One’s Inner SUV Driver

SUV.jpg 

This is the third essay from Alex Marshall, who has written extensively on transportation issues as a journalist and author. He is a senior fellow at the Regional Plan Association, where he edits the bi-weekly Spotlight on the Region newsletter.

"All SUV drivers are assholes," I’ve frequently found myself thinking as I face the grille of a Cadillac Escalade while crossing a street on foot or from the perch of my bicycle seat. Why would anyone drive such a vehicle in New York City, hardly a brutal wilderness calling for four-wheel drive? They sure don’t need the space to haul a load of firewood.

It’s undeniable that SUVs make life difficult for the rest of us street dwellers, simply by virtue of their sheer size. Their height impinges on the sight lines of everyone, even other drivers. And because SUV drivers can’t see as well themselves — the action is literally too far below them — they are more dangerous.

But I try to keep an open mind. Who’s an asshole depends on where one sits, and to the SUV drivers, I’m probably the asshole, darting in front of them on my bike like a pesky gnat they would like to swat away, while they are trying to savor another sip of coffee.

I am served a dose of humility when I remember my experience with strollers. Before having a child myself, I would chafe at the legions of "stroller people," as my now wife and I called them, who took up all the sidewalk space on the Upper West Side, using their child carriers like battering rams to get ahead of the pack. I swore not to become one of them.

But now, with toddler, I have an SUV-style stroller, the very type I swore never to have. Why? Because, well, it’s necessary for various reasons I won’t go into now. And frankly, when I’m trying to get around with my kid and worrying about the hundreds of things parents worry about, I probably crowd out some humble pedestrians with nary a second thought.

So, as the "asshole" thought creeps into my head when I’m out on the streets, I think that maybe there are good reasons to drive an SUV in New York City. I should ask them. And I’m trying.

To nudge my consciousness toward more openness, I’ve been attempting for the past few weeks to interview SUV drivers. But I’ve been unable to catch one yet. I’ve found that that brief minute we have while waiting at a traffic light together is not enough to do a good interview. And so far I’ve not been able to catch a driver in that crucial interval when they are exiting their car and might have a few minutes to talk.

The statistics on SUV purchasing suggest some answers, though. Although I had trouble finding a fresh set on the web, what I remember from a few years ago is that consumer charts showed that people in Manhattan actually bought SUVs at twice the rate of the average American. This makes little sense, given the lack of practical need for an SUV in a dense urban city, until you remember that Manhattanites are rich. And then it snaps into place.

SUVs have become the key signifiers of status. They have little if anything to do with struggling up a slippery dirt road using four-wheel drive. For various reasons, perhaps fitting in with my previous musings about American’s inclination for domination and armor, SUVs signify that one has been able to remove him or herself from the troubles of the masses walking, bicycling or even driving below them.

But hey, I could be wrong. I promise to report back here about the answers SUV drivers give as to why they drive their vehicles in our grid of streets, while, inadvertently I’m sure, making life difficult for the rest of us.

Photo: Jason Varone

  • Spud Spudly

    My friend who just traded in his Acura SUV for a new Lexus SUV says he drives them because they’re safer. Can you believe that? What a joke. Yeah, they’re safer if you get into a head-on collision — but in the mean time you’re more likely to get into a collision in the first place, you’re more likely to flip over in an accident, and you’re more likely to die when you have an accident. People think that head-on collisions with other vehicles are the predominant type of accident, but they’re not. You’re much more likely to just lose control and have a one-car accident than to ever get hit head-on, espcially in an SUV.

    I think he just has a small winky.

  • cyclist

    I don’t get the wealth thing. There are so many more cars (Benz, Aston Martin, Porsche, etc etc) that demand a higher status that a $40k Tahoe.

    I’m a victim of these thing’s poor sightlines. I was mowed down by a guy blasting through a right turn without even looking. I have to wonder if this changed my status from nuisance to victim in the driver’s eyes. I honestly do not know.

  • Alex:

    I think Spud is right but to test it, make sure you ask about the “winky” factor.

  • d

    For great statistics on why people purchase SUVs, the psychological reasons behind the urge to own one, and the real numbers on safety, I recommend the book “High and Mighty” by Keith Bradsher.

