Thursday, April 26, 2012

Visual Accuracy

Another New York International Auto Show has come and gone. It's sort of a fortunate coincidence that it happens to fall right as, in other posts, I'm discussing the subject of Transportation. There were actually a lot of very interesting things to see this year. I had contemplated starting out my Auto Show posts by talking about a few of the more unusual things on view. Instead I'd like to make a number of smaller posts devoted to each. So to begin, I'd like to show the car that really stuck with me the most, even several days later. Part of it was that getting to see it at all was something of a happening; I got to see them rolling it up onto the platform and onto the turntable. This was the second press day. For anyone who makes a point to go on the first press day to get a leg up on competing journalists, be warned: they don't have everything loaded in yet. There may be things you're missing.

The other part, I think, is that it was shown by a manufacturer who I might not have expected to have something this impressive on view. It's the 2013 Acura NSX.

During the Superbowl, Jerry Seinfeld was trying desperately to get the first one of these in the television commercials, only to be thwarted in the end by Jay Leno. But they don't show the car in the commercial very close up or for very long. It's more stunning in person than can possibly be imagined. Its low, truly sleek profile doesn't seem to read well in photographs, for some reason. In any case, the profile is nice, but it's also the addition of some really sharp, striking, and distinctive detailing that makes the whole thing work so well. The solids and voids are especially dynamic and futuristic.

We have industrial designer Dave Marek to thank for this beauty. He's head of Acura's design team and has been since 1987.

The NSX has all-wheel drive--for handling and efficiency--powered by the hybrid of a V6 combustion engine and two electric motors. Finding a sports car that's hybrid is not all that shocking. Fisker already proved that idea sound. The vast majority of concept cars these days are at least hybrid, if not entirely electric.

It's the V6 engine that makes the NSX interesting as a "supercar," although some people have suggested that description is questionable applied to a vehicle that is unlikely to be able to deliver the kind of astonishing performance required of the term. What I'm saying, though, is that it's a V6 and not a V12 or V16. The NSX's V6 has been estimated to deliver a little over 400 horsepower, which is nothing to scoff at. But Acura, or more accurately their parent company, Honda, has attempted to provide the NSX with superior performance using strategies other than brute engine strength. For instance, its frame is constructed of an extremely light-weight material, presumably carbon nano-tubes or something high-tech along those lines.

According to Acura, the NSX is due to be released some time around November of 2013. Speculations as to how much it may cost quite comically range from about $30,000 to about $130,000. I guess we'll just have to wait and see.

©2012, Ryan Witte

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

GET LOST: A New York Tour Guide's Guide to New York #12a


Pretty much anyone who knows what they're talking about will tell you that the best way to get around this city is on foot, without question. You see so much more by walking than you can on the subway. You see so much more interesting things because the more obscure destinations tend to be furthest from busy subway stops. Unlike on buses, you're free to stop and look at things at your own leisure. Unlike buses or taxis, you're traveling at a slow enough speed to really see things and take photographs if you want.

I would never discourage anyone with differing or limited mobility from visiting here. But if, for instance, your mobility is hampered by age or some other condition, keep in mind that this city is ten times more easily navigable on foot than any other method. Your group having the use of chartered buses or the extra money for lots of cab rides will make very little difference. It's still a ton of walking.

For people who don't do much more walking than from their car to their front door, "comfortable shoes" doesn't even come close. As silly as this may sound, I might even go so far as to recommend a brisk walk around the block every morning and evening for about a month before you visit New York. You have no idea how much walking you'll do here. Your shoes should be not only comfortable, but durable as well. For goodness sake, please steer clear of open-toed shoes and flip-flops. You do see people wearing them sometimes, but on these streets? It's disgusting. Athlete's foot is the best thing you'll get out of it. Anyway, flip-flops are for going to the pool, not for grown-ups walking down a city street. Especially if the weather is warmer, it's essential to have a bottle of water on you.

Without proper precautions and preparation, you'll be run down, sore, blistered, and miserable. It's probably the one complaint I hear more than any other from visitors from automobile-centric parts of the world. Even high school students who should have infinite energy, many of whom presumably play extracurricular sports, look like they might collapse in a heap if allowed to stand still. In fact, they're often the worst prepared for it.

One of the problems with getting around on foot is that I suspect it doesn't occur to many people that there even could be a proper way to "use" a sidewalk. There is, however, and at least once a day I encounter a person who doesn't know how. Knowing how to use sidewalks properly means you won't look like an idiot. Some readers won't care about that. But this also means you won't have to deal with angry stares, comments, and fingers from people who live here. Other than that, this section is mostly for those who would choose to be courteous.

The main thing to understand about sidewalks in New York is that they are our primary means of transportation. We have places to go and things to do and we want to get there sooner rather than later. So the best way to think about the sidewalk is that it's very much like a highway. If you suddenly slam on your brakes on the highway, the person behind you is going to destroy the back of your car. While no one would do such a thing under normal circumstances, tourists think nothing of doing it while walking down the street.

Here's where the word "currents" is more literal than figurative. For the most part, the curb line is the "merging lane," the middle of the sidewalk is the "fast lane," and the building line is the "slow lane." People do seem to subconsciously stay to the right somewhat, as they would in a vehicle, but this isn't the case much of the time; it's more about the currents. If you need to stop or slow down, don't just suddenly halt right in the middle of the sidewalk. "Pull over" to the side, out of the fast lane. If you don't live in a walking city, you can pretty much just assume that you walk slower than we do. Stay in the slow lane.

