All roads lead to nowhere - slowly

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The Independent Online

Driving uptown for a dinner party a few nights ago, I achieved the supreme feat of surfing the green signals for almost 40 blocks along Third Avenue without stopping. How sweet it was! Mine was the Olympic gold for synchronised light-hopping. Not that there was anyone in the passenger seat to appreciate it.

Such moments of private glee come rarely in Manhattan, where a little over 3mph is the average speed for cars in the Midtown section on any weekday. Cross-town trips are notoriously agonising. Take a cab, and chances are you will eventually give up and complete the rest of your journey on foot.

A study by Baruch College into the quality of life in New York lists the worst complaints of residents of the five boroughs. In the Bronx, for instance, it's too much drug dealing, while Brooklynites are most agitated by the exploding rat population. It is no surprise, however, that in Manhattan we moan first of all about traffic congestion. No fewer than 800,000 extra vehicles enter Midtown every workday.

Day to day, New Yorkers think less about terrorism than they do about traffic. We even have our own alert system for it. (It's not yet colour-coded, though.) In the summer, when the air gets thick with car fumes, electronic signs on the main roads coming into town announce that we are in the midst of an "Ozone Alert". When the traffic in town is poised to grind to a halt altogether, the message reads "Gridlock Alert".

And now we are entering the worst season of all, when the streets around my office, just behind Saks Fifth Avenue and a block from Rockefeller Center with its giant Christmas tree, become so clogged - with cars and pedestrians - that the whole neighbourhood seems set for instant cardiac arrest.

It is time, you would imagine, for New York to follow London's lead and adopt some kind of congestion charge to deal with the mess. To implement such a system, the city would only have to introduce tolls on all the major access routes into Manhattan instead of just a handful of them, like the Midtown Tunnel, as it does now. But if such a change requires political will, so far it seems to be missing.

So, half-measures are taken. Witness the thickets of little rubber bollards that have just sprouted separating traffic lanes along 10 blocks of Fifth and Sixth avenues near Rockefeller Center. They will remain there until the start of January, when the holiday season is over. They are meant to block cars from changing lanes or even turning left or right down the cross streets, and thus funnel traffic north and south more quickly. Judging by how many of them have already been mangled, drivers do not much like them.

Fortune magazine described the misery of the automobile bedlam of New York in an article headlined "The Traffic Outrage". It concluded that the city had become "gaseous, torpid and impenetrable" thanks to the daily invasion of cars, buses and lorries. The story appeared in 1946. The same writer today would presumably take one look and hightail it straight to Montana.

George, Osama and other villains

Architecture buffs among you may know the name Edward Durrell Stone. Not me, but I discovered his work one night last week when I took part in a panel discussion on the impact of George Bush's re-election on American foreign policy at the University of Albany, which is part of the State University of New York.

My only complaint was the almost total absence of directions and road signs, meaning that it took me 30 minutes of wandering to find the venue in the New Science Building. Consequently, I got to visit every last corner of Stone's campus, built in the Sixties, and was grateful for it. The architecture, almost Moorish with a central giant minaret structure, is thrilling.

I was nervous that I might seem too myopically anti-Bush in my presentation. I needn't have worried; compared to my two co-panellists, I came across as a virtual Republican. When Irving Stolberg, a former speaker of the Connecticut legislature, suggested that the neocons around Bush, such as Paul Wolfowitz, were more evil than Osama bin Laden, even I was a bit taken aback. The students, though, cheered.

Pets and the city

Never mind universal healthcare for America's citizens. What about its pets? I'm going to campaign for free treatment for every kitty, pooch and guinea pig in this wealthy land. Yes, the pug has been unwell. Suicidal, even.

As I drove upstate to the place I share near the Catskills, the little fellow discovered a bottle of aspirin on the back seat of the car. Easily defeating the safety cap, he swallowed the lot. About 20 pills, with their sweet shiny coating, slid easily down his throat.

What followed were six hours of sheer panic from his owner, hurtling at 90mph to the nearest vet, who sent me 60 miles further to the regional animal emergency clinic near Albany. By then the dog was behaving as if on some kind of narcotic high, cavorting around the examination room in a frenzy, his legs splaying like limp runner-beans.

At midnight, the clinic eventually let me take him home, but only after filling him with assorted concoctions and talking darkly about the risks over the coming days of internal bleeding and kidney failure. Neither happened, and he seems to have totally recovered.

I'm grateful - and broke. Just as for humans, the care that is available for animals in this country is surely unequalled in the world. And so are the bills that come with it.