    Your comparisons to the feelings generated by giant strollers are amusing, but there’s one huge difference: our men in women in uniform aren’t fighting a war in the Middle East for your right to push a Bugaboo. There might be a psychological equivalent between the “need” to buy a big stroller and the “need” to buy a big truck, but there is no moral equivalent.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    I hope at some point you will go into the reasons why you thought it was necessary to buy an “SUV-type” stroller. I think that will help with the understanding.

    When my wife was pregnant, we specifically looked for the lightest, most foldable stroller. The salespeople at Buy Buy Baby told us that “umbrella strollers” are not recommended for babies under six months, because they don’t have enough head and neck support. So we bought the Graco Citilite, which seems to have been superseded by the Metrolite.

    I always found the stroller awkward and difficult to maneuver, and carried my son in a sling whenever I could. My wife used a Baby Bjorn. As soon as our son was six months old, we bought an umbrella stroller, and we used that whenever we could. The Citilite was useful in the cold and the rain and for long trips, and my wife used it to bring our son along when she went shopping. After he outgrew the sling and the Bjorn, I gave him the opportunity to walk whenever I could, and carried him on my shoulders, using the stroller as a last resort.

    Why did we do this? In part because I’ve just never enjoyed pushing the stroller around, and in part because I wanted my son to be closer to me and to eye level when he was younger, and on his feet interacting with the world when he was a toddler. But also because I’ve had the same experience of being stuck behind a stroller on a sidewalk or on subway stairs, and I didn’t want to be one of those parents.

    We noticed that a lot of other parents never fold the strollers or carry them, in part because they’ve got so much stuff in them. That’s a side of car ownership, as well, that isn’t much talked about in these circles: if you have a car, you tend to keep a lot of stuff in it, and if you’re separated from the car you lose access to the stuff. Conversely, if you want to bring that stuff along without a car, you have to carry it, and keep an eye on it. Big strollers are similar: people throw all their stuff in there, and are reluctant to carry it in a diaper bag.

    I’m really not saying this to be “holier than thou,” only to point out the fact that, just like an SUV, stroller type is largely a matter of choice, not necessity. Of course, our society tends to guide parents towards the ownership of big, unwieldy strollers in the same way that it guides them towards the ownership of SUVs.

  • Christian

    Before people yell at me, let me preface by saying I don’t own an SUV and can’t stand driving them… that being said, there are a couple of reasons I could see people buying them in the city.

    1. Besides the gigantic ones (Tahoe and up) they’re often shorter than an equivalent car. Look at taxis, the Escape is way shorter than a Crown Vic, makes them easier to squeeze into parking spots. Think Rav4, etc.

    2. The offroad capability. While they don’t go off road NYC has some of the worst roads in any developed country that I’ve ever seen, I even saw a BUS get swallowed by a pothole on Madison once.

    Just playing devil’s advocate.

  • it seems that many parents feel an SUV is “necessary” so that their kids will be safe in an accident. only recently i heard a an expectant father say matter-of-factly that he would soon have to trade his compact car for an SUV, as though not doing so would be irresponsible.

    the problem is, there is truth in this. when almost everyone else is driving a massive hulk of a vehicle, it DOES become unsafe to drive a smaller one. and even if high gas prices create a future trend toward americans buying smaller cars (which sadly does not seem to be happening on any tangible basis in NYC), it will take a LONG time to reverse the current SUV-heavy mix.

  • pal

    your stroller analogy makes zero sense. strollers are useful and they aren’t dangerous. you dislike suvs for different and legit reasons so why relate them? what the f–k are you talking about?

  • Spud Spudly

    That’s not really true, Anne. Yes, you are safer in a hulking SUV if you happen to hit another vehicle at a certain angle. Certainly if I’m going to get crushed by an Escalade I’d rather be in an Escalade myself. But the percentage of overall accidents where you’re safer in an SUV is relatively small.

    You’re more likely to get in an accident in the first place with an SUV as they don’t handle or brake well — I know that in a Prius I can drive circles around almost any SUV, I can brake faster, I can swerve better and I can avoid more accidents. You’re more likely to get into a one-car accident with an SUV, and when you do you’re more likely to roll over and die. You’re more likely to roll over if you lose control and skid out. Those barriers that are supposed to keep you from flying off the road? Well, all they do is trip up a sliding SUV and send it tumbling. And the sightlines that you’re blocking make it more likely that the person behind you will rearend you.

    The problem is that people perceive that they’re safer in an SUV even when they’re not, because people only think about car-on-car collisions and not the accidents that occur most often in real life. My friend with the new Lexus SUV has two kids and enough money to buy pretty much anything. His family would be safer in a nice Lexus sedan, but he doesn’t see it that way.

