Is it Hard to Drive in New York City? A Complete Guide to Driving in NYC

Thinking about driving a car in New York City and wondering how hard it is to drive there? I’ve been driving in New York City for the past couple of years and have made some observations! In short: I would not recommend driving in New York City, especially in Manhattan, unless you really have to.

New York City, especially Manhattan, is unlike anywhere else in the US. Manhattan is more like an European or Asian city, with narrow streets and tons of pedestrians. Public transportation is the main and most convenient way of getting around the city and most people in New York City don’t even own a car.

If you are thinking about driving a car from attraction to attraction in New York City, then you couldn’t be making a bigger mistake. Unlike Los Angeles, there is no free parking structure and huge free parking lots, instead you will be fighting pedestrians, taxis, and bikes trying to move 10 blocks and circle around 20 minutes just to find parking.

Unfortunately I sometimes have to drive into Manhattan (and I also drive around Brooklyn, Queens, New Jersey and Long Island), so I am here to share with you some tips on driving in New York City if you still decide to drive here.

Planning a New York City vacation?

As a New York City local, I explore the city every week to provide the most updated information and recommendations for visitors like you.

From New York City itineraries to things to do and places to eat (don’t forget cute flower cafes), I have written about all sorts of topics.

Whether you are visiting NYC in the wintersummerspring or fall, you will find a ton of recommendations from me and never get bored!

Christmas in NYC : Lotte Palace Christmas Tree

You cannot turn right on red in New York City

One of the first things you need to know about driving in NYC is that you cannot turn right on a red light. I used to drive in California and this was such a big surprise to me. As you can imagine, there are a ton of pedestrians in New York City, turning right on red would be quite dangerous for the pedestrians and bicyclists.

Keep in mind that New York City has 5 boroughs: Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, Bronx, and Staten Island. So even if you get out of Manhattan, you still need to follow this rule.

However, if you go to New Jersey or Long Island, you can turn right on red, unless there are signs specifically stating that you can’t.

You cannot turn right or left during certain hours in New York City

There are a lot of buses in New York City, and therefore there are many rules associated with driving with buses.

On some of the most busy streets in New York City, you will see a sign (hanging on the traffic light) that says you cannot turn between certain hours (usually ends at 7pm) Monday to Friday and only buses can turn.

If you’ve driven in NYC, you would see that because of the amount of cars and pedestrians, trying to turn left or right on green would hold up all the traffic behind you. Therefore only buses can make these turns on certain streets.

You cannot drive in the bus lane in NYC

While we are talking about buses, since buses carry over 2 million New Yorkers everyday, they get a lot of special treatment. One special thing is that buses get their own lane sometimes (not all the time, but on certain streets). Individual bus lanes help to keep the buses on time and free from traffic since NYC traffic can be really terrible.

Bus lanes in New York City are often painted pinkish red, with words written on the ground indicating it’s a bus lane. There are also signs that say bus only, except right turns.

If you see these lanes, be sure to NOT drive in them, unless you are making a right turn soon. I unfortunately got a ticket ($50) for driving in a bus lane by the traffic camera.

Driving on the bridge in NYC

You are unlikely to get pulled over in New York City

Unlike cities like Los Angeles where there are cops driving around all the time, I rarely saw any traffic cops in NYC, and I’ve never seen anyone getting pulled over in New York City. The only times I’ve seen people getting pulled over was when we drove upstate for apple picking and our friend was speeding.

But within NYC, I’ve seen so many people speeding and running red lights and there was not a single cop in sight. However, this doesn’t mean you won’t get a ticket!

Traffic cameras are installed on major streets and they take speeding (and apparently driving in bus lanes) pretty seriously. I’ve gotten multiple tickets just driving down one street for speeding. Each ticket was $50, which is way less than what I had gotten before in Los Angeles.

So keep in mind that even though you most likely won’t get pulled over in New York City, the cameras are watching you.

There are many one way streets in New York City

Since streets are narrow, many streets in Manhattan are only one way streets. Although this doesn’t necessarily affect your driving (or maybe it does), it sure can get annoying, especially if you need to go around just to get on the correct street.

