'Nobody walks in New Jersey'seems to be mantra State has moreregistered cars than licensed drivers

October 02, 1997

NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE — ALONG THE NEW JERSEY TURNPIKE - Off Exit 16W, there is a Burger King on frenzied Route 17 in Rutherford that proclaims the arrival of a 24-hour drive-through, the quintessential New Jersey convenience. In this state, no matter what the hour, people don't like to step out of their cars if they don't have to.

The other morning, under wispy clouds, 19-year-old Jessica Dimone was chugging through the drive-through in her 1982 Toyota Tercel. Since getting the car two years ago at the age the state creed demands that all New Jerseyans acquire motorized transportation, she has essentially given her legs the rest of their lives off.

"I drive everywhere, absolutely," she said proudly. "I'm in the car probably a couple of hours a day. Everyone like drives all the time here. It's easier."

What was the shortest conceivable distance she would drive?

"If I'm going to go around the corner, I'll drive," she said without hesitation. "Nobody walks in New Jersey. You drive."

Exactly. That seems to be the New Jersey mantra, chanted daily while behind the wheel, over the incessant yakking of the drive-time radio shows: If you can drive next door, why exhaust yourself by walking?

Insurance cost is issue

If America has an infatuation with the automobile - just ask people in Los Angeles or Detroit - then New Jersey has an outright obsession with it. Small wonder that the pivotal issue weighing on voters' minds in the governor's race is auto insurance rates. It was bound to be something related to cars. It just happens that right now state residents are truly exasperated at paying the steepest insurance prices in the nation, but if something peculiar were going on with ignition systems or floor mats, then that would be the issue. If it affects cars, it affects New Jerseyans big time.

In New Jersey, largely an amalgamation of suburbs linked by highways, there are more cars per square mile than in any other state. There are, in fact, more registered cars than licensed drivers - 6.4 million vehicles to 5.7 million drivers - and the gap has been steadily widening. People here drive 60 billion miles a year and appear to relish every mile.

In New Jersey, one can drive through any suburb and spy cars roosting on lawns, with driveways and garages already claimed by second, third, fourth vehicles. In New Jersey, people build two driveways, one to each side of the house, to accommodate their personal fleet of cars. In New Jersey, people rent driveway space from those odd neighbors who, for unfathomable reasons, do not have enough cars of their own.

In New Jersey, "Where do you live?" long ago became "What exit?" In other words, where along the New Jersey Turnpike, the defining compass of the state. To be sure, in some instances it makes better sense to fix geography by the nearest Garden State Parkway exit.

Off Exit 9 of the turnpike, Michael Aaron Rockland teaches American studies at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. He wrote a book, "Looking for America," in which he employs the turnpike as a prism to view the country.

'Crazy over parking'

"New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the country, and yet it's the most car-oriented state, because we don't have very good public transportation," he said. "I've often thought we should just declare New Jersey Los Angeles and relax."

He puts a solid 20,000 miles a year on his own '92 Honda Accord, but feels less car-seduced than most. "In New Jersey, people are always saying, 'I love my car.' They're really into their wheels. I don't love my car, as such, I don't think. Well, maybe a little bit." Parking, though, riles him. "Parking is a big obsession," he said.

"The professors at Rutgers go crazy over parking. We have to pay a percentage of our salaries for parking - I pay $230 - and yet you get here and you can't park because all the spaces are taken," he said.

Off Exit 15E, Ralph Mendez was doing what most New Jerseyans do during those spare moments when they are not driving. He was getting his car washed. At the Eagle Car Wash in Jersey City, he chose the wash-it-yourself option. For $2, he got a hose that sprayed water for four minutes.

He is in construction as well as being a fitness instructor. He has a black Toyota 4x4, and he uses it a lot. His girlfriend works in the casinos in Atlantic City, so he makes the trip down there every weekend. When he is not driving to see her or driving to work or driving to the store, when he just wants to chill out a little already, what he often does is he drives.

"Yeah, I drive just to drive," he said. "It's recreation. I do more thinking in the vehicle driving. I find my mind is much calmer when I'm in the car."

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