    Plus, he’s kind of short. 🙂

  • Not sure if this has been posted before, but check out this article from The New Yorker on why people buy SUVs.

    http://www.gladwell.com/2004/2004_01_12_a_suv.html

  • Dave

    “Because, well, it’s necessary for various reasons I won’t go into now.”
    Uh, if the “SUV stroller” analogy is your main tool for exploring people’s motivations for owning SUV’s, but you can’t actually go into the reasons you bought an SUV stroller, then doesn’t that make this entire post pretty much empty and thus pointless? Or am I missing something?

  • Steve

    Many of the parents at my son’s school drive SUVs. When they see us pull up on our bikes they spontaneously begin explaining why they drive them. The reasons they most often give are that the SUV makes it easier to ship stuff back and forth between the country house and/or Fairway on 125th Street, and the feeling of greater safety they get from added armor and being higher off the ground than other vehicles. Some also stress the light truck tax deduction and/or the general pleasure of driving a high-power luxury vehicle. In general, the SUVs signify detachment from the urban environment–detachment from the rest of the traffic which is lower to the ground, detachment from the general mass of car owners who can’t afford to buy (and, of course, off-street park) a luxury SUV, and detachment from the city itself as the imaginary unpaved roads out to the Hamptons beckon. The Fairway option and tax deduction are cited to make the SUV seem like a “thrifty” option, but that notion is preposterous given gas and off-street parking rates. Aside from the anti-urban realities of the SUV–they generate more pollution, congestion, and traffic safety risk for the rest of us than smaller vehicles–they seem to be the main prop in fundamentally anti-urban narrative playing inside the owners’ heads. (Of course, I can’t deny that on another, arguably hegemonic level, parading “what you’ve got” by tooling around in an SUV is very NYC.)

    Angus is dead on with his stroller/SUV analogy. Parents opt for the big stroller based on hype about safety and a desire to use it as a pushcart for objects, but they forget that their kid is not an object. “Stroller babies” are cut off from their environment (and their parents) compared to those in slings or walking, often to their developmental disadvantage. My impression is that kids who are carried and then allowed to walk at 1+ y/o develop earlier and superior gross motor, perceptual and social skills, compared to the limp-necked, zoned-out “stroller babies” of 2 and even 3 years of age that abound in some parts of Manhattan. Some parents don’t have the time to get where they are going at a 2-3 year old’s pace, but there are plenty of parents who do (or who pay nannies who do), and yet still rely on the stroller because it’s easier and quicker. This ignores the benefits of a slower and more contextual form of transport, just like driving an SUV in the city.

  • Sarah Goodyear

    As for SUV safety, a newly released study found that “two-thirds of pickups, vans and sport-utility vehicles don’t provide acceptable protection against whiplash in rear-end collisions, according to tests by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).”

    More about the study can be found at: http://money.cnn.com/2007/07/02/autos/whiplash/index.htm?postversion=2007070305

  • From Mike K.’s link: “internal industry market research concluded that S.U.V.s tend to be bought by people who are insecure, vain, self-centered, and self-absorbed, who are frequently nervous about their marriages, and who lack confidence in their driving skills.”

    Ouch!

  • Gwin

    I ride my bike to work on most days and I have to say that SUVs and car service vehicles are by far the most inconsiderate drivers out there.

    The thing about SUVs is that they have incredibly powerful motors that give the driver a sense of infallibility. They tend to drive faster as a result and are less careful of other cars, pedestrians, and cyclists. That’s why you hear about accidents involving SUVs so often.

    And oh yeah – I see a lot of SUV drivers talking on their cellphones too — much more so than in regular cars.

    So, in short: fuck SUVs in NYC! This isn’t the wilderness, and most people do NOT use the “utility” aspect of these machines. As Alex said, it’s a status thing – but I’m hoping more and more people will be struck with “SUV shame” as they realize what tools they are for owning one.

  • Hilary Kitasei

    Forgive me for inserting the same point so often, but here it is again.

    NYC has a powerful potential disincentive for these cars-in-trucks-clothing and that is its regulatory power over who can use its parkways. If the worst models were banned from using these roads because we classify them as trucks, they would disappear over night (especially with congestion pricing coming making the FDR, Harlem River Drive and 9A the free bypass!)

