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Wednesday, August 20, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Most New Yorkers not driven to get driver's license

The Washington Post

NEW YORK — As America has long suspected, no one here can drive.

Lawyers, doctors, day laborers, actors, psychotherapists: New York City has more able-bodied, non-licensed, car-phobic adults than anywhere in the United States. Only about 25 percent of the inhabitants possess a driver's license.

Caroline Hwang, 33, a novelist and editor, is one of New York's carless millions. She lives in Manhattan and walks, hails cabs, uses her subway card. She packs her beach towel and takes the Long Island Rail Road to the Atlantic Ocean beaches and bums a ride when friends insist on one of those bucolic weddings north of the Bronx. As a teenager in Wisconsin she had a license, but that seems so yesterday.

"I asked my boyfriend recently if I could sit in the driver's seat. I couldn't remember which was the accelerator and which was the brake," she recalled. "I feel like New York City is set up for people like me."

Bill Bastone runs thesmokinggun.com, a whimsical investigative Web site. He grew up in Jackson Heights, Queens, a couple of blocks from the elevated No. 7 train, which rolls right into Manhattan. He went to New York University and worked for the Village Voice. He neglected to take driver's education in high school, and that was destiny. He is 42 and doesn't have a learner's permit.

"I don't remember dreams, as a rule, but the only ones I do recall are about out-of-control auto wrecks," Bastone said. "So maybe I need to sit down and talk to someone about this."

Or maybe this car-and-license thing is more proof that New York floats somewhere off the East Coast. For most Americans, the car — the Mustang, the Bronco — packs as much iconic wallop as a horse for John Wayne. But not here — in New York, you are defined by the IND, BMT or IRT trains. When electricity failed last week, those carless commuters were left with only foot-power.

New Yorkers plan work and play around their inability to drive. They vacation on Fire Island, because no cars are allowed. They tend to travel east to London, Paris or any other European city with a good subway system instead of heading west, say, to Utah or Wyoming or Nevada, all of which have long highways and no Yellow Taxis.

Driving in New York is not natural. Periodically, the men and women at the city Department of Transportation measure the average speed of a car traveling across midtown, which they invariably find moving at the rate of a Galapagos tortoise. Then there are other problems: alternate side of the street parking, rapacious meter maids, $100 parking tickets, exorbitant insurance rates, incomprehensible and contradictory highway signs and the fact that no car in New York ever stays in its lane.

"It's bad enough to sit in the back of a taxi and watch," Bastone says.

Even romance bends to a license-less rhythm. Chris Policano, 42, serves as chief spokesman for the City Council. A decade or so back, he asked his beloved to marry him. She said yes, but set a condition: He must obtain his driver's license.

"I'd had learner's permits, many, many permits," Policano recalls. "But scheduling the road test was so daunting. There was that parallel parking thing."

As it turned out, Policano took his road test along the Brooklyn docks in a blizzard. The test officer wanted to get home and said to skip the parking. So Policano is a licensed driver. But that fact hasn't transformed his life. "You know," he said, "it's a lot easier to say 'Taxi!' "

Jeri Drucker grew up on Manhattan's Upper West Side, a regional hot spot for the driving-challenged. She is planning her son's wedding on the far side of the Delaware Water Gap. It's a logistical nightmare. Her sisters don't drive, nor do her adult nieces or her uncle. Her stepsister drove in Los Angeles once, but she moved back to New York and gave that up.

Drucker plans to rent something akin to a school bus to haul her family out there.

"My father had a license," Drucker said, "but that was a long, long time ago, and he never drove. Maybe this is inherited?"

In this unlicensed wilderness, the city's hundreds of auto schools hang shingles like lanterns for the auto-phobic. As one instructor at the Bensonhurst Driving School said of himself, "I'm not a teacher, I'm a psychotherapist."

There is the man who has had learner's permits for 17 years and comes in each April for a lesson or two before deciding he can't handle it and disappears. And there are legions of 58-year-old accountants and 62-year-old lawyers who see retirement approaching and start thinking Boca Raton and Tucson, if only they could drive.

"We have 75- and 80-year-old students," said Wilma Valenzuela of the Professional Driving School on East 23rd Street in Manhattan. "They always ask, 'Do I drive right away?' I say, 'Not if you haven't driven before, you don't!' "

Some drivers come in for late spring tune-ups. They have licenses but have never used them and now need to get to the Hamptons.

All of which is very nice. But as this is New York, a tincture of belligerence can sneak into conversations with the license-less. As in, "Why should I drive?"

M.P. Dunleavey, an editor and Manhattan native, recalls relatives poking fun at her for being in her 30s and not having a license. "I didn't think it was funny," she said. "There was something gauche about having a car. It was so — suburban."

Joe Dunlap, 34, has spiraled through the city as a bike messenger, traveled the world and now is studying to get his master's degree in education. Someday, maybe, he'll get a license.

"If I get bored and I'm like 50," he said. "I just might do it."

Stranger things have happened in New York.

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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