I never expected to be having this conversation with Doug Gordon of all people.
The Park Slope-based freelance TV writer/producer has been a committed bicycle and safe streets activist for years. When a woman killed two children with her car at an intersection in his neighborhood, Gordon (no relation to the writer) was the person who organized the rally outside the YMCA Mayor de Blasio frequented, which happened to be just two blocks away from the crash site to call for safer intersections. It was Gordon whom de Blasio sought out for an extended conversation. And Gordon has continued to be a consistent voice for taking street space away from private vehicles, so pedestrians and cyclists can have more and safer space to move on public roads.
So it was with a chuckle that I began our call by asking, “So, you’re thinking of buying a car?”
Yes, that’s right. The co-host of the podcast called “War On Cars” is car shopping.
Gordon said this isn’t one of those dinner table where-would-we-live-if-not-New-York fantasy conversations. “This one feels like we have to think of the practical day to day realities of my life and what the city can provide for us,” Gordon explained. “If NYC isn’t really NYC anymore, how does that change how we live here?”
The coronavirus pandemic has radically altered city life, and few cities have been altered as much as New York. Much of what made New York City worth living in—the libraries, museums, restaurants, and nightlife, just to name a few things I desperately miss—has closed, at least temporarily. But for many New Yorkers, including Gordon and myself, one of the best aspects of living in New York is the ability to lead a comfortable car-free life thanks to the city’s robust mass transportation system, relatively bike-friendly streets, and general walkability.
In fact, New York is the only American city where it is, in fact, easy to live car-free regardless of income. It is certainly possible to live without a car elsewhere, but nowhere near as convenient as having one, and typically a signifier of either poverty or privilege.
As a result, New York is the only American city where the majority of households do not own cars, according to Governing magazine, and one of a handful where the average household owns less than one car (two others, Newark and Jersey City, are just outside the city; the others are Washington, D.C., Boston, and Cambridge, MA).
That being said, car ownership rates vary tremendously within the five boroughs, according to a 2018 graphic by the New York City Economic Development Corporation. Where the subway is most prevalent, household car ownership rates are well below 50 percent, with parts of Manhattan as low at 18 percent. But in the far outer boroughs and Staten Island, where the city looks and feels like any other American suburb, most people own cars.
In recent months, the appeal of being car-free in NYC has vanished. The city’s mass transportation system has been actively encouraging people to avoid it if possible, and it’s not clear when that will end. Even once the city’s transit agency stops telling people “do not use the subway or take the bus” except for essential trips, it’s likely most New Yorkers will still be uncomfortable in confined, crowded spaces such as a subway or bus. A recent survey by Washington D.C.’s Metro system found an “overwhelming majority” of former commuters would not use the subway system if offices reopened now because of crowding concerns. At least some cities in China, like Shenzhen and Guangzhou, experienced an increase in rush hour traffic after they re-opened compared to the previous year.
If New Yorkers are afraid of getting back on the subway, it has far-reaching implications for the city’s recovery. New Yorkers use the subways and buses for much more than just commuting. In 2018, the last year for which ridership statistics are available, the average weekend saw about 5.5 million rides on the subway, equal to the average weekday’s ridership. If even a small fraction of those rides were to be replaced with private car trips, the entire city would grind to a maddening halt.
“New York City doesn’t have the space and New Yorkers don’t have the wallets or the lung capacity for a growth in private car usage,” said Transportation Alternatives executive director Danny Harris. “Mayor de Blasio has a once in a generation opportunity to give NYC back to people, their rightful owner. However, he must take immediate action or risk losing our city to cars, again, for the decades to come.”
All that being said, talking about buying cars versus actually buying them are two very different things, and as of now there’s no evidence New Yorkers are buying cars in droves. The best measure for such a trend would be car registrations with the Department of Motor Vehicles, but the most recent data set that breaks it down to the county level is from 2018. In any event, the DMV has been closed due to the pandemic, so new car buyers are using temporary dealer tags.
As a result, it’s hard to analyze New York City car buying trends without that data beyond the anecdotal. Many New Yorkers buy their cars in neighboring counties or states where there are more dealers and often better prices. Data from the sales platform Foureyes, which works with car dealerships, shows new and used vehicle sales at franchise dealers in the New York metro area slowly recovering to pre-pandemic levels, but still well below the beginning of March.
On top of that, the current shutdown has completely halted private used vehicle sales, such as through Craigslist, because new owners cannot register their cars with the DMV. Plus, the general difficulty of going out and shopping for cars right now, both through dealers and in private markets, means lots of people like Gordon are likely shopping around online, but haven’t acted on it yet. In these heady days where the city is still under lockdown, all we can do is sit and think about what comes next.
Still, there is some evidence that, unless something changes, there will be a dramatic increase in New Yorkers buying cars. Tom McParland, the owner of Automatch Consulting who helps people buy cars, told me he has seen a surge in New Yorkers looking to buy “escape pods.” (Full disclosure: McParland is also a contributing writer at the automotive and transportation website Jalopnik, where I used to work.) The sample size is small, but in the first two weeks of May, McParland has had 23 new customers, half of them from New York City. That’s roughly double the rate of new customers from the city he typically sees.
McParland says buyers generally split into two camps: those looking for “moderately priced” luxury vehicles in the $40,000-$60,000 range, and buyers looking to scrape the low end of the market and just get a car for as little as possible. The former group have generally been on the fence about getting a car for some time and coronavirus pushed them over, and they're looking to lease. The latter group are first-time buyers who were not considering buying a car until recently, but now are looking to buy used.
Gordon fits firmly within the latter group. “I never thought I would be thinking about this as long as I lived in the city,” he confessed. But, things have changed in ways none of us could have imagined just a few months ago.
Gordon and his wife started talking about buying a car because, with a 10 year old daughter and a seven year old son, they need to think about what living in the city looks like without consistent access to public transportation.
“We have been talking to friends who have cars and are taking day trips to parks or beaches,” Gordon said, “and that seems very attractive.”
Gordon knows better than anyone that the battle for NYC street space is at a critical juncture. Not only are New Yorkers thinking of buying cars, so too are they buying bicycles in unprecedented numbers. The city faces a choice: does it try to make it as easy and safe as possible to bike to work, or does it try to maximize throughput for cars? It cannot do both, and the choice it makes will push people either inside a car, onto a bike, or out of the city.
I asked Gordon if the car is a starter purchase for leaving New York altogether. He was quick to add he has no plans to, but he gets why people would. The appeal of paying “too much money” for a two bedroom apartment with two kids, compared to a four or five bedroom in the suburbs, is that it comes with New York City. “It comes with a playground a block from us with a sprinkler [the kids] can use on hot days and museums and buses and subways we can take. But if all that contracts and we’re only left with our tiny apartment, it does become a different discussion about what we’re doing here and how we’re going to live.”
“So yeah,” he summarized, in a perfect encapsulation of how all of our thought processes evolve minute to minute, day by day in a time where we have no idea what’s next. “Maybe the car comes first.”
Correction: a previous version of this article said all of McParland's buyers were looking to lease. Only the luxury car buyers want to lease.