The Unnervingly Easy Experience of Driving in New York City Right Now

The Unnervingly Easy Experience of Driving in New York City Right Now


A late morning drive down Fifth Avenue, starting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the lanes are normally choked with inching traffic, now passes by almost impossibly quickly. Glance down at the speedometer, and you might miss Rockefeller Center.

The notorious F.D.R. Drive along the East River, prone to random standstills throughout its long stretch, like clogs in an old drain, now feels more like a Grand Theft Auto game. The city’s landmarks — the United Nations, the Brooklyn Bridge, the South Street Seaport and its tall ships — flit past like billboards in the country.

The coronavirus has transformed the experience of operating a motor vehicle in the city. It has accomplished what years of debates over road improvements and congestion pricing and toll increases could not.

With no office to go to or friends to visit, and facing stern orders to stay home and stay safe, the vast majority of regular drivers have left their vehicles idle, creating something altogether new: open road, miles and miles of it.

It cannot last, of course; nature abhors a vacuum, and so does the West Side Highway. Drivers are already experiencing an increase in traffic from a month ago, with much more to follow as people venture out of quarantine, wary of public transportation.

But for now, an emptiness remains. No gridlock, no rush hour. Just numbers rolling over on the odometer, the spring afternoon flitting past the window, the smartphone map showing very little yellow or red.

The experience of driving those roads can be unsettling. It’s a very pleasant surprise, until you remember what brought it about, at what cost.

Driving through the city means always being on high alert, watchful for other cars, bicycles, joggers and roadwork. An outing behind the wheel the other day, with most of those things absent, felt unexpectedly intense — furtive and fraught. People who do it for a living said their days felt different.

“I’m flying into the city, honestly,” said Aaron Corpora, 24, a driver for Procter & Gamble who was taking a break in Chinatown on Wednesday, ahead of schedule. “My commute time has gone from at least 50 minutes a day to almost half.” He spoke of a recent journey in his white van the way Han Solo describes the Millennium Falcon: “67th Street to Houston in, like, 12 minutes — I felt like I was walking on air.”

This is not the everyday experience before quarantine, when 12 minutes might get you a block or two, and when moving the car for street cleaning could feel like a part-time job. The New York City driver has long been a caricature, red-faced with aggravation and the exertion of hurling four-letter accusations, retorts and Bronx salutes, all while sitting ironically motionless.

Traffic data confirms the view out the windshield. The number of vehicles passing through the city’s tunnels and toll bridges has been cut by almost half, from 920,018 on March 5 to 482,490 on May 12, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

At the same time, the average speed of vehicles has increased. In midtown, according to the city’s transportation department, the speed has nearly doubled, from 6.8 miles per hour on March 12 to 12.7 on Monday.

On the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, where the flow of traffic tended to resemble a busy parking lot and rush-hour speeds averaged 13 miles per hour in 2019, speeds rose to an eye-popping 52 miles per hour in late March and early April, according to INRIX, a transportation analytics company.

Newer numbers suggest that traffic is again on the rise, perhaps because New Yorkers who fear the virus are avoiding mass transit.

The average rush-hour speed on the B.Q.E. has dropped to 25 miles per hour, owing to an increase in traffic or roadwork, or both. The number of violations registered by the city’s speed cameras, which had more than doubled at the start of the lockdown, has begun to fall, suggesting that cars are slowly returning and slowing down.

The upward trend could be the start of a traffic nightmare — a preview of a population that won’t use the subways, causing widespread congestion and increases in pollution and health risks. The city’s longstanding efforts to improve air quality would be immediately reversed if too many people switch to cars.

But right now, a drive through the nearly empty streets can bring new sights and double takes.

A lone man played drums on plastic barrels in front of the Plaza, the sound echoing down Fifth Avenue. The windows of bars, Irish or otherwise, are still decorated with shamrocks and leprechauns for the St. Patrick’s Day that found them closed. A sign in the door of Luna Ristorante on Mulberry Street read, “No Money Inside.”

In Brooklyn, turn a corner and see a line of people standing six feet apart and still as stone, masked, awaiting permission to enter Whole Foods. The once laughable — New Yorkers waiting patiently in quiet, complaint-free lines, without a velvet rope or celebrity chef in sight — is now the everyday.

It could also seem that, with traffic gone, so too was basic human awareness of traffic. Several times over the course of a few hours, pedestrians wandered or lurched into the street with cars approaching. A man in a tweed coat pedaled a Citi Bike blithely through a red light without a glance at the vehicle approaching to his left.

The screaming sirens of emergency vehicles, practically constant a month ago, are less so now, but no less urgent, with other vehicles quicker to get out of an ambulance’s way than before.

Mr. Corpora, the van driver, uses a familiar comparison in these times when describing his work to friends.

“Post-apocalyptic,” he said. “You’re flying down 278 and there’s no one there and it’s four o’clock in the afternoon.”

Street parking is plentiful in neighborhoods where it was normally scarce. Just pull up to your destination and hop out, like a detective in a cop show.

“Nobody on the roads,” said Jean-Marc Henry, a delivery worker for FedEx at an address on East Broadway on Wednesday. He makes his rounds “more quickly, more easily,” he said, but his workday hasn’t shortened.

“Now,” he said, “we have more packages.”

Videos by Michael Wilson and Meg Felling



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