Driving in New York City: Pros, Cons and Alternatives for Travelers

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driving in nyc
Do you have what it takes to drive around NYC? These tips will help. Photo credit: Judy Antell

Driving in NYC is not for the faint-hearted. The traffic, the narrow streets, the impatient and angry drivers, inscrutable street parking, and possibility of getting stuck in the middle of an intersection – plus pedestrians, cyclists and delivery people on e-bikes, mopeds and scooters jumping in front of you – can cause a meltdown. Have I mentioned that turning right on red is illegal? But drivers gotta drive and if you decide to drive here, you need these survival tips.

New York City is ideal for a family vacation in so many ways that you might not mind the nightmare of driving. From the Statue of Liberty to Broadway shows, to the museums, zoos and botanic gardens throughout the five boroughs, there is much to explore. Don’t forget all the fun free things to do in NYC with kids. Public transportation can take you almost anywhere, but if you prefer to drive, there are special considerations.

One of the most important things to know about is a special law. Don’t make a right turn on red. It’s illegal in New York City.

Also, if you have a green light, but you can’t clear the intersection because of traffic, don’t “block the box.” You can get a ticket for impeding the flow of traffic. And drivers of cars that you’ve blocked will be honking and cursing at you. This can be very intimidating for you and your family.

Before piling into the car, read these tips for driving in NYC. They just might save your sanity – and your car. And read this to find out the one time you never, ever want to drive in NYC!

Related: 21 Great NYC Hotels for Families

Driving in NYC can be challenging. Are you up for it?
One advantage of taking a road trip to NYC – all that quality family time. Photo credit: Judy Antell

1. Driving in NYC: Don’t do it

We get it. You want to drive the family to the city. It’s expensive to fly, and you can drive there in less time than it takes to get to the airport, fly, etc. Plus, you can bring your dog more easily if you are driving. So go ahead. Pack the kids, grandma, and Fido in the car and drive to New York City. But once you get here, park the car and walk. For longer trips around the city, use the subways, bike share, buses or Uber. Not only is it more convenient, you often pay more for parking than for other modes of transportation. Plus, there are tolls on many bridges, and congestion pricing (surcharges during peak in-demand hours) will soon add tolls to drivers throughout much of Manhattan.

2. Watch for Green Lights

You didn’t listen, did you? OK, so now you’re driving around the city. Make sure you’re firing on all cylinders. Watch the lights so the second you get a green light, you hit the gas. Otherwise, the guy behind you is plowing into your bumper.

Driving in NYC
Have you taken your dog to the Balto Statue in Central Park? Driving in NYC may be the best way. Photo credit: Judy Antell

3. Watch for Pedestrian Crossings

Be very, very sure about that green light. Don’t look at the walk signal as your cue to proceed. Many intersections (particularly where there have been fatal accidents) have delayed green lights, with timed walk signals so pedestrians can safely cross.

4. Notice People on Bicycles

Always keep your eyes open for people on scooters, people crossing mid-street with dogs, people texting while walking, bikers texting while riding, bikers walking dogs AND texting while riding. Really, you need to be on high alert at all times.

There are more and more bicycle lanes around the city. But many bikers, particularly those on e-bikes, prefer to speed around cars. So check and double-check for bikers.

5. Driving in NYC Means Parking in NYC

Parking here is a whole different animal. The last time you parallel parked may have been when you took your driving test. You might want to refresh your skills at home before trying it on the busy streets. For an added challenge, some street parking is next to a bike lane, and you have to cross the bike traffic to park.

Even at places with parking, like Citifield, where the Mets play baseball, the Bronx Zoo or the New York Aquarium in Brooklyn, you will be competing with aggressive New Yorkers as you inch in and out of parking lots. The price you pay to park here might not be worth the aggravation.

Are you up for the challenge of driving in NYC?
You wouldn’t know if from the number of people standing in the street, but this an actual roadway where cars are technically allowed to drive. Proceed carefully. Photo credit: Judy Antell

6. Parking and Driving in NYC

Even as a seasoned NYC driver, I occasionally make a rookie mistake. For example, parking too close to a traffic signal. Here’s the scenario: I saw a spot two cars from the corner. I was driving a Chevy Traverse, and needed room to swing out when I backed up. No one would give me an inch. At a red light, the guy behind me wouldn’t budge so I could park. At a green light, drivers came right up on my tail and honked and screamed. Have I mentioned that I was signaling to park and had my reverse lights on? It took four light cycles before I could safely park.

Pulling out of the spot? Equally challenging. If you can, park mid-block. Parking is a blood sport in New York, much like spectacles in the Roman Colosseum. Even exiting a parking garage can be terrifying (see pedestrians, cyclists, etc, above).

Have you tried parking in NYC?
Sure, the sunset is pretty. But note the car parking on the left. It has to cross the bike path. Photo credit: Judy Antell

7. Evaluate Your Car’s Safety Features

When driving in NYC, you might think you need eyes in the back of your head. But a suite of safety features can make life easier. That blind spot detector? Vital when a car comes out of nowhere and rides your tail. Cross-traffic alert? Equally important.

However, those cars that beep when you are trying to park and are too close to another car? Friend, EVERY time you park you will be too close to another car. It’s the nature of the beast. If you can, disable the audio.

8. Protect Those Side View Mirrors

Always, always, always fold in your side view mirrors when driving in NYC (after you turn off the car!).

If you are parked on the street, you may think the curbside mirror is safe from damage. You may also be paying for a new side-view mirror during your trip. Bikers, skateboarders and pedestrians claim that little space between your car and the curb. Why not protect your mirror? Just remember to fold the mirrors back out before you drive away.

9. Leave Nothing in the Car

In the 1980s, we used to take our car radio with us when we got out of the car. Now, people leave phone chargers and expensive sunglasses in cars, all ripe for the taking. I once parked my brother’s car in a garage and his cup holder of change was taken. So, when you’re driving in NYC, be sure to hide or remove your valuables.

Judy Antell is an empty-nester mother of 3 who spends a lot of time visiting her daughters. Why don’t they live in Brooklyn? Judy and her husband love to travel, by bike, car, or plane, whether to see their kids or have friend or couple adventures, mostly centered around vegetarian food.
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3 responses

  1. We are driving from DC to Boston and want to stop for a day in New York City. We will be driving a rental van and will have our luggage—and it will be visible. Is there a safe place to park our car for the day while we use public transportation? Could we park at the airport or a reputable hotel and feel confident that our luggage will be safe?

  2. Great tips! And I appreciate all advice, but I’ll stick to the first one – don’t do it. I live in Amsterdam, which is probably 10x smaller than NYC and it’s chaos! I refuse to drive in the city center so it will not be different in NY next month.

    1. I’m amazed how all the bikes & cars co-exist in Amsterdam. Since you’re flying here, no need for you to drive in the city. Enjoy your trip!

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