I’ve actually seen people accidentally drive the wrong direction on one way streets, only to find out it’s wrong when another car is headed towards them. Therefore before you make any turns, be sure to check it’s not a one way street that you should not be turning to.

Driving in Chinatown

Follow the speed limit, which is lower than you think

I sort of alluded to this earlier, but the speed limit is actually pretty strictly enforced in New York City, at least on major roads.

When I was living in California, I remember the speed limit was 40 mph on roads unless it’s in front of a school or on residential streets. But in New York City, even major streets have a 25 mile speed limit. There are actually talks of lowering the speed limit to 20!

In addition, the highway speed limit in New York City is generally no more than 50 mph, which is a big difference compared to the 65 mph speed limit in California.

Like I said earlier, even though there may not be cops to pull you over in the city, there are cameras everywhere. Don’t be like me and get multiple speeding tickets for not realizing I was driving too fast.

Driving in downtown Brooklyn

Be aware of alternate side parking in New York City

I’m not sure if this is unique to NYC (I heard it is) but we have alternate side parking, which is pretty much a street cleaning rule that takes effect every week.

On different days of the week, each side of the street will have street cleaning. During those times, you cannot park on that particular side of the street, but you can park on the opposite side of the street if there are spots (generally there aren’t).

What I used to do in order to get parking is to literally park my car on the side that’s being cleaned while I sit in the car. Then once the time period passes, I can leave the car there. I thought I was the only one doing that, but I was wrong. I noticed even during the cleaning period the street is fully parked, with everyone sitting in the car and waiting. This way if the cleaning truck does come, we can easily move the car and we don’t have to worry about getting a ticket.

Sunday morning is the best time to find parking in New York City

If you insist on driving in Manhattan, keep in mind that parking is very difficult to come by, especially during the week. However everyone in NYC knows that Sunday morning is the best time to find parking if you drive, because everything is free!

There are a lot of parking meters so usually you can’t park at the same spot for more than 2 hours. On weekdays there are also a lot of restrictions on parking such as truck loading zones, school zones, etc. But on Sundays, none of these rules apply, there is no street cleaning, no enforcement on parking in front of schools, etc.

So if I have to drive to Manhattan, Sunday morning is the only time I’m willing to drive it to look for parking. If you are going into Manhattan Sunday noon or afternoon, most of the parking spots would’ve been taken already.

Parking garages are very expensive in NYC

In case you can’t find street parking in New York City, your next (and only) option is to find a parking garage.

There are plenty of small parking garages in New York City, but they generally cost a lot and they are more likely than not a valet parking, meaning an attendant will take your car and drive away to park. Since there are not a lot of spaces in NYC, they need to pack in as many cars as possible.

In general, you can expect to pay between $15 to $40 for a few hours, depending on the location and time. When I went to the Brooklyn Bridge area I paid about $30 for parking for the afternoon.

Honestly if you are trying to sightsee in Manhattan, it’s cheaper for you to take the subway or even Uber around compared to driving. You literally cannot just move your car from attraction to attraction. You will most likely park somewhere then walk a lot or end up taking public transit anyway.

If you need to look for parking garages in NYC, then I suggest using parkwhiz or SpotHero to find a spot. I also use the SpotAngels app to check meter requirements or other parking restrictions (like street cleaning schedule).

If you do valet parking, I would suggest that you take videos/ photos of your car before handing it over. My car has been badly scratched at a parking lot and without video proof they can deny scratching your car.

Driving in New York City is like driving an obstacle course

I am not kidding when I say driving here is like driving an obstacle course! There are pedestrians, motorcycles, bicycles and double parked cars everywhere and they pop out of nowhere.

I always advise people to drive in the middle lane (if the road has 3 lanes) whenever possible. Why I say this is that I’ve noticed the left lane always randomly turns into a left turn only lane, and the right lane always has double parked cars!

If the road you are driving on only has 2 lanes per direction, then it’s better you drive in the left lane than the right, unless you need to make an immediate right turn. Every single time I drive (which is pretty often), I always encounter double parked cars on every single street.

