My rules of the road: How I keep a car in Manhattan without losing my mind

By Mary Lowengard  | February 10, 2021 - 2:30PM

These days, it's a whole new ball game for car owners and aspiring car owners in Manhattan. The mean streets have mellowed considerably.

Mary Lowengard for Brick Underground

There are a million reasons why you should never own a car in Manhattan but take it from me—here are my three leading deterrents: It’s expensive. It’s redundant. It’s ecologically obnoxious.

To paraphrase the Bard, to park (on the street) or not to park (on the street), that is the existential question. It’s basically one of microeconomics. A standard formula to cope with the psychological hump of paying a king’s ransom for a garage space is make sure the cost is less than twice what you paid in rent for your first apartment. Then go for it.

Or there’s always the street. It’s doable and it’s cheap. Every neighborhood has its social parking ecosystem. Truth is, a couple of tickets and a few overnights in a nearby garage over the course of a year don’t amount to a hill of beans versus what you’d shell out for a monthly garage space.

But in March 2020, as the pandemic descended on our small corner of the globe known as Manhattan, it became a whole new ball game for car owners and aspiring car owners. The mean streets mellowed considerably—and have stayed that way to some degree.

Last spring, New Yorkers fled for the hills, packing their families into their vehicles. Commuters from adjacent counties and states were ordered to work from home. Construction and commerce ground to a halt. This monumentally impacted the two most onerous things about owning or wanting to own a car in Manhattan: parking and traffic.

For the first time in the 25 years that I’ve been a Manhattan-dwelling car owner, parking spaces were available for the taking on Park Avenue in the 80s, on West End in the 70s, and amazingly in the East 60s, where I parked one morning in late April, legally, having cruised south on Second Avenue for 40 blocks in under 10 minutes. I wasn’t even speeding. I was 35 minutes early for my doctor appointment. That was a first.

Chrismahanukwanzakah every single day

Alternate-side street parking was suspended from late March through Labor Day. This transformed every day into a holiday for street parkers. In June, the Open Restaurants program crushed this thrill, dropping some 10,000 parking-space-hogging huts in the streets, but hey, all for a good cause. The odds on light traffic and available parking have slipped from likely to even chances. That’s good enough for me.

It’s not been all good news though. Spellbinding “Law & Order”-style phenomena emerged after several months of pandemic pandemonium.

In January 2021, reliable sources reported that the number of stolen vehicles in New York City increased a whopping 72 percent in 2020 over 2019. A bit of casual keying may be a misfortune, but to lose one’s ride entirely looks careless.

(Keyphobia is the bane of the Manhattan car owner’s existence. I became chill about this in September 2019, when my daughter married the son of a water-based acrylic polyurethane enamel artisan.)

The joys of joyriding

On further examination of underlying causes for the spike, assuming my grasp of fourth grade math is accurate, I realized that 66 percent of the city vehicles swiped in 2020 were reported stolen by owners who left their keys accessible or even their cars running. Subtracting these 3,450 cars from the 2020 total of 6,858, I would suggest it is more accurate to count a mere 2,870 as stolen, representing a decrease of 13.5 percent year over year.

After reading all 461 reader comments discussing the stats, I can confirm that the rest of the world agrees that my revised calculation most accurately depicts the grand auto theft situation in New York City. Perhaps the NYPD will establish a knucklehead category to differentiate this going forward.

For at least a generation it has been common wisdom that the best deterrent to car thieves in New York City is to purchase a car with manual transmission. This features a gear stick between the driver and passenger seats and a floor pedal called a clutch. It has been a diminishing art form to operate “four on the floor” though a recommended skill if you plan to drive in Western Europe where it is standard on most cars (including rentals). Just something to consider if you’re prone to leaving your keys accessible.

High crimes and Class A misdemeanors

Clearly inspired by "Fast & Furious 8," enthusiasm for after-dark drag racing, the very epitome of a moving violation, resulted in complaints to 311 quintupling last summer. While glorified on the big screen, drag racing is illegal, dangerous, and annoyingly noisy.

Turns out, I live just blocks from a popular hotspot for this activity. I confess I was oblivious, possibly because I was sleeping with earplugs in a back room to escape the din of fireworks recreating the London Blitz outside my street-facing windows.

As a response to this scourge, the cleverly named Fighting Underground Racing In Our Streets (the FURIOUS) Act proposes that the city’s street cameras be deployed to deter these Vin Dieselettes. The bill (S8980) appears to be stalled for now. 

Get a driver decoy to thwart tickets

It’s common knowledge in NYC that a car makes an excellent spare closet. It also can double as a panic room when the spacious co-op you moved into with your three adorable toddlers a decade later is occupied by hulking, sulking teenagers, their stuff, the food necessary to nourish them and their mood swings. Quietly slip out the door to the car, pop on SXM 20 and practice your three-part yogic breathing. It’s all good.

Midtown errands are best accomplished by enlisting a “driver decoy” to babysit your automobile while double parked in that no-standing-zone-ever stretch of 32nd Street while you dash out. Ideally your decoy is actually licensed to relocate the car should a scowling policeman approach. My sister, who is not now, nor has she ever been, a licensed driver, has perfected the art of appearing as if she is moving into the driver’s seat. Very slowly.

Cheap garages are not convenient

Resist, if you can, the impulse to stash the car in that secret ultra-cheap garage that’s so far on the West Side if there wasn’t a river, you’d be in Hoboken, where the parking is even worse. This is a ruse New York naïfs often fall for, failing to factor in the funds they will be putting into cabs traveling to and from the car. Also, block that siren’s call of New Jersey gas prices. It’s always free to leave New York, but to return for free you will have to detour through Albany on back roads.

For metered parking, download the ParkNYC app. You pay online, skipping the ticket machine rigmarole. You’ll be warned when time’s almost up, so you can extend the 10 minutes you thought it would take to get through the express checkout at Fairway with a bag of $1.99 pearl onions, sparing you the $65 parking  ticket.

Don’t forget, you live in Jungleland. Never park over a street grate in winter. A large rodent may climb up into your undercarriage to bask in the warmth of your engine. And, as always, never leave anything of value (i.e., your keys, your pug, your iPad) on a seat or the dashboard in plain sight. Just to be clear, take both the gun and the cannoli.

Mary Lowengard is a writer and editor who has been in a New York Real Estate of Mind since 1971.

Mary Lowengard

Mary Lowengard is a New York City-based freelance writer with more than three decades of experience as a journalist and editor.

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