Jarrett Murphy

Wide at the curb, heavy on the fossil fuels: SUVs on Hull Avenue in the Bronx, 9:40 a.m., November 7.


Late one afternoon this past summer while riding my bike down Brooklyn’s Court Street, a horn-blaring Ford Explorer sports-utility vehicle (SUV) nearly side-swiped me as it sped by — confirming yet again, SUVs are the angry hippos of narrow New York City streets.  Size is precisely why so many Americans are in love with SUVs.  But that’s also the reason why the increasing popularity of SUVs poses a grave threat—not only to the city’s pedestrians and cyclists—but to our planet’s survival.  Simple physics dictates bigger, heavier, and less aerodynamic vehicles gulp down more gas and expunge tons more planet-warming greenhouse gasses (GHG) into the atmosphere than smaller, agile cars.

And therein lies a potential conundrum for automobile drivers who on one hand, profess concern about global warming, but on the other, have succumbed to the allure of extra legroom and rugged cargo hauling space an SUV offers.

Transportation has replaced electricity production as the largest contributor of total U.S. carbon emissions in the United States according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  In New York City, a place better served by public transit than any other area in the nation, carbon emissions, primarily from transportation, increased by 27 percent from 1990 to 2017 according to a recent New York Times analysis of data.

Experts say the world’s love affair with SUVs and trucks is stifling efforts to slow GHG emissions throughout the United States and across the world.

SUVs are the cause of a 3.3 million barrel-a-day increase in oil demand from passenger cars between 2010 and 2018, according to a November 2019 study from the International Energy Agency (IEA).  If consumer demand for them continues to grow at the same pace seen in the last decade, big cars and trucks will add nearly two million barrels in global oil demand every single day by 2040 the study says.

Demand for SUVs in America shows no sign of dissipating. The majority of the top 25 best selling cars in the nation, so far in 2019, are SUVs and large trucks according to Car and Driver.   In the state of New York, at least seven of the ten most popular models registered with the Department of Motor Vehicles are SUVs or trucks.

Of the 2,186,273 registered vehicles in New York City—of which only around 7,500 were electric—  most any city bicyclists will tell you SUVs are the dominant model.

That’s a baffling observation considering New York City is such a progressive and Democratic party stronghold.  Climate change is at the top of the party’s official platform and more than 80 percent of Democratic voters say climate change is a major threat to this country’s well-being according to July 2019 Pew Research Center survey .

But cheap fuel and slick ad campaigns touting all terrain features on the wide open road can contribute to convenient blind spots.  So too can easy financing, car envy and economic privilege.

In my largely urban-professional Brooklyn neighborhood Carroll Gardens, the average age is 37, homes sell for about a $1,200 per square foot and Hillary Clinton bested Donald Trump by as much as 85 percent in some neighborhood precincts during the 2016 presidential election.

The area is part of Brooklyn’s community district 36 which also includes a slice of Park Slope and Red Hook. It’s well educated, and the 2017 median annual income —$137,000—was 121 percent higher than the rest of New York City.

It’s the sort of neighborhood where someone just might throw side eye in the checkout line at Whole Foods if you’ve forgotten your eco-bag . Home to countless young families, parents here are more than likely raising their children to believe climate change is a very real thing.

But it’s not just stately trees and majestic brownstones that line Carroll Gardens streets, there are a lot of cars, the majority of which are SUVs.

One Wednesday this past October, at around 7 p.m., I did a loose census of the automobiles that park free of charge each night on several one-block stretches of the streets surrounding the intersection of Carroll and Clinton Streets where I live. By my own count, more than 60 percent were SUVs.  And while it’s not exactly clear who among the neighbors owns the growing herd of SUVs, it’s a safe bet, many of them are sufficiently concerned about global warming.

At some point in our future, facts, public opinion and perhaps policy will compel automobile drivers to face the music about the impact their driving choices are having on the planet. Over the past five years, global air temperatures have been the warmest ever recorded.

