Riding the Trains
Like most people who live in New York, we don’t have a car. Car non-ownership — this is new to us; in any other place on the planet, a car is usually a prerequisite for adult life. We’ve both been driving for as long as local laws have allowed it, and we have a combined fifty-two years of experience behind the steering wheel. It could arguably said that we are experts in driving. Our globe-spanning lives have forced us to deal with just about any sort of traffic imaginable: twisting mountain passes filled with speeding trucks in Zambia, narrow alleys in Spain where scraping against a wall could mean the destruction of a thousand-year old building, congested highways in smog-soaked Los Angeles, crumbling asphalt roads being reclaimed by the jungles of Panama, and the high-velocity madness of municipal Brazil. Our motor skills have evolved to the point where they are better tuned to driving than coordinating our very own legs — the bruises and crumpled toes on David’s feet are testimony to this sad fact. We have atrophied cybernetic organisms, with minds geared toward steel and gasoline rather than flesh and nerve. When we moved to New York, our fourth world together, we assumed that we would repeat the experience of the past; we would sell our car in the world we were leaving and buy a fresh one when we got off the plane. The process would require a bit of investment in time and sweat as we adjusted to a new market and new paperwork (cars always involve paperwork, no matter where one goes), but the end result would be the same. Of course, New York has different ways, and traditional plans never work out here.
Cars in New York City are what could be called a “stupid luxury”. They are prohibitively expensive and utterly pointless. Parking rarely comes with housing, and often requires and extra $500 more per month just to store your car in a covered spot blocks (or even miles) away from home. If you plan to buy an apartment in the city, purchasing one with a parking space adds an additional $60,000 to $150,000 to the final price (according to the New York real estate website the Brick Underground). That is the cost of an additional house in a lot of places in the country. It’s a lot of money, especially considering how rarely the car would actually be used. Traffic is often so bad that driving is far slower than using public transportation, or even walking. Plus, New York has been called a “gasoline desert” because regulations limit the places where gas stations can be built.
There are plenty of alternatives to care here. As mentioned, public transpiration is often the fastest way to go anywhere. The buses, trains, and ferries can get you to any place you need to be. And on those rare occasions where one absolutely needs a car, there are taxis, ride sharing programs, and even cars that can be rented by the hour and that are always close by. However, There is something special about the New York Subway system.
It is the eighth oldest metro station in the world, although the oldest (the London Underground) only beats it by fourteen years; it’s also the largest (472 stations) and one of the longest (with 236 miles of track). It is also, for want of a better phrase, a filthy old sprawl — which is exactly why it is so appealing. Other systems are amazing in their surgical cleanliness, and their commuters are often horrified when confronted with the New York City Subway. They assume that their systems are comparable, and they are so, so, wrong. The Subway was a technological marvel born before technology itself. It is pipes, and pumps, and valves. It is steel, and stone, and cracked, leaky rock. And it is organic.
To ride the Subway is to swim the bloodstream of an ancient beast.