This is even more imperative in larger groups. Don't walk side-by-side in a group of twelve people that spans like a wall across the entire sidewalk. As far as we're concerned, turtles move faster than you and we don't want to have to step out into speeding traffic to get around you to get where we're going. Two or three people across is about the maximum, especially on the smaller side streets which have much narrower sidewalks. Some of those may even demand single-file when passing other people.

If you're a large group of people, dividing up into smaller bunches is generally a lot better anyway: groups of two, three, or four. It's easier to get around, easier to keep track of who's there and who's gone missing. You won't be impeding traffic or other pedestrians or risk getting hit by a bus. You won't make a spectacle of yourselves. Obnoxious behavior that annoys everyone around you is a lot less likely in smaller groups, as well.

Ignore the stoplights. For any law enforcement officers who might be reading, I do not say that to encourage jaywalking. I do believe jaywalking to be a time-honored New York tradition. I also believe police officers (should) have more serious crimes to worry about than someone crossing a street at the wrong time or place. Legally speaking, pedestrians always have the right of way here, no matter where they are, where they're going, what they're doing how fast or how slow. But while that may help in court, it's not going to matter much if you're dead and stuck onto the front of a bus.

That's sort of my point. If the sign says "don't walk," and there is not a vehicle in sight, you may as well just cross. You'll get more stuff done that way. On the flip-side, a sign saying "walk" will in no way prevent some crazy driver from barreling through the intersection and running you over. The best idea, therefore, is to pay attention not to the stoplights, but to the traffic. Never assume a driver is going to stop just because the light is red. If we're in the middle of a blizzard, they may not be able to stop.

Like your mommy always told you, "look both ways before crossing the street." This is especially important for the very reason that most New York streets are one-way. Bicyclists, unlike motorists, are not legally compelled to go the same direction as the motor vehicles. They often don't, and they make practically no noise to warn of their approach. You might not think a bicycle messenger going thirty-five miles per hour on a jacked-up mountain bike could do as much damage as a car. But trust me, you'll wake up in the hospital if you wake up at all. I've come thisclose to be taken down by one of them on many occasions.

©2012, Ryan Witte

12b. Subways

Monday, April 9, 2012

GET LOST: A New York Tour Guide's Guide to New York #11


The way Manhattan was settled, developed, and used makes it surprisingly easy to grasp conceptually and navigate. It was first settled at the southernmost tip of the island and grew northward. Lower Manhattan is therefore the most confusing neighborhood. Its streets are narrow and haphazard like a medieval village, but the buildings that line them are some of the tallest in the country. It's cavernous and doesn't allow for distant views in most directions. It can make this neighborhood a bit disorienting.

One thing you can say about Lower Manhattan is that if you can stand and look in a direction where you see open sky or a body of water, you are not facing north. The streets continue in this confusing fashion up to Houston Street. This area to the north of Lower Manhattan is mostly occupied by TriBeCa (the Triangle Below Canal Street). Of some help is that most of the buildings there are shorter, so it's a little easier to get your bearings. Aside from some super fancy restaurants, TriBeCa is mostly a residential neighborhood of fairly wealthy, though vaguely bohemian folks who appreciate the area's somewhat gritty, industrial character. Unless you have the heart of a true explorer or are eating, for instance, at Robert De Niro's restaurant, there's probably no burning need to spend much time there. Technically the grid starts north of Houston, but only on the east side. The west remains ungridded. The grid spans the full width of the island from 14th Street northward. From there it's smooth sailing, extremely rational.

"Avenues" run north/south starting with First Avenue at the east. "Streets" run east/west starting with First Street right above Houston. Broadway is really the sole exception to the grid, cutting diagonally through it from the Lower East Side to the Upper West Side. Traffic runs one-way alternately north or south on most of the avenues and on all but the major cross streets. Even-numbered streets run East. Traffic on major cross-streets runs both directions. They're as follows: 8th, 14th, 23rd, 34th, 42nd, 57th, 72nd, 79th, 86th, 96th, 110th, and 125th. North of 125th is the heart of Harlem. While I would strongly encourage everyone to explore the cultural epicenter of the Jazz Age and what is a very vibrant neighborhood, I'm still getting to know that part of the city. I'll therefore leave Upper Manhattan for someone else to discuss. Street addresses start at One at Fifth Avenue and rise toward the rivers in both directions. Avenue addresses start at their southern origins and rise as they go north.

Because the city grew progressively northward, going from river to river, each of the major cross-streets listed above gives you an almost literal "slice" of New York when that part of the city was developed. The oldest are at the south, the more recent going north. From the rivers inward to Fifth Avenue, it typically goes something like this: piers/ docks, warehouses/ slaughterhouses/ factories, low-cost housing, retail/ office buildings, and high-cost residences at the center. If you imagine goods arriving by river on barges and cargo ships and making their way inward to residential neighborhoods, it all makes perfect sense. Although much has been torn down, rebuilt, or converted to different uses over the years, you can still see this today, more or less. While the rule isn't chiseled in stone, it can be useful for finding a different character of neighborhood in the search for a restaurant or a certain kind of store. For instance, if you're looking for a laundromat, you know you'll have better luck in a residential neighborhood nearer the rivers than one crowded with office buildings in the center of the island.

©2012, Ryan Witte

12. Transportation