Almost every New Yorker and anyone who has ever visited will encourage you not to drive in New York City. Once you're in the city, most people find that they don't need a car, because you can easily take taxis or the subway to get where you're going. Plus, the cost of parking your car adds up quickly, especially if you'll be visiting for several days.
However, sometimes you don't have a choice, and if you find yourself in a situation in which driving is your only option, you'll need to learn the rules of the road, the secrets to finding affordable parking, and the major bridges and expressways that will connect you to Manhattan.
Rules of the Road
Even for the most confident drivers, New York City's traffic-packed streets and fearless pedestrians can be intimidating. And because of the nature of the city's perpetual business, road rules for turning and parking are likely very different than what you're used to at home.
- Road signs: There are many major avenues where you can't make a left turn during certain hours, so keep an eye out for signs. These rules are designed to limit congestion at busy intersections, and the police will ticket you if you get caught making an illegal turn.
- Don't block the box: If you see the traffic light is about to change, stay where you are so you don't get caught in the middle of the intersection. You will see signs saying "don't block the box" and doing so may come with a heavy fine.
- Tolls: Tolls in New York City are ubiquitous and expensive, especially when crossing between New Jersey and New York. Some bridges, like the Brooklyn, Williamsburg, and Manhattan, are toll-free. Some tolls are cashless, which means if you don't have E-ZPass, your license plate will be photographed and a bill for the toll will be mailed to your registered address.
- Cell phones: The use of a hand-held device, whether talking or texting, while driving is illegal and you could be fined if caught. There are exceptions if you are using a device's hands-free features or making an emergency phone call.
- Alcohol: The blood alcohol content (BAC) limit for driving under the influence in New York City is .08 percent BAC.
- Smoking: Smoking in the car is not allowed when driving with a child under 18 and you can be fined on your first offense.
- Honking: "Unnecessary honking" is technically illegal in New York City with a fine of $350. However, it won't take you much time to notice that this law is rarely enforced. Although horn honking is a cathartic expression for many New York drivers, you should avoid doing so and adding to the noise pollution.
- Pedestrians: Pedestrians in New York City are daring and frequently jaywalk, so keep your eyes out for people wherever you are driving, whether you're near a crosswalk or not.
- Fire hydrants and crosswalks: When looking for street parking, stay 15 feet away from fire hydrants when you park on the street or else your car will likely be towed. If you park near a crosswalk, make sure your tires are located entirely outside of the crosswalk markings or you run the risk of getting a ticket.
When you see an empty block, there is often a good reason that people aren't parked there. Whether it's street cleaning or a loading zone, street parking in New York City is at a premium, so it's rare to see many spots available. There are even meters where you can't park for several hours a day—usually during rush hour—so even paying the meter doesn't give you a free all-day pass. Watch for signs announcing certain hours or certain days of the week when parking is not allowed in certain spots or on one side of a block.
Street parking in New York City is a rarity, but you might get lucky. Most of the time, your surest bet for finding parking is a parking garage, but finding a good price at a garage in New York City is like a cross between hunting for treasure and solving a jigsaw puzzle. At many parking garages, they'll have a sign that says something like "$8 All Day" but in tiny print, it says "up to half an hour." Depending on where you are, you'll find that rates top out after just a few hours, so parking somewhere for two hours costs the same as parking there for 12 hours. Ask the parking lot attendants about rates before you park and whether or not they accept cash, because some lots are cash only. You can use a website like NYC Best Parking or ParkWhiz to research your parking options before you leave and find the most affordable garage close to where you need to go. Enter your arrival and departure date and times, as well as the location and the site gives lots of great options for parking with prices. Be sure to write down the street address of the lot you pick, because there are often lots right next to each other and the prices can differ wildly.
If you park illegally or if your parking meter runs out, there's also a strong likelihood that you'll get a ticket and your car could even be towed.
If You Get Towed
It's way cheaper to pay for parking in a lot, even if it's overpriced, than to risk getting your car towed to a secure lot. Not only are these lots inconveniently located—sometimes they'll tow your car to Brooklyn even though it's parked in Manhattan—they charge more to "store" your car on top of the cost of whatever the ticket. Also, tow lots are often not open on weekends and in the evening, so it can really mess up your plans if you have to spend another night in New York City just to get your car back.
Bridges, Tunnels, and Highways
When driving into, out of, and around Manhattan, you will have many options from the bridges and tunnels that lead to New Jersey and the other boroughs to the stretches of highway that can take you from Central Park to the World Trade Center in the most efficient way possible. Bridges and tunnels in New York City have undergone many name changes, so be wary of old and out-of-date signs.
- George Washington Bridge: This bridge will connect from Fort Lee, New Jersey, to uptown above Central Park, where you can get off in Washington Heights or connect to the Cross-Bronx Expressway, the Major Deegan Expressway, the Henry Hudson Parkway, or Riverside Drive.
- Lincoln Tunnel: This tunnel will connect you from Weehawken, New Jersey, to midtown near the Port Authority on 42nd Street.
- Holland Tunnel: From the Jersey City area, this tunnel will connect you to Lower Manhattan in between Soho and Tribeca.
- West Side Highway: A continuation of the Henry Hudson Parkway, this scenic road runs north to south from West 72nd Street to the southern tip of Manhattan.
- Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel: Officially known as the Hugh L. Carey Tunnel, this tunnel connects Battery Park in downtown Manhattan to Red Hook in Brooklyn.
- Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge: This bridge, which also marks the starting line of the New York Marathon, connects Brooklyn to Staten Island.
- Brooklyn Bridge: Tourists love to cross this bridge by foot, but cars can also take it to get from the downtown Seaport to Downtown Brooklyn.
- Manhattan Bridge: This bridge connects Chinatown to the Dumbo neighborhood of Brooklyn.
- Williamsburg Bridge: Connecting Manhattan to the northern parts of Brooklyn, this bridge spans from the Bowery in Manhattan to Williamsburg in Brooklyn.
- FDR Drive: On the east side of Manhattan, this parkway starts at 125th Street and ends at the Battery Park Underpass.
- Brooklyn Queens Expressway: Referred to as the BQE and technically the beginning of Interstate 278 (I-278), this highway passes through Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island, connecting Interstate 95 (I-95) to New Jersey.
- Queens Midtown Tunnel: Crossing the East River, this tunnel connects midtown Manhattan near 37th Street to Long Island City in Queens.
- Queensboro Bridge: The Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge, or 59th Street Bridge, connects the Upper East Side of Manhattan to Long Island City. Although it passes over Roosevelt Island, you cannot get off here.
- Roosevelt Island Bridge: This bridge, which goes from Roosevelt Island to Astoria, Queens, is the only way to get to Roosevelt Island by car.
- Robert F. Kennedy Bridge: Locally referred to as the Triborough Bridge, the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge is actually a complex collection of bridges and expressways that connect Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx, as well as the Bruckner Expressway (I-278), the Major Deegan Expressway (I-87), Harlem River Drive, FDR Drive, and Astoria Boulevard.
- Harlem River Drive: This highway runs along the Harlem River, from 10th Avenue in the Inwood Neighborhood to the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge in East Harlem.
- Cross Bronx Expressway: A part of I-95, this expressway begins at the Alexander Hamilton Bridge, crosses over the Harlem River, and continues west to the George Washington Bridge.