Category Archives: Transport

Speed bumps

Everything goes so fast in New York. An official city decree in 1967 removed three seconds from every New York minute, meaning that the pace of life is actually 5% quicker than anywhere else in the world (and around 500% quicker than Newark Airport in New Jersey, where every minute spent feels like an eternity). Whether you’re ordering food or having a chat in the corridor, everything seems to be done at breakneck speed. Either that or everybody’s desperate to be in my presence for as little time as possible.

It’s not as if everything in London is slow either. Compared to my upbringing in sleepy Chester (and even sleepier North Wales), London was a veritable Formula OneNASCAR race. After all, even the lunchtime sandwiches are pre-packaged that morning to ensure that you don’t even have to wait for your cheese and pickle sarnie to be made. But nothing can really prepare you for the look of contempt you get from someone in New York if you dare to dawdle over an important life choice. Such as whether to have brown rice or white rice, for instance.

The pace of life in New York means that impatience is an overriding characteristic of a large number of residents of the city. The car horn must be more utiliszed in this city than most places on earth, with a quick blast being all it takes to ensure that drivers get to their eventual destination approximately 0.5 seconds before they would otherwise have done. Such impatience even affects The Special One, who could walk into an empty Starbucks and still be annoyed that the ‘barista’ had the audacity to blink before taking her order.

The need for speed translates onto the subway, as well. Don’t get me wrong, waiting for a train can be more painful than having your wisdom teeth extracted with only a non-alcoholic beer for anaesthetic. But once you’re on an express train, you get the distinct impression that the driver has just remembered that he’s left the iron on at home, and his favourite TV show is about to start. In particular, the run from Union Square to Canal Street on the N train is vaguely reminiscent of Marty McFly’s De Lorean-powered race against time on the streets of Hill Valley. Certainly, I’ve never been at the back of the train, but I assume that fire tracks are left in our wake.

Of course, the problem when you’re a 6ft 2 bloke with about as much balance as a gin-soaked flamingo, standing on a train that’s racing around the bumps and bends of the transport system can be dangerous. Not so much for myself, but for those standing in the immediate vicinity of my size elevens.

Sadly, there’s a dainty open-toe shoe-wearing young lady in the New York metropolitan area who’s almost certainly walking with a pronounced limp this morning.

‘Sorry’ may seem to be the hardest word, but it’s definitely never felt quite so inadequate.

A very British sense of humo(u)r

Crime isn’t funny, I know. But a New York Police Department sign which I saw in a yellow cab on my way home this evening made me laugh out loud. The sign read:

“Reward up to $500.00 for the arrest and conviction of anyone who commits GRAFFITI VANDALISM”

And scrawled underneath that in neat ballpoint penned handwriting?

“Bite me, pigs.”

Cross crossing

This Brit Out Of Water almost became Brit Out Of Water (Deceased) at lunchtime, on an abortive trip to find a new washbag. It would hardly have been the most rock’n’roll way to go out, let’s face it. Some people die in a blazing gun battle, others perish saving the life of others – my family would have been forced to admit that I lost my life in the reckless pursuit of a new holder for my shampoo and shaving gel. Jimmy Dean, I ain’t.

Fortunately, I live to fight another day. That’s despite the efforts of one 4×4 driver as I crossed 8th Avenue. With the white pedestrian sign firmly lit, I marched purposefully across the road, confident in my right to do so. I could see a golden 4×4 approaching, but knew that it would slow down to give way to the striding man ahead of him. But no, instead the arseholedriver put his foot to the metal and raced infront of me, forcing me to jump back rapidly to avoid becoming one of the three pedestrians who are killed on the streets of New York City every week.

It all happened so quickly, I almost didn’t have the chance to angrily mouth “you f**kwit” at him. Almost.

However, to be honest, it wasn’t so much the near-miss that annoyed me.

Whenever I do something wrong, I have the good grace to be a bit sheepish about it. When I didn’t replace the seal in the dishwasher, and the kitchen flooded as a result, I was red-faced and regretful. When I mistakenly pushed in the queueline for a bagel last week, I bowed and scraped with the best of them. Remorse is an admirable quality, one demonstrated by rueful troublemakers the world over.

Not by this particular New York troublemaker, though.

You’d imagine the driver would offer a silent ‘sorry’ as he looked me square in the eye. Maybe a hand in the air to express regret? Perhaps even winding down the window to apologise in person?

