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By Jan Wagner - syndicated weekly columnist/photojournalist
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April 11-12, 2006: Adventure between Washington, D.C. and New York City

 


My ZAP SMART Car Arrives in New York City

Hello from New York City! My SMART car entry in the ZAP across America Rally has officially arrived and here is the proof, road dirt and all.

It has been about a week since my exciting adventure began just north of San Francisco. From there I drove south in one of ZAPís tiny SMART cars to Los Angeles, then east through Phoenix and all the way to Washington, DC. Very early this morning I completed the final leg of my journey, as I drove from Washington, D.C. to New York City.

I have so much to tell you in this, my final column from the road. Rather than short-change you by writing a very brief column so that I can selfishly go and get in line at the "tkts" booth in Times Square for a half price ticket to a Broadway play tonight, I'm going to take my time and do this right.

When I last reported to you, I had arrived in Washington, DC. I got in very late at night (actually very early in the morning). My hotel was a welcome sight indeed, after spending the previous two nights sleeping in my SMART car in order to make up time so that I could meet my deadline for getting to Press Preview days of the New York International Auto Show. My plan was to rest up a bit, recharge and head off to New York City to attend a pre-Press Preview day event that I had been invited to. Well, that plan changed at some point during the day - and for good reason.

It dawned on me that I had never been to Washington, DC before, and I had no idea when or if I would be returning. It was a beautiful day, I had checked out of my hotel and I had a car. Why was I rushing to New York for a cocktail party when I could tour Washington, DC instead? It is amazing what a little bit of sleep can do to clear one's thinking. It would have  been nuts for me to pass up this golden opportunity. So, I aborted my early departure from Washington and did some heavy duty sightseeing.


SMART car & Washington, DC flora

My first stop was in a quiet, older neighborhood of the city. The beauty of the blossoms on so many of the trees that lined the streets particularly struck me, so I had to stop then and there and take some pictures.


The Washington Monument in the far distance, as seen from the road

Next I wanted to get some photos of Washington landmarks by day. Like I had done in my trip from California, I thought I might be able to take one-handed photos from my car as I drove by (isn't auto everything wonderful?). However, between the daytime traffic and the distance I was from my intended subjects, the results of my efforts were just not good enough so I decided to park as close as I could and then make my tour on foot, up close and personal.


U.S. Government motorcade

On my way to do so, as I was stuck in traffic, the sounds of sirens approached and a motorcade drove by in the middle, turning lane of the crowded city street. There were black SUVs and limousines, vans and police. I wonder who was in them and where they were going.


SMART car at the Smithsonian Institution

I eventually drove to The Castle, the first building of the Smithsonian Institution. It serves as its Information Center. It is only one of the Smithsonian's 18 buildings, according to their guide book, along with the National Zoo and nine research centers. Together, they help to preserve and also display our vast national treasure.

I was quite lucky, as I learned, to find such a prime, on-street parking spot. Someone just happened to be pulling out as I arrived. They were driving a small van, which had filled their parking space. Not wanting to risk losing the parking spot by pulling forward of it, in order to back up and parallel park, instead I just turned and pulled right up to the curb - an easy feat in the extremely compact SMART car. Ease of parking truly is one of this car's best and most appreciated attributes.


Free on-street parking by the Smithsonian

Once I parked and got out of the car, I noticed that there was a huge amount of room in front of and behind it. I almost felt guilty for parking in the spot. At least two and probably three SMART cars could have parked there. If more of us drove SMART cars, our parking problems could be drastically reduced.

I learned that the Smithsonian, like my three hours of on-street parking there, was completely free of charge. That makes it accessible to everyone. That is a far cry from New York or even the rest of Washington, where they seem to charge handsomely for almost everything imaginable.

