There’s a reason I never wanted to learn how to drive while I was growing up in Queens. Have you ever looked at a map of the borough? It has an arcane, hyphenated address-numbering system. Competing street grids that don’t line up with each other. Streets that sometimes give up the grid completely to circle around like the suburbs. But worst of all, like the rest of New York City, it had Robert Moses. And that means the indecipherable hell of competing expressways and parkways.
I am on board with Robert Caro regarding the megalomania of Robert Moses as much as anyone who went to urban planning school. Yes, Moses gave New York Jones Beach and a modern highway system. But he also destroyed dozens of neighborhoods and displaced tens of thousands of people in the process during his forty-year, 20th-century tenure as head of every significant planning body in New York City. (Which, thanks to people like Jane Jacobs, was also eventually his downfall.)
But about those highways. Go open Apple Maps or Google Maps and pull up a map of Queens, NY, and tell me why the highways go where they go. No really. I’ll wait. Maybe throw Brooklyn and Nassau County and the rest of Long Island into your mapping research. Can you discern rhyme or reason with your 2017 eyes? The difference between parkways and expressways? The reason some areas are silly with highways and some areas are almost bereft of them?
I was raised in the early 1970s at the beginning of Queens Boulevard, the street arguably with the best subway service in the entire city of New York. With four trunk subway lines to choose from, branching out across the city and connecting with many other lines, I grew up never needing anything other than a subway station or bus to get around my home borough, and eventually my city. My mother had a car that she almost never used. Even my older siblings came and went by public transit or car service.
Once in my early 20s, a friend in New Jersey offered to teach me how to drive. Using his address, I passed the written exam and got my learners permit to humor him. But I never followed up with actual lessons. Before I left New York in 2003, my then-boss wanted me to learn how to drive to do urban planning research for projects in suburban New Jersey. I showed her—I simply moved to Chicago instead. Last year, when Ryan offered to teach me how to drive, I got the second learners permit of my life here in Illinois. But after a few arguments and a few heart stopping moments with me behind the wheel, I let Ryan live and gave the idea up once again. Heck, even when we were still talking about moving to Los Angeles, I had no intention of driving. The public transit in me runs that strongly.
But we will eventually move to Queens to live near my family and spend our lives in my hometown capital of the world, and Ryan will likely continue his career there as a regional manager of medical facilities. So he’s going to have to know New York’s downstate road system inside and out. Here’s your next assignment, dear reader. Go Google or Bing “New York roads.” Do a few searches for anything that will describe to you in any comprehensive or consistent way the regional highway system of the New York metropolitan area. I’ll be here.
No really, keep looking. I know you think you’re done already, but you’re not. Give it some time. You might want some popcorn. Or a cup of coffee. Or maybe a stiff drink. Because what you’re eventually going to realize is that there’s very little to find, beyond the long-neglected, half-broken NYC Roads fan site, and the modern-but-scattershot Wikipedia New York Roads Portal. Besides being America’s largest city by far, New York also has this country’s most bewildering, seemingly illogical system of highways for a major city. And unfortunately, the only way to learn about it, or why it is the way that it is, is to piece it together yourself. New York City, New York State, New Jersey, and Connecticut, all of which figure to some extent in the metropolitan area, aren’t going to do it for you.
When I first tried introducing Ryan to this maddening regional roadway system that had sucked all desire to drive out of my soul decades ago, I told him that besides being physically confusing, the nomenclature will get you, too, because New Yorkers love to use the official names for roadways instead of their route numbers. Ryan told me no worries, he understood that concept from Chicago. My inside voice just chuckled and told the avatar of Ryan inside my head to hold my beer. After all, Chicago only has half a dozen highways with names. Chicago only has half a dozen highways at all. An essentially single regional grid system. You can fit Chicago’s entire regional roadway system on a single map, for God’s sake.
Not so my hometown. I knew I needed a different plan of attack. So I pulled out my iPad Pro and Apple Pencil, saved a dozen screenshots of the New York metropolitan area in Apple Maps, and started annotating. Working borough by borough, and then suburban county by suburban county, I labeled the roads. Every expressway. Every parkway. Every former name, honorary name, and abbreviation, since we New Yorkers love half a dozen ways to call the same road the same road.
We also love to rename the same road something different every mile or two, so eventually I had to start writing smaller and smaller. I began to develop an even greater antipathy for Robert Moses. My hand started to cramp. The entire effort took me three overnight hours plus half an hour the next morning after I passed out in between.
And still, I know my annotations were incomplete. I’d love to tell you what Ryan’s reaction was when he finally saw the maps, but I don’t think he’s recovered from the shock yet. Neither have I. Honestly, the effort was the first time I ever really learned the highway system of the region of my birth. It still doesn’t make the sense that I wish it did.
That leads me back to the questions I asked you. I’ll let you off the hook and give you the answers. The places drowning in expressways and parkways (and bridges and tunnels) came earlier in Moses career, when he had the ability to do whatever he wanted to downstate land and lives. (See: Queens; the Bronx; Nassau County.) The places where highways abruptly end or just aren’t there at all came later, when community organizing finally managed to damage Moses’ political power to get things done. (See: Brooklyn; and especially Manhattan’s blissfully nonexistent crosstown expressways that Moses wanted to carve across Lower Manhattan, Midtown, and Harlem.)
Trucks can drive on expressways, but they can’t drive on parkways. That’s the difference. Moses wanted two highway systems: one for commerce; and one for pleasure driving. (Yes, as you might suspect he hated public transit that much.) To make sure they stayed that way, Moses deliberately had all overpasses on the parkway system engineered too low for buses and trucks to clear. I know that sounds like the Onion from a 2017 perspective, but it’s what he did. That’s why you have to be careful driving into New York with your moving van. And it explains the dance that New York’s parkways, and expressways, and thruways do across and around each other, mile after mile.
So I finally understand why the Grand Central Parkway swerves up and down and back up again in a giant “S” from the Tri-Boro Bridge (which is its old name, but I told you how we New Yorkers like to hang onto old names), to LaGuardia Airport, down to the Van Wyck Expressway and Jackie Robinson né Interboro Parkway at the mercifully rebuilt Kew Gardens interchange, back up to the Clearview and Cross-Island expressways (each and every one of which, by the way, still in Queens), then out to Nassau County where it assumes a new identity as the Northern State Parkway, proceeding to parallel the L.I.E. (which is really the Long Island Expressway, but if you’re not from New York you might call it I-495, which would confuse everybody so please don’t) for the next 50 miles, swerving to its north and its south every few miles with abandon.
It’s essentially the same story with every expressway or parkway in New York. And again, don’t believe me. Just go look at a map. And then imagine driving there. That’s why I didn’t.
As for why the parkways run where they run? Being a Queens native, I’ll give you the answer most relevant to Long Island, and one glance at a map shows the truth of it. Was it to get people to jobs? Ease crowding on the expressways? Help urban dwellers access new suburban shopping malls? Hardly. Whether Brooklyn or Queens, Nassau or Suffolk, Robert Moses aimed all the parkways on Long Island at one thing: getting people, during the summer, in their single-occupancy vehicles only, to Jones Beach.
Still, that’ll come in handy for us. We’re bringing the car to Queens, and Ryan loves the beach. At least he will, until we’re stuck in an hour of traffic on the Wantagh Parkway just trying to make it to the Causeway.
Michael Thaddeus Doyle
I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.