for me much. I've gotten to be pretty good at picking up a rental car here in town and making my way out of the city, though.

My one hint for doing OK as a driver in NYC -- pretend it's bumper cars. The reason: If you're too careful and considerate, you'll only wind up in trouble. If you pretend to be playing bumper cars, you'll actually do far better and get in much less trouble.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 3, 2009 9:49 AM



There's a (probably not actually true, alas) story about an executive who drove into Manhattan every day, rather than using transit. The parking garage closest to his office charged, say, $30 a day for parking. One day he noticed that the parking garage also had an auto-service section that offered $25 oil changes. He asked, and was told that customers could drop off cars in the morning for oil changes and pick them up in the afternoon.

You can figure out the rest of the story.

Posted by: Peter on April 3, 2009 12:54 PM



Remember Willie Brown's World Series comment that San Francisco had everything but parking, and rival Anaheim had nothing but?

I call this the Parking Paradox. Parking is dead space-- a block used for parking, even a ramp with a shop or two, is a block not used for entertainment, shopping, work, etc. So the more parking is available, the less reason there is to use it.

The Lawson Commons in St Paul is essentially a parking ramp with a skin of office tower around it, bacon wrap-style. It fooled folks for awhile, but-- no surprise-- it hasn't done much for street life.

As for freeways... I took a tour of Augsburg College in 1981. It's sandwiched between the U. of Minnesota and a freeway. The clean-cut sophomore showing me around explained that the giant sound barrier between the road and the school was just one more way to show how "nice" the locals were.

It took me a few years to figure out that wiping out a whole neighborhood and isolating the college might not have been the nicest thing for the authorities to do. I guess I must be more "effete" than "nice"!

Posted by: Reg C├Žsar on April 5, 2009 5:10 PM



I lived between Nob Hill and Chinatown in SF for over a year and the parking there was just horrible. Lived at the intersection of 3 cable car lines. Some parts of the city aren't as bad... South of Market seems to be better. Within my 1st week, I got a parking ticket due to a street cleaning sign I'd not seen and later my car was broken into.

Pittsburgh was the most difficult city for navigating that I've encountered as a visitor.

Posted by: claire on April 6, 2009 5:37 PM



Donald,

Your probably-accurate statement about the lack of spine of Seattlites to do the necessary work notwithstanding, just where would you put more freeways in the Seattle "region"?

I can think of a couple good ideas on the south and east sides of the city... 405 could use a mirror-image interstate-type road further out toward Issaquah. But in the city proper, where would you propose we build I-5's north-south counterpart, and how would you get it through either downtown/Queen-Anne/Ballard or Rainier/Cap-Hill/University? Expand Aurora?

Likewise, going east-west, do you propose expanding I-90 (maybe useful, but I would argue it's the least of King County's road problems), expanding 520 (a good idea) or building another east-west route altogether (inducing Big-Dig levels of debt in a worst-case scenario, and even if it were free... where would you put it so it would actually alleviate the problem)?

In other words, you acknowledge the problems that the hills and water present, but what is your solution other than to smirk at the "effete" people around you? I ask not in the spirit of gotcha snark, but in the spirit of a native Seattleite who simply doesn't see the simple solution you apparently do. Please share with me, and then the KC council and the Seattle City Council!

Posted by: Master Dogen on April 7, 2009 2:38 AM



Master Dogen -- The subject of the posting wasn't Seattle; I tossed it in as a kind of wrap-up. And by "Seattle" I was using shorthand for the region and should have added the word "area" to clarify.

Actually, it might be too late to do much about a situation that might have been prevented in the late 60s before sprawl ate up cheap, available land east of Lake Sammamish or some other corridor.

An outer belt would still be useful in terms of relieving north-south trans-area area (i.e., pass-through) induced congestion.

A fundamental problem close-in is the waterways and bridges. There are only six bridges crossing the ship canal, each a funnel point for traffic. Given the hills and present street system, there isn't room for any more unless the 1960s scheme of an Empire Way (MLK to newbies) expressway and Union Bay tunnel is dusted off and implemented. Cross-Lake Washington means two choke-point bridges. The planning I've noticed is to add streetcar tracks that will reduce capacity for I-90, and the schemes for a new 520 bridge also do not add enough new lanes.

Then there is the proposal of a tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct. This tunnel would have two lanes in each direction, a capacity reduction from the present viaduct.

The fundamental problem is elitist, car-hating planners and politicians who have ruled in Olympia and Seattle for ages. They seem to think throwing money at rail systems will solve all problems. The new rail system from downtown to the airport will do next to nothing to relieve traffic congestion Take a look at the route map and consider the neighborhoods it passes through. All these are well served by bus lines. And given the length of time to get from the airport to downtown, how many travelers will opt for rail when flying?

It's a story of lost opportunities and wasted money, an accumulation that has resulted in a situation that will be very hard to fix. The best that can be done now is an outer belt east of Sammamish and more bridge lanes wherever possible. Leftover funds, if any, can go to trolleys.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on April 7, 2009 10:09 AM



"those goddamn circles."

They are hell on pedestrians like myself too -- On occasion, I will walk five or six blocks out of my way simply to avoid getting stuck at a series of cross walks every five feet or so.

Posted by: Taeyoung on April 7, 2009 11:34 AM






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