A reluctant car owner tells all.
Recently, Manhattan resident, cargo bike dad and friend of the podcast Choresh Wald alerted us to the existence of a car parked in his neighborhood bearing a very special vanity license plate:
Assuming someone who drives a car with “CARSRBAD” plates would mostly likely have a good sense of humor and be intelligent, we put the call out on Twitter in hopes of nabbing an interview.
Within hours we received an email from the car’s owner, Benjamin Ely, who goes by Ely. When Ely said he was up for an interview about his “self-loathing car” we knew that our prediction was correct. Funny? Check. Smart? You have no idea. Ely is a neuroscientist who splits his time between the East Village and his partner’s apartment on the Upper West Side and uses the car to commute to his job as an Adjust Assistant Professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx. He does a lot of research into teenagers and brain development, which perhaps gives him unique insight into the minds of drivers.
Ely is also an avid cyclist, for lack of a better term. He’s a member of Point83NYC a cycling club which meets each Thursday evening for city rides, food and beer. After verifying that the car is indeed Ely’s, Doug talked to him about the license plate, driving and parking in the city, and more.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you find out about the tweet we posted seeking the car’s owner?
I’m in a bike club that we have like a Signal channel for. And somebody was like, “Hey, your stupid car is finally on here.”
Tell me about the car.
The car is a Fiat 500, which is kind of halfway between a Smart car and a normal car. I had met a person who had a Smart car and you can sort of have a car that you're able to wedge into little spots around the city to park and that isn't quite so environmentally destructive. I originally conceptualized getting one of those, but they're just not super practical. They're two seats with no storage. Like, if you're going to have a car, you might as well have the ability to do some of the useful things cars can do. So I just looked around to see what other small city cars there are. And I liked the Fiat and found one out in Long Island that was in my price range.
What was your commute like before you started working in the Bronx?
I lucked into a perfect bike commute when I first moved to the city. In 2010 I got an apartment with a bunch of people in DUMBO and at the time I was working at NYU Langone on First Ave. I could get directly on the Manhattan Bridge and then go up the First Avenue protected bike lane. I was pretty hand-to-mouth and that was appreciably cheaper than having a monthly subway pass, so I got I just got really into biking all around the city. Then I wound up going to grad school at Mount Sinai School of Medicine on the Upper East Side. I was living in the East Village at the time. So that's also a super straight shot. And the thing that I remember loving about bike commuting was what an efficient use of time it was. I could get in kind of reasonable amounts of exercise on a daily basis and also get to work. It was very “two birds with one stone.” My physique has not improved since I got the car.
After you got your current gig, how soon did you realize you would need a car? Did you try taking the subway first?
I basically realized that it was going to need to happen before I even started the job, like when I was considering it. From where I am you can take the 5 train way out to East 180th Street and that takes a long time. There used to be a shuttle bus that the school would run, but they dropped it because Covid, but there’s the regular bus. But yeah, that kind of doubles the commute time because it’s a long schlep, an indeterminate wait for like a pretty long bus ride. Not that long, but it all adds up. And the fact that there aren't good alternatives to the bus on the far end is a big part of it. I am a big Citi Bike user but it’s well outside their service area.
So you buy a car. Why did you decide to get a license plate that reads CARSRBAD?
There’s a website that New York State has where you can look up the vanity plates that are available. And I found that just super addictive. Like I would just put in any stupid idea I had. I was very sad to see that Magikarp was taken.
Say that again?
Magikarp, the very stupid Pokemon.
Somebody swiped that one. And I remember noodling around with other concepts. I've been in the NUMTOTs Facebook group for a long time and they're always hating on cars. And so I just was like, “I think CARSRBAD would fit.”
Did you consider BANCARS?
That one didn't occur to me but that would be good too. CARSSUCK fit but was linguistically less pleasing. I had thought of doing NOTACAR, but I mean, that's just inaccurate. I just I kind of liked how directly assertive the statement CARSRBAD was. It is a sentence. And I like it because it reminds me that cars are bad because it’s very easy to form an emotional attachment to these objects.
What has the reaction been from other drivers or from other people in general?
My favorite reaction I've heard was when we managed to get a piece of furniture in there, which I was very proud of. We were taking the furniture out of the car and these two Gen Z kids walk by and one of them is just like, “Cars are bad.” That was my favorite ever. I get a lot of cyclists who wave. I've had no response at all from other drivers. Nobody in a car is willing to acknowledge my license plate.
How hard is it to find parking in your neighborhood?
It's harder on the Upper West Side than it is in the East Village. The Fiat being smaller than a normal car is helpful. But there’s a lot of ambiguity about parking in the city. They don't make it all that easy to interpret sometimes what is or is not a valid spot. So I kind of just accept parking tickets as a tax on being a car owner.
When the picture of your car was posted to Twitter, someone looked up your plates on HowsMyDrivingNY and saw that you had received two tickets for failing to move your during street cleaning and one for blocking a crosswalk.
Allegedly blocking a crosswalk. The street cleaning thing, I just was out of town and it's a manual. Only, like, one of my friends knows how to drive it so I'm not in a great position to have somebody move it for me. Financially, I could put it in a garage for several hundred dollars for a weekend or I can just eat sixty five dollars and apologize to the street for not being clean on that eight-foot stretch.
You've essentially explained the madness of New York City parking policy.
It's way cheaper than getting a garage.
So it seems like the only thing holding you back from getting rid of the car is a reasonable commute that allows for biking or transit.
Exactly that. Everybody who asked me what it’s like to have a car, I’m like, “Don’t get a car.” You know, just rent one when you need one if you want to go out of town for the weekend. Everything about owning it is a headache and also it's not good.
You’re a neuroscientist. Have you ever considered studying the effects of driving on brain activity?
Huh. It’s a little outside of my wheelhouse. Most of my [research] participants can't actually drive yet anyway, but I guess most New Yorkers can’t anyhow. But I think you’d see a much bigger effect really just from the exercise that people who have non- car commutes get that demonstrably makes a lot of difference in cognitive function and overall cardiovascular health. But New York drivers are so fucking mad. I kind of channel this laugh-it-off attitude about people cutting you off and things like that just because there’s so much road rage. I’m sure you'd see impacts from that, too, on people's emotional responses and stuff.
You could even test the reaction people have to different vanity license plates.
Oh, yeah. That's perfect. Keep the stimulus nice and simple.
Since you are such a good ally in The War on Cars, if we sent you a Ban Cars sticker would you put it on your car? Or is the license plate enough?
It feels like it might be gilding the lily a little bit. I would place it on my bike if you sent one.
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