While composting, banning plastic bags and straws or attending climate change rallies—are all critical in raising awareness and fighting climate change—in the grand scheme of things—they barely begin to offset the destructive impact carbon emissions from our traffic choked cities is having on the atmosphere.

New York City will become the first city in the nation to implement congestion pricing sometime in 2020 as both a revenue stream for mass transit improvements and a means to incentivize cars off crowded city streets.

Perhaps it’s also time to impose a tiered tolling system that takes in account an automobile’s fuel performance as well as the added risks SUV width, weight and height pose to pedestrians and cyclists.  Or maybe it’s just time to just ban SUVs from congested cities like New York altogether.

Cody Lyon is a New York City-based journalist.

10 thoughts on “Opinion: Is it Time for NYers to Park Their SUVs … Permanently?

  1. ‘That’s a baffling observation considering New York City is such a progressive and Democratic party stronghold.’

    What on earth does party affiliation have to do with what kind of car someone drives? Are you really that stupid? People buy cars based on cost, their driving needs, size of family, etc.

    • Well, some consumers take their politics/morals when they go shopping, for groceries or for cars. I’m a baseball coach (tons of equipment), play in a rock band (mucho equipment), do lots of home improvement projects requiring large and heavy materials and go camping a lot (often too much equipment). We’ve driven from NYC to places like Maine, Indiana, New Orleans. A Prius is about the worst possible car for all that stuff and a family of four and long trips but we bought it because we wanted to emit less and use less fuel. It occurs to me that the second-biggest purchase you make (with your home being No. 1) ought to reflect your values. Do you disagree?

      • I disagree. I bought a 2019 Camry because it’s a well-constructed sedan with great mileage, roughly 26mpg in the city. Politics is for elections. My house has a driveway so parking it isn’t an issue for me, and there’s no ASP in my neighborhood anyway. Check out the Corolla or the Civic, taking a tiny Prius on long trips on the interstates sounds scary.

        • Camrys are incredible cars for sure — my family had one of the early ones and it lasted forever. And they’re mostly made in Kentucky, I think. But if you’re a good driver (and, of course, I am!) the Prius is very safe. We’ve driven it for six years and, for 11 years before that, a Honda Civic hybrid. I’m glad you’re happy with your ride, but I’m afraid 26 mpg doesn’t count as good mileage when I’m getting 40 to 50, or no less than 35 even if I’m speeding. Voting is for elections; politics is what you believe is right, and that’s an everyday thing.

    • People buy cars according to what other people will think of them driving it, cost, and then need. Hatchbacks and wagons have almost as much, if not equal or more space than most SUVs. All NYC roads are paved and don’t require additional ride height.

      But I also blame the automakers for not providing more hatchback/wagon options.

    • I disagree with your comment, and concur 100% with Cody Lyon.

      I also find your notion that “People buy cars based on cost, their driving needs, size of family, etc.” rather comical. Allow me to break it down…

      Cost: SUVs sell anywhere from $20k-60k, with the typical models now seen on NYC streets being RAV4, Denali, Yukon, Navigator and Suburban. We are also seeing an increase in Jeep Wranglers and 4x4s, which run from $25k-29k. The most popular models of 4-door sedan on the other hand (i.e., Toyota Camry, Honda Civic, etc.) cost about $20k-25k. So your suggestion that folks are leaning towards SUVs for ‘cost’ (savings) is comical.

      Driving needs: It’s not clear what you mean by ‘driving need’? Ability for speed? Long-distance travel? Ability for all-terrain…for driving in the snow? Either way, your average NYC vehicle-owners has no special ‘driving needs’.

      Size of family: Oh…this one is my favorite! Take a good hard look at all the SUVs…the Jeeps….the Range Rovers… the Escalades…the 4x4s, etc. and which litter NYC streets. I don’t know about you, but I’m not seeing anything that resembles the Walton Family. lol. No, my friend, most of the owners of these vehicles are single men, or a couple with no kids, or a couple with perhaps 2-3 kids. Funny how, back in the day, an entire family of SIX could fit into one station wagon with all their luggage, and go on vacation out of state. But now? Now everyone needs an SUV?