I did not have much time to tour the Smithsonian as it was getting to be late in the afternoon. I decided that the one building that I would take time to see before closing was The National Air and Space Museum. To do that I would miss seeing Richard Petty's NASCAR stock car, as well as all sorts of fascinating technology and natural history exhibits, but I would not have enough time to see anything else. I suspect that one could happily spend weeks, if not months, touring the many buildings of the Smithsonian and studying the exhibits (over 135 MILLION and increasing daily).


National Museum of the American Indian

After the Smithsonian closed for the day, I left and explored the National Mall. On the way I passed by the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. If a building could ever look organic and one with nature, this was it.


United States Capitol building

Since I was already part way towards the United States Capitol building, I walked over to it to take a closer look. After seeing it first hand, I can assure you that mere photos do not do it justice. The place is awe inspiring and seems larger than life. From there you can look back along the Mall and see the Washington Monument in the distance.


                                                                                                            An industrious visitor to the National Mall

That sight made the choice of my next destination easy. It took me about 15 minutes to walk there. I was delayed somewhat as I stopped to photograph a busy squirrel.


The Washington Monument on the National Mall

The Washington Monument is ringed with flags. It looks sort of like a big rocket pointed skyward. Viewed from near or far, and no matter what the time of day, it is beautiful in its simplicity.

From there the Lincoln Memorial was barely visible in the distance. I had to go see it, passing war memorials along the way.


Lincoln Memorial

I walked up the stairs past throngs of onlookers and stood at Lincoln's feet, looking up.

I was rapidly losing the light of day, but there was still one more place that I just had to see. No visit to Washington would be complete without a visit to The White House. I glanced at my watch. The three hours of free parking was nearly up. Could I make it in time? I had to.


The White House at dusk

Armed with directions I left the Mall and walked the streets of Washington. I was surprised to find The White House in what is essentially an urban area. The exterior photos that I've seen of The White House often show the building surrounded by an expanse of green grounds. I assumed that this green belt was very large. In reality, it is not particularly so. One can easily walk around the entire White House, grounds and all. I took my pictures and quickly left. Would I make it back to my car in time or would I return to find a large, expensive parking ticket on the windshield or, worse yet, would the car be gone (towed away)?

Already very tired from my long walk, I nevertheless half ran, half walked, with my heavy camera gear, back in the direction of my car. When I finally arrived at the building that I had been approaching, I saw no car! Then I realized that I had gone to the wrong dark brown building. Luckily I was able to spot The Castle down the street in the distance. Now exhausted, I nevertheless forced myself to half run, half walk once again. Soon I saw my SMART car, and when I arrived I was relieved to find that there was no ticket on its windshield.

I got in the car, programmed my GPS for New York City and took off. I was expecting a 4 1/2 hour drive. I had not had dinner yet and it was already a little after 8 PM.

At first my drive went well, thanks in no small part to my Garmin GPS which had reliably guided me almost all the way across the United States. At some point I stopped for a very long dinner. My car attracted a variety of curious people, from an off-duty taxi driver to a former lawyer turned balloon artist!


One last stop for dinner on my journey

Eventually I got back on the road but soon, even though I was in completely unfamiliar territory, something started to feel very wrong.

I had been driving along with traffic until I reached a point where the highway that I was on intersected with another one. Everyone else stayed on the highway that, according to the signs, led to New York, but my GPS directed me to take the other highway towards a different major city in another state. I think I was headed towards Philadelphia, if I am not mistaken. Tired from my long trip, I didnít question my Garminís directions. I just figured that it had calculated a shorter route. So, I kept driving. Instead, I should have remembered the time my previous Garmin GPS had directed me to take a much longer, and out of the way, route to Las Vegas Ė instead of staying on the road that the signs Ė and the majority of the traffic, indicated was the better way to go. Once again I ignored my common sense and away I went in blissful ignorance.

Eventually I had been driving for a long time and did not see any signs for New York. Worse yet, there was hardly any traffic. Surely more people would have been on the main road between Washington, D.C. and New York City. What was wrong?

