Learning to Drive in Manhattan

Down these mean streets he came, determined to master the skills required to operate an automobile

Aug 30 2019 | 01:00 PM

Learning to Drive in Manhattan

Down these mean streets he came, determined to master the skills required to operate an automobile

By Oscar Kim Bauman

While learning to drive is considered a rite of passage to most young Americans, to myself and many of my New Yorker peers, it’s often not given a thought. Despite the frequency with which we complain about unreliable MTA service, said service makes driving unnecessary when traversing most parts of the city. During high school, I don’t recall a single one of my friends getting their driver’s license. A few who lived in Queens, past the end of the subway lines, got learner’s permits, but that was about it. Then came college.

Like most of my peers, I left New York for college, taking the opportunity to get to know another part of the country. For me, that was Worcester, Massachusetts, home to my school, Clark University. While the city of Worcester has public transit of its own, in the form of buses, transit lines are not nearly as accessible or pervasive as they are in New York, particularly my native Manhattan. In my first year at Clark, I found myself spending an unseemly sum on Lyft rides to get around the city.

College was also the first time my social circle ceased to consist entirely of New Yorkers. For my friends from other, less urban regions, driving was a fact of life. Many had possessed licenses since the age of 16. At the age of 19, I suddenly felt embarrassed for not having even tried, and resolved to get a driver’s license of my own.

Beyond the freedom to travel within Worcester, driving would mean greater freedom in coming to and from home. Without the ability to drive, my ability to return home is entirely dependent on the scheduling whims of commercial bus lines. If I was able to drive, I would be able to ferry myself home on my own schedule, rather than risk another afternoon spent waiting in vain at a transit terminal for a delayed bus.

The Quest Begins

Upon my return to New York for summer break, my quest to learn to drive began. After a week spent poring over every page of the driver’s manual, I took a trip down to the DMV, in my case, the Financial District location. After confusion over whether I was allowed to smile in my photograph (my friends had told me they were forbidden, but the photographer I met implored me to), I sat before a touchscreen to take the brief quiz which stood between me and a learner's permit.

I tore through the quiz in a couple minutes. The questions, which I had feared would feature technical, obscure rules of road use and right-of-way laws, instead mostly boiled down to much simpler ones, which merely required that I remember it is not a wise idea to drink and drive. The man who had been seated next to me later told me that he thought I had given up on the quiz at first, given the speed at which I stood up after starting.

Behind the Wheel At Last

My permit was acquired, and it was time to begin driving lessons. I met my first instructor near Union Square on a crowded street on an intensely hot July day. Given my complete inexperience, he took the wheel as we went over to a quiet stretch of Avenue D to begin practicing. Between my instructor’s calm demeanor and the sweet relief of the car’s air conditioning, I felt I had lucked out.

Driving in lower Manhattan is, to a newcomer, an intense experience, with numerous vehicular ecosystems. Alphabet City is more quiet, while the East Village and the area around Union Square is congested, with honking to be heard all around. The West Village, with its irregularly-arranged streets, cobblestone streets, and frequent stop signs, is the greatest challenge, and resulted in many uses of my instructor’s auxiliary brake.

A Bump in the Road

A few weeks and many, many emails later, I realized that I had been overly ambitious. It would be impossible for me to take a road test, and thus get my license before I was to return to college at the end of August. Instead, I resigned to take my road test during a long weekend I plan to spend at home in October.

Before heading back, I reported for my mandatory five-hour pre-licensing course. The instructor informed us that road tests are not even held in the areas I had been practicing in; Manhattan driving is apparently considered unfairly challenging, and thus only the outer boroughs are used. This, I thought, made sense.