But no. Instead all he managed was a steady gaze directly at me, an obnoxious wink, and a smile before speeding off into the distance.

It’s hard to imagine that somebody could be so self-involved to think that causing a pedestrian to jump out of the way is not only something he doesn’t need to have any regret about, but actually something to laugh about and maybe chat to his fratboy mates about over a beer a few hours later. But you learn something every day in New York, it would seem.

Perhaps I’ve misjudged the whole thing, and the wink was actually his attempt to indicate that he wanted more than just a passing lunatic-victim relationship. Who said chivalry was dead?

Taking it personally

I’ve never really understood the appeal of personaliszed car registrations, or vanity plates as I apparently have to call them over here. In the UK, for a start, the rules are so restrictive as to make most of the combinations ridiculously contorted. I can’t particularly understand why anybody would actually want to use their license plate to suggest the word ‘Glasgow’ for instance. But to then pay £1800$3600 for a plate reading ‘GL05 G0W’ seems to be vaguely akin to spending your life savings on a once-in-a-lifetime year-long cruise around the world, only to never get off the boat.

To be fair, I can just about understand getting a reg plate with your initials on it. At least it’s really personalised. But the DVLA – the British equivalent of the DMV – make a lot of cash from the kind of fool who is happy to drive around the city streets proudly displaying his BEL L1E. Personally I’d rather keep my BEL L1E firmly to myself, however difficult that can be sometimes – especially after the excesses of Christmas.

Here in the US, there aren’t quite the same rules about what you can and can’t have on your licence plate. Sure, you can’t have GOD on your plate in New York, while Wikipedia claims that the state of Florida prevents you from using ‘PIMPALA’ (no, I have literally no idea what it means either, so apologies if I’ve accidentally suggested that Floridians have a mass desire for carnal knowledge of shoals of koi carp). But give or take a few exceptions, you can basically do what you like.

But just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

And yes, the driver of the silver Mini driving through Brooklyn this morning with the licence plate ‘LET ME’, I am talking to you. America ‘let you’ have your choice of plate, and that’s what you came up with? And more to the point, what is it that we should we let you do? Eat free ice cream on Fridays? Put the rubbishtrash out? Take a sickie when you know you’ve got an important presentation to make?

There was no need for a ‘zany’ licence plate, you know. All you had to do was ask.

PS Did I mention that you can still nominate blogs in the 2008 Bloggies? Just thought you’d like to know…

All for one

It looks as if the MTA are going to manage to force through their proposed rises in the price of subway tickets, with the protests raining in from all directions (including the New York Post with their forceful and to the point headline “Higher fare – but same lousy service”). Personally I still think the system is as cheap as chips, even if – on occasions – it would be quicker to walk home in a driving blizzard, blindfolded, and on one leg. With an incontinent labrador on your back.

One thing that has always faintly impressed me about the New York system is that wherever possible, the authorities have attempted to make train changes as easy as possible, and you often only have to walk across a platform to get to your next train. Maybe it’s just that Americans generally require a car in order to travel distances greater than twenty yards, but it’s certainly in stark contrast with the London Underground, where changing trains can require a sherpa and a St Bernard dog with a small barrel of brandy around its neck.

The only problem with cross-platform changes is that moment when you get two trains pulling into the station at exactly the same time.

As your train pulls into the platform, the passengers around you gently limber up with a few stretches as they see their opportunity to make a quick change. And inevitably, the straphangers on the train opposite are eyeing your train with the same athletic zeal. As soon as the doors on both trains open, it’s as if some weird vacuum has been created, sucking passengers across the platform at high speed and with no regard for the commuters being sucked in the opposite direction. Within five seconds, the platform resembles the final scenes from Zulu. Although faced with such all out attack, even Michael Caine would have been forced to say “Look chaps, the place is yours, we’re off.”

Actually, what it most reminds me of is a game that we used to play in the school playground, called British Bulldogs. Kids would line up on one side of the yard, run hell-for-leather towards the other side, with other kids attempting to take them out as they ran. With tripping, headlong tackling and kneecapping all allowed (OK, maybe that last one was an exaggeration), it was like legitimized lynching for under 16s. Such were the injuries that came with it that most schools banned it.