    By the way, there’s one other reason for why people buy these behemoths – remember that $10,000 tax deduction? So here’s a chance for NYC to assert rare leverage over state and federal ninkompoopism (sp?). Why not?

  • Hilary Kitasei

    I always say a good point bears repetition…

  • Roadkill

    Ok, on Friday let’s check the Weekly Carnage entries and see how many accidents involve SUVs.

  • kidmobile

    I think people buy fancy strollers for the same reason they buy fancy SUVs; to let everyone else know that they have money or status. In Manhattan, your friends and neighbors are probably more likely to see you pushing your stroller than driving your car (hopefully), so then it becomes important to have an expensive and/or rare stroller (Bugaboos are so 2006, after all). I do think that some parents who might have bought a minivan ten years ago are now buying SUVs instead, mostly for not-so-good reasons (particularly given that they tend to be much less space efficient). But you also have more selection of SUVs than minivans, since many car companies are getting out of the minivan market. Of course, that presupposes that you need a car at all.

    On the other hand, I don’t think that parents who put their children in strollers should be characterized as lazy, evil people who want their children to be stupid and have poor motor skills. We usually go out with both a stroller and a carrier, since our baby often likes the change of scenery that comes with switching from one to the other. And sometimes they need a place to rest or sleep (If I’m on the subway, I’d rather have a quiet baby in a stroller than a screaming baby in a carrier). That said, the SUV stroller thing is a little out of control, and there are plenty of small strollers that can handle NYC sidewalks.

    Can’t wait until they start putting air bags on strollers…

  • Steve

    kidmobile, didn’t mean to label anyone lazy or evil. But IMHO parents who want the best for their kids and should worry less about control, safety, germs and speed and walk the city streets with their kids as much as possible. It is so important for young kids to have some degree of volition and direct experience of their environment, and strollers (and car seats) minimize those.

  • Music Man

    have to admit it’s absolutely true about what’s allowed on the bridges and parkways. I’m a musician in Westchester and drive in for gigs 4-5 times a week. I got an escalade with dark windows rather than a windowless van so I can go anywhere – even commercial plates with free parking privileges wouldn’t make up for the road restriction. as it is suvs can be taken anywhere. the day they cant is the day i trade it for something else.

  • Matt H

    I had a brief interview with an SUV driver. (Ford Explorer, I think) a few weeks ago. This was at the intersection of 106th and West End (sw corner of Strauss Park)– my wife and I were riding eastbound, preparing to make a left onto broadway, and were thus near the double-yellow line.

    The SUV pulls up to our right and eases into the crosswalk, inconveniencing a pedestrian who has to go around the hulking thing.

    I shout something along the lines of “No right turn on red in New York City”. The SUV’s wheels aren’t turned, though, I realize; I knock on the left passenger door to get the driver’s attention. He rolls down the window:

    Me: “Why are you in the crosswalk?”
    Him: “Well, why are you out in the middle of the road. Bikes are supposed to be ON THE RIGHT.”
    Me: “I’m preparing to make the left turn up ahead.”
    Him: “Well, the law is to ride TO THE RIGHT, near the curb. That’s the law, you know.” [giving the vague impression that he was current or former law enforcement]

    I gently shook my head and let him roll the window back up. Maybe he was inspired to look up the law later. (I was right, of course.)

    My wife hates it when I do things like this. On the balance, she’s right; I don’t know quite what good it’ll do.

    Matt

  • Fred

    Well i just purchased a 2008 Ford xlt and i love it. So there.Of course i do not live in Manhatten, who would?
    You people need to get a sense of humour.you are way to serious.

  • JimmyC

    I was wondering if anyone out there can help me with some information? I am trying to get some reports on how many, and the locations of accidents involving SUV’s were on September 18, 2006. My son Joshua David Crouch aka LEFTist was killed at the crosswalk of West 12 Street and West Street. By all accounts, there is a disappearing then re-appearing SUV. A first responder say’s there was an SUV involved but the Assistant District Attorney made him change his mind saying, “That was a different accident” (or as my friend Rachael say’s, “crash site”) and I was wondering if anyone can help in telling me how many crashes happened that early morning involving an SUV?
    Sincerely,
    JimmyC
    Josh’s dad

  • anagram

    SUV addicts’ answers here, confirming everybody else’s worst suspicions: http://www.askmen.com/top_10/cars_200/227_car_list.html

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