What Will New Yorkers Do With the Cars They Purchased During the Pandemic?

·6 min read
Photo credit: Benjamin Norman - Car and Driver
Photo credit: Benjamin Norman - Car and Driver

From the September 2021 issue of Car and Driver.

For years it was a selling point: You don't need a car to live in New York City. Not only does it have arguably the nation's best transit system, but parking is expensive and a pain, and traffic is atrocious.

And yet, even before the pandemic, plenty of New Yorkers relished the heady upside of aggressive big-city driving. In 2018, more than half of adults in the Big Apple were licensed drivers, and nearly 2 million passenger cars were registered to the city's 8.4 million residents, according to the DMV. That doesn't count the semi trucks, commercial vehicles, and commuters' cars packing the streets or those registered outside the city to avoid pricey insurance premiums. Civic groups have advocated for ending car use in Manhattan and restricting it in other boroughs in favor of bike lanes and alternative forms of transportation.

In the terrifying first wave of the pandemic, the number of cars on New York City roads dipped sharply, with the echo of ambulance sirens filling the streets as many cooped-up New Yorkers fled for suburbs or their hometowns. Having a car made that relocation easier. Then, last summer, the number of registered vehicles surged in what a New York Times headline described as "The Great Gotham Vroom Boom of 2020." In June and July 2020, car registrations in the five boroughs were up 18 percent from the same period the previous year. Chris Kim, a 36-year-old father of a toddler in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, jumped on a local Toyota dealership's good lease offer on a bare-bones RAV4. Benjamin Almeter, a 27-year-old publicist who lives in lower Manhattan, sprung for the Jeep Wrangler he'd always wanted, his very first car purchase.

"Everyone got dogs and bought cars," says Nata Andresen, who lives in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. During the pandemic, Andresen got a Malshipoo named Teddy and, somewhat spontaneously, a 2019 Volks­wagen Jetta with 30,000 miles. She grew up in Mexico City, where Volkswagens ruled the road. "It was a wild place to learn to drive because everyone kind of does whatever they want," she says. "I am a pretty fast driver. I love to play music, and if there are no cars on the road, I like a little speed." Perhaps unsurprisingly, Andresen received her first speeding ticket during the pandemic.

The Jetta became essential not only for day trips upstate but also for Andresen's volunteer work with a friend's nonprofit, One Love Community Fridge, which stocks public fridges around Brooklyn with donations of fresh items from restaurants and food services that they'd otherwise throw out. "You definitely need a car to do that," she says. She's urging the organization's founder, who regularly rents cars for delivery runs, to buy one.

Noel Borbon, a real-estate agent and native New Yorker who once looked down on car ownership, started driving exclusively during the pandemic to protect himself. "A lot of New Yorkers got cars because of not wanting to be in public transportation," he says, "and also to have that freedom to get up and go." Now he's leasing a 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe. "I wanted the center console to be sleek and look luxurious, and then I wanted a sunroof," he says. Borbon, who is six foot eight, believed he couldn't reasonably consider a performance car because of headroom concerns. He's working toward a Mercedes-Benz G-class, but we could point him toward plenty of sporty cars that fit the extra tall.

Photo credit: Benjamin Norman - Car and Driver
Photo credit: Benjamin Norman - Car and Driver

Ask any car-owning New Yorker about their purchase and the conversation quickly pivots to parking. They'll explain how alternate-side parking rules shape their work schedules. During the pandemic, New York cut back street cleanings from twice to once a week, a boon for drivers, who didn't have to move their cars as often. The flip side is that finding a spot on the street has become almost impossible in some places.

By January, it wasn't uncommon to see cars parked overnight in front of fire hydrants in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. As the city opens up, traffic is messier than ever: New York just took the esteemed title of most congested city in the United States, knocking out Los Angeles, according to the Texas A&M Transportation Institute's 2021 Urban Mobility Report.

What's unclear is whether this trend will stick and how many cars represent panic purchases by New Yorkers who fled to suburbia last summer, never to return. Ricky Maldonado, a manager at lower Manhattan's Area Garage, says he has seen only a few new customers since the pandemic started.

Public officials, including Mayor Bill de Blasio, discourage car ownership. To support struggling local businesses, the city blocked off 70 miles of streets for social distancing, biking, and outdoor dining. They may remain closed permanently.

"It is also not clear at this point that New Yorkers have decided they want more cars for personal transportation to avoid public transportation," says Stephanie Brinley, a principal analyst for IHS Markit. She points out that the rise in vehicle sales in the third and fourth quarters of 2020 could have been driven by the massive drops in purchasing at the beginning of the pandemic. "For 2021 sales to be better than 2020 is a good sign, but 2020 was awful. It doesn't suggest that demand is higher than it was prior to the pandemic."

The romance with cars may turn out to be short lived. A congestion tax on trips into parts of Manhattan is looming, and in November, New Yorkers will elect a new mayor, who could reshape the city's infrastructure policy. Many gas stations have shuttered in recent years, and electric charging stations are often out of service or blocked by a parked car. As vaccines have become available and COVID case numbers have fallen, New Yorkers are returning to some of their old ways. "In the past few months, I haven't used the car as much," says Andresen, "and then I find myself just moving it for parking spots." She refuses to pay for parking, and finding a space on the street is a challenge.

It seems inevitable that New Yorkers will increasingly return to public transportation for financial and environmental reasons and in the interest of that goal they all share: getting places in a hurry. But some folks aren't planning on giving up their vehicles. Almeter is attached to his Jeep and the freedom it gives him for weekend road trips. When street parking became too difficult, he invested in a parking space near his building for the Wrangler. "Even if it ends up sitting in the garage forever, I can't go back to not having one," he says.

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