Skip to Content
Streetsblog New York City home
Streetsblog New York City home
Log In
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

Stay in touch

Sign up for our free newsletter

More from Streetsblog New York City

Bike Rack Saves Pedestrians in Crash on Busy Brooklyn Street

The white Hyundai involved in the crash has been nabbed 10 times by city speed- and red-light cameras since Oct. 10, 2023, city records show.

July 22, 2024

Map: How Did Community Boards Vote on ‘City of Yes’ Housing Plan

With most of the community board recommendations in, Streetsblog mapped where residents are saying "yes" to more housing and less parking.

July 22, 2024

What a Surprise! Hochul’s Congestion Pricing Pause Helps Rich Suburban Drivers

Gov. Hochul's "little guys" certainly have big wallets. Meanwhile, the rest of us suffer with declining subway service and buses that are slower than walking. Thanks, Kathy.

July 22, 2024

Monday’s Headlines: Congestion Kamala Edition

My guess is that everyone is going to be talking about President Harris today, but don't blow off the livable streets news, which overlaps.

July 22, 2024

Friday’s Headlines: Hochul’s Fantasy World Edition

The governor has gone off the deep end. Plus other news.

July 19, 2024
See all posts