I found myself on a road with a 55 mph speed limit, yet it was constantly interrupted by traffic lights that kept turning red as I approached them. I finally realized that I was definitely not on a major highway. It was well after midnight and I feared I was lost. I had to get back on route because in a few hours I needed to be at the first of the two Press Preview days of the New York International Auto Show Ė and I also needed to check into my hotel in New York. It was becoming likely that I would not be able to get any sleep before going to the show. I pulled over to assess my situation, try to over-ride my Garmin GPS and figure out where to go.

Almost as soon as I stopped, a police car with flashing red lights approached and stopped beside me. The policeman had pulled his cruiser over to see why my strange little car was stopped on a deserted highway in the middle of nowhere. As crazy as it must have sounded, I told him the truth. I think it was about the time that I went into my spiel about my cross-country adventure and offered to give him some promotional literature on my SMART car that he probably realized that I was not up to no good. Surely no one would have made up such a ridiculous story at oh-dark-thirty and tell it with a straight face. As I recall he just shook his head and drove off into the night.

Suddenly the answer came to me. I instinctively knew what had gone so very wrong.

You see, when I am in Southern California and travel between San Diego and Los Angeles, I take care to avoid the toll road in Orange County. I view taking that road as a waste of money. Since I drive between San Diego and Los Angeles quite often, and use my GPS to guide me, I had thus programmed my GPS to avoid toll roads.

Duh! I couldnít believe what I had done to myself. I had programmed my GPS to avoid toll roads and I was going to a place which had toll roads everywhere. No wonder I was taking such an out-of-the-way route. It must have been quite an accomplishment for the GPS to do what I told it to do. Well, I changed the setting on my GPS and took off again. Not surprisingly, soon I was back on high speed roadways.

I was not out of trouble yet. My next problem came when I was on the New Jersey Turnpike. Remember, I am originally from a small city in Western Canada. I rarely drive in really heavy traffic with impatient locals and in totally unfamiliar places.

Driving my SMART car, I was being passed left and right by speeding 18-wheelers. I was nervous and tired. I had no idea where I was going, and my confidence in my GPS navigation system was shaken. When I finally got to a toll plaza just before the tunnel that my GPS had told me to take into New York City, I thought I was finally home-free. Wrong, wrong, wrong!

I could only see one open lane in the sprawling toll booth plaza that indicated it would accept cash. It was way over on the left side of the plaza and I had just seen that the tunnel entrance was on the right. I had no choice but to go left and hope.

I paid my money and emerged on the other side, only to discover that the way between my position and the tunnel entrance was blocked by a dividing wall. I couldn't go where I needed to and I couldn't stop and try to figure it out, because there were impatient drivers behind me.

So, instead, I had to circle way around and double back. It was like I was in a nightmare and couldn't wake up. The time of day was certainly right for that scenario. I should have been long since asleep and not driving, lost on the New Jersey Turnpike.

Somewhere along the way I stopped, walked into the entrance building of another toll road and asked for directions from the officer on duty.

He told me where I should go. I did, but not before I had to pay a second toll, since I had been forced by the circumstances to re-enter the toll road.


One of the tunnels along the way

The entrance road to this tunnel was closed so I had to take a very slow detour. I recall seeing a stop sign, so I stopped. That was a BIG mistake. I quickly learned that unless your way is physically blocked, you do not stop because of an unoccupied construction zone. A blaring chorus of honking horns behind me told me told me that in no uncertain terms. Having California license plates and being in a strange little car didn't help. Tourist or not, these people had places to go (even though it was only about 4 AM) and they were mad at me. Luckily no one crashed into me or pulled out a weapon.

My last big thrill of the evening was driving on an elevated highway the likes of which Iíd never experienced in my entire life. Now I donít like heights. I get dizzy if I stand too close to the edge of a balcony. Never before had I been on a road so high up off the ground that I felt like I was in danger of falling over the side. I felt like I was driving on a road held up by skyscrapers. It was absolutely unreal.