Still. I can get to play it every morning these days. Now, where did I put my machete?

Cab chaos

There are some things about New York that I will never get, no matter how hard I try. I won’t be able to understand why police cars regularly block one lane of the Brooklyn Bridge, turning the main route into Manhattan into a car parklot. I struggle to comprehend why there’s a frozen yoghurt store every seventy three yards, and why some New Yorkers seem as obsessed by ice cream when the temperature’s well below freezing as they do when it’s hot and blistering. And if there’s some explanation as to why every New York sports team is about as useful as a one-legged man in an arseass kicking party, then I’d love to hear it.

But if there’s one thing above all others that I just don’t understand, it’s why all New York cabs go off duty between 4pm and 5pm.

Don’t get me wrong, I realise that cabs need to get back to the garage so that they can switch drivers and end shifts. But for the love of all that is good and righteous, why does every last cab have to do it at the same time?

Standing on the corner of 9th Avenue and 23rd St today in order to get a taxi to JFK, I waited for about 45 minutes for a cab that didn’t have its ‘off duty’ sign lit proudly on its roof. An occasional taxi returning home or to base would ask if I was going in his direction, but otherwise the streets didn’t have a single cab available to take passengers. And all at 4.30pm on a Friday night, a time when it could be argued there’s more than a few people around with a desire to get somewhere fast.

Did I mention it was snowing?

If Mayor Bloomberg has any pretensions of being President, and wants to show that he’s a common sense man-of-the-people, here’s one idea to get every New Yorker on side: stagger the times at which cabs go off-duty. It’s not a Nobel Prize winning-idea – it’s just common sense. Then there’s plenty enough cabs to go round for everybody, and I won’t be stuck on street corners wondering if I’m ever going to get to Old Trafford by 3pm on Saturday.

Who said that Brits don’t know how to tip?

Jostling for room

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the smallest blokeguy in the world. I’m no John Goodman, but nor am I a devout exponent of heroin chic. And most days, I’m happy with that. Especially in America, where as I’ve said before, I’m sometimes able to feel like a particularly skinny catwalk model.

But when it’s cold – and bloody hell is it cold right now – and everybody is bulked up with coats, jumperssweaters, scarves, liberal coatings of whale blubber etc, there’s just a whole lot less room in this already-packed city.

And nowhere is that more true than on the subway. Where in summer each carriage holds numbers in excess of the population of a medium-sized African nation, the heightened physical bulk of all travellers in winter means that you’d struggle to squeeze in the inhabitants of Tristan da Cunha. There’s enough wool on show to have sheep across the world cowering in their pens, and the array of ridiculous hats is truly a sight to behold.

The problem with the New York subway is that, for the most part, there are no defined seats. Where in London you generally have an armrest on either side of you, clearly delineating your seat area (and conveniently giving you something to fight over with both of the people sitting next to you), here you just plonk yourself down and stake a claim to as much of the seat as you want to. And with some of the, erm, ‘larger posteriors’ in this city, that can sometimes be as much as an entire zipcode.

When everybody is protecting themselves from the kind of cold that would have made Roald Amundsen think “Bugger this, I’m off home to sit infront of the fire”, it takes even fewer people to fill the limited seat space available. Put one padded jacket-wearing student, a girl from Texas and a shopaholic with an expense account at J Crew into the same carriage, and you may as well give up and wait for the next train.

Perversely, there is an upside to this, which is that it can actually be easier to get a seat. On the F train, there are plenty of sets of three seats, which are generally occupied by one heavily coated person at one end, and a thoroughly be-scarved person at the other. All the people who’ve got on the train before me must look at the space and decide that they can’t fit in it. Hell, I think the same thing. Of course, the difference is that I don’t care whether there’s enough space or not – if I can see a seat, I’m sitting in it. Of course, you have to spend the rest of the journey ignoring the dagger stares of your new neighbours as you jostle for elbow room, but that’s a small price to pay.

And if anybody ever did complain, I’ll just look innocent and play the British card. After all, I’m saying sorry most of the time anyway – at least this way I can make my apologies while I’m sitting down.

Chasing cars

Walking back from the subway station this evening, skipping merrily through the hay meadowtrudging down the rain-sodden road with a heavy bag in my hand, the glorious idyll was shattered by a cacophony of honking horns. The crime of the poor startled driver who had prompted the orchestra of vehicular outrage? He’d only managed to hit his accelerator 0.8 seconds after the traffic light had turned green, rather than the 0.05 seconds demanded under the unwritten Rules Of The Road 2007 (New York edition).