Double parked cars in NYC
Double parked car on the right

While I understand people double park because they can’t find parking, it really does get annoying when you need to switch lanes to avoid them. The best is when it’s a two way street and both sides have double parked cars, then both directions need to cut into each other’s lane to get through.

You need to parallel park in New York City

While we are on the parking topic, I just want to emphasize the importance of parallel parking in New York City.

You are not going to find an open lot or garage with tons of parking in the city. If you were to get free parking (or cheap parking), it will have to be street parking. Street parking means you need to parallel park, since there aren’t just wide open spots waiting for you in the middle of Manhattan, or anywhere.

I never knew how to properly parallel park but now I’m forced to learn since I don’t want to pay $15-20 every time I need to park. Practice your parallel parking before you come to New York City, because you will be expected to park ASAP without disturbing too much traffic (or be prepared to be honked at).

parallel parking in nyc

There aren’t many gas stations in Manhattan

Unlike California where you can find a gas station every two blocks, I hardly see any gas stations in New York City, especially in Manhattan. Even in other parts of NYC, it is definitely not as frequent as every couple of blocks!

If you need to get gas in Manhattan, you can find them on Google maps (they are usually on the west or east side of Manhattan), and if you go more north above 100s streets, you will see more gas stations. Since there are fewer gas stations in the city, they also tend to be more expensive.

I almost never get gas in Manhattan, I find getting gas in New Jersey or Queens way cheaper than getting gas in Manhattan.

Intersections in NYC
Chaotic intersections

Expect a lot of honking in New York City

When I first moved to Manhattan I was shocked at the amount of honking there is. It seems like people honk at anything and everything out of frustration. There are also a lot of very impatient drivers in New York City, so they will honk at any inconvenience. In fact if you are not immediately moving when the light turns green, someone will honk at you.

Driving in Manhattan at night

Get an E-ZPass if you plan to drive to on bridges or tunnels

EZ Pass is the electronic fast pass box that you can use to pay for tolls when driving using certain bridges and tunnels in New York City and New Jersey.

While there is always the Tolls by Mail option where they take a photo of your plate and send you a bill after, an E-Zpass allows you to pre-pay tolls at a discount. There are also discount plans and commuter plans if you regularly drive on bridges and in the tunnels.

There are no rules when driving in NYC

Sure there are traffic laws, but who actually follows them in NYC? I’m not sure if this is a post-covid problem or a NYC problem, but I find driving in NYC very frustrating. You won’t believe the number of people that run red lights, don’t stop at stop signs, block intersections, and just do things that they are not supposed to do.

Since there aren’t many traffic cops around, people literally just do what they want when they drive. Nobody respects the right of way. If you are turning right when someone’s trying to turn left, instead of waiting to let you turn (since it is your right of way), the other driver will be very aggressive and try to cut you off instead.

Instead, when I went to LA this past summer, I found driving in LA so much more relaxing. There were no pedestrians, people actually drove in their lane, people didn’t run red lights all the time and there were actually parking on the street. It was a nice change from driving in the chaotic New York City and I did find my driving more aggressive than a typical California driver.

Don’t drive in New York City

I’m sure I’m not the only one who tells you to not drive in New York City, actually all major travel forums and Facebook groups will tell you the same thing: DO NOT DRIVE IN NEW YORK CITY.

Unless you are planning to go upstate or to Long Island or New Jersey, there really is no reason for you to drive in New York City. Public transportation is 24/7 and takes you almost everywhere in the city. Driving means you need to pay for parking and deal with all the chaos there is in the city.

If you are a tourist, I really don’t see a point to driving in NYC, especially in Manhattan. You will get around faster by walking or taking the subway or even an Uber than driving your own car and having to worry about parking.

Read Next: Complete Guide to Taking the Subway in New York City

Additional New York City Articles

If you want to check out other cool things to do and see in NYC here are some other articles that may interest you!

New York City Itineraries & Things to Do

Christmas and Holiday Season in New York City

New York City Seasonal Articles

How to Save Money Traveling to NYC

New York City Food Guide

Other New York City Guides

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *