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