      It all stems from brainwashing by the auto-industry (SUVs and similar = The American Way… freedom…’safety’….comfort…), a monkey-see-monkey-do mentality (well, everyone else out there has an SUV, so I guess I should too…), folks (esp. macho men) wanting to be a big badass on the road, etc. We’ve heard it all….’I need an SUV cuz I have kids…I have elderly parents….we make big trips to the supermarket…my kids play sports…I’m in a band… car dealers aren’t selling cars anymore/it’s all SUVs at the dealerships blahblahblah’. Yet, many other folks manage to buy 4-door sedans just fine. Many other folks (who are disabled, who are elderly, who have kids, etc.) manage without owning a car just fine.

      Particularly in a dense city such as NYC, and with its vast network of public transit, taxis, delivery services, etc. the options are endless. Subway, MTA buses, Metro North, LIRR, car rental, carsharing services, taxis, cycling, walking, MTA pickup services for the disabled/elderly, etc.

      We are tired of the excuses. The Majority of NYCers do Not own cars, and yet we have relinquished far too much of our public space, our health (local air pollution, pedestrian/cyclist injuries/deaths) and the health of our planet, all for selfish individuals who have a litany of excuses as to why ‘they’ need their private vehicle. Most of it comes from brainwashing, convenience (‘I don’t want to have to mingle with gross strangers on the subway…I don’t want to have to wait for a train…I don’t want to have to carry a bag….’), laziness and habit (most car owners I know reach for their keys to go anywhere and everywhere, even when walking, cyclist, or public transit are not just totally viable options, but will often get them where they need to go, FASTER. I have car-owning friends who have the audacity to suggest driving us somewhere while lamenting how ‘awful’ the traffic and/or parking situation will be. It’s positively stupefying. And sadly, very common.

      There was time when we thought smoking was a ‘right’. Those who did Not smoke accepted it as an unfortunate, unavoidable norm that we simply had to live with. Folks smoked anywhere and everywhere. Others around them had to suffer the consequences. And then, through a very successful campaign, society has done a total 360. We now look back and think ‘how perverted was that…that folks could smoke on airplanes…in offices??”

      And so too will it one day be regarding the proliferation of privately-owned two-ton Suburban Assault Vehicles (SAVs), and which we have allowed to litter our neighborhood streets, injure and kill countless cyclists and pedestrians (with the drivers typically suffering NO legal repercussions), control far too much of OUR public space, pollute our local air and be a major contributor to the destruction of our planet.

      Time for the Majority to revolt in OUR streets. 😉

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  4. A simple solution to cover multiple issues:

    Citywide implementation of Residential Parking Permits with an eye towards the space a vehicle takes up and how much it damages our roads. Motorcycles and Scooters pay the least (you can fit 6 in a single car spot), standard vehicles under 3500 lbs pay the “regular” fee (4,500 lbs for full electrics), anything above that pays a large vehicle fee. Additional fees would apply to any subsequent vehicles registered to a household. Proof of registration to an NYC address as well as proof of insurance (with the same address) required.

  5. the fairest method to account for size , etc would be to asses a annual road damage fee based on a vehicles weight.

    road damage is a function to the 4th power by weight. Assessing a annual road damage fee would be a fair way to charge monster vehicles for their negative externalities.

    For example –

    if a 2,5000lbs vehicle would be assessed a $100 annual road damage fee

    then a 5,000lbs vehicle would be assessed a $3,000 annual road damage fee

    and a 7,000lbs vehicle would be assessed a $6,000 annual road damage fee !

    Weight has a huge impact on the amount of road damage a vehicle causes.

    It’s only fair that heavier vehicles pays for the road damage they cause.

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