To say that New Yorkers are impatient would be an understatement. New Yorkers reading this blog entry are probably already getting hot under the collar that I haven’t got to the end of the post, such is their inability to wait anything more than ten seconds for the completion of any given task. In this city, for example, a bagel is toasted in less time than in takes to pay for it, simply because people won’t tolerate hanging around for their breakfast.

But nowhere is a New Yorker’s impatience more evident than at a set of traffic lights. It’s almost as if every single red light signals the start of the Indy 500, and the potential championship winner has suddenly found himself stuck behind Bert and Doris Lester out for a leisurely Sunday afternoon tour of knitting museums. The moment the light even thinks about turning green, eight people are instantly on their horns, leaving the hapless front runner to look at the crossing pedestrians ahead with an apologetic shrug that says, “I don’t want to run you over but the people behind me are in an awful hurry, so many apologies if this hurts a little bit.”

It seems like the only time a New Yorker is patient is in the lengthy line for the newly opened Abercrombie & Fitch flagship on Fifth Avenue. Patience may be a virtue after all, but only when there’s a retail opportunity at the end of the line.

Extreme noise terror

For quite some time now, London Underground have been piping classical music into the concourse areas of stations such as Brixton and Vauxhall in an attempt to discourage teenage gangs, beggars and general ne’er-do-wells from loitering there. I’ve no idea if it actually works, although it’s at least vaguely soothing for the hundreds of commuters who’ve spent the last twenty minutes silently seething with resentment after being stuck in a tunnel a few yards outside Pimlico station.

Last night at Secaucus station in New Jersey, I experienced the American equivalent. A sound to strike fear into the hearts of grown men, and drive crack dealers onto the streets. Music designed specifically to be uncomfortable and make you want to move out of the area as quickly as possible.

Hard to describe Badfinger as classical, admittedly, but it was certainly enough to get me hurtling out onto the freezing cold New Jersey streets with indecent haste. Rumours that their music appears on the forthcoming album “Noise Warfare: 20 Guantanamo Bay Classics” could not be confirmed at time of going to press.

Down the tube

I took my first London Underground trip in about three months this morning, having become a Brit Back In Water for a couple of days. I was always a bit of a bus-catching man when I actually lived here, so rush hour on the tube still comes as a bit of a shock to the system. Despite all my moaning about the New York subway, any length of time spent on the tube makes you realise that the London system has just as many foibles and inadequacies. In particular:

• It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than to make your way down a tube platform which contains more than, say, five people. Getting off the Victoria line and making your way to the District & Circle line is turned into an epic marathon that requires the packing of emergency rations such as Kendal Mint Cake, just in case you don’t make it before nightfall.

• The Subway Barger has a distant cousin in Tubethumper, the all-elbows woman who insists on forcing her way on to the train through a crowd of ten or so people all attempting to make their way off.

• A 6ft 2 person requires a qualification in advanced yoga to be able to stand wedged up against a tube train door, given the impossibly small nature of the carriages.

• Travelling on the Underground without an Oystercard requires a budget only marginally lower than NASA’s expenditure on the space shuttle programme. Particularly when the currency of your bank account has as much value in the external world as Monopoly money.

• You always need a ticket to get out of the tube, as well as to get in. Forgetting that crucial fact tends not to go down a treat with the five hundred or so people behind you desperately clamouring to get out of the station. It’s particularly galling given my rant about Oystercard Unreadiness Syndrome a few months ago.

Of course, the tube’s still got plenty of things going for it, notably the fact that there are maps everywhere you look, rather than one per carriage in New York (if you’re lucky). And there’s a train every minute or so in rush hour, rather than once in a blue moon on the subway.

Despite all its faults, you can’t help but love the tube (and marvel at the sheer engineering effort that its creation must have taken). I plumped for the subway when asked to pick between it and the tube in an interview that appeared in New York’s Metro yesterday. Now I’m feeling guilty that I’ve forsaken my former solid transport friend for my new more glamorous (but terminally impunctual) New York companion.

I’m sure the guilt will fade when I’ve had to sell a kidney in order to make a journey a couple of stops away this evening.