In retrospect, I am very glad that I didnít have to go through this nerve-wracking experience during the daytime. It probably would have been way worse and taken me at least twice as long to get where I needed to go. As it was, it took me about eight hours to complete my relatively short drive to New York City from Washington, D.C. I wouldnít be surprised if that is some sort of record. Of course, that included my stop for dinner, where I actually spent almost as much time outside the restaurant answering questions about the SMART car as I spent eating. Now I can appreciate what movie stars must feel like when they are in a hurry to get somewhere but fans stop them to talk or sign autographs.


Hello New York City!

Once I was safely in New York City and near my hotel, I took advantage of the light traffic at 4 AM (shopkeepers were already showing up for work) to stop alongside a few curbs in the vicinity of Times Square and take pictures of my SMART car in the city, to prove that I had indeed completed my drive in it from Northern California. I was lucky that I unintentionally timed my arrival to be so early in the morning because I probably could not have stopped there for pictures later in the day.

Then, following the instructions of a New York-based ZAP representative for my car's return to them, I parked my SMART car a few blocks from my hotel, in a parking lot. Back at my hotel I wrote the ZAP representative a note telling him where Iíd left the car, and then put that and the parking claim check in an envelope for him to pick up. With that my long journey officially came to an end.

That was yesterday morning. Immediately after checking into my hotel (and having missed yet another night's sleep), I gathered my stuff together, put on a nice pair of leather shoes and walked off towards the Jacob Javits convention center for the first of the two Press Preview days of the New York International Auto Show. I'll save that report, along with many beauty shots of the automobiles, for my next AutoMatters column.

In conclusion, it looks like my trip across America by SMART car was a resounding success. With only one minor, easily corrected hiccup along the way, my SMART car performed well. It was able to do the posted speed limits - which were as high as 75 MPH. Headroom was incredible, with a good six inches of clearance above my head, and the seat was comfortable. The heating and air conditioning systems worked well and, considering the diminutive external dimensions of the car, it had an amazing amount of space inside. Normally one person doesn't take three suitcases with them, but I brought along computer equipment, camera gear and two weeks worth of clothes, in addition to leaving some space intentionally empty so that I could bring back materials from the auto show). A more normal amount of luggage would probably fit without having to use the passenger seat for some of it.

My calculated fuel economy varied significantly during the trip, from a high of 52 MPG after a leg between California and Arizona, to a low of 34 MPG after a particularly nasty stretch of road in California that included a long uphill climb in windy conditions. As best I could tell, due to slightly less than complete records, my average calculated fuel economy was just under 40 MPG overall for the trip. I think that is pretty good considering that the vast majority of the distance was run at or near the speed limit in a tiny, heavily loaded car with a small, three cylinder engine. I am confident that the fuel economy would be significantly better at lower speeds and with a lighter, more reasonable load. My SMART car performed well for a vehicle that some insist is just suitable for city use. I think that I proved otherwise.

Then there is the major rock star factor. There was hardly a time when I wasn't approached by curious onlookers when I stopped, which made for very long refueling breaks. People of all ages really seemed to like the SMART car and they were eager to learn more about it. The most common questions were whether or not it ran on electricity (no, it runs on gasoline) and how much it costs (the answer to that question seems to vary by dealer and is tied to supply, which is very low, and demand, which is currently very high). I suspect the price will come down once the early adopters in the U.S. market have their cars.

If you would like to learn more, go to the ZAP Web site at http://www.zapworld.com.

It is now quite late on my 'free' day on this, my second or third trip to New York City. I guess I won't be seeing a Broadway play this time so Iíll just have to come back again. I'd like that.

I am looking forward to hearing from the other members of the ZAP Across America rally and learning first-hand about their experiences in their SMART cars. We can all read what I'm sure are very interesting reports at www.zapworld.com/blog.

I sincerely hope that you've enjoyed reading about my cross-country adventure. This was probably as close to being on the CBS TV show The Amazing Race as I am likely to get.

My next (and final) AutoMatters column about this trip will cover the New York International Auto Show. Look for it soon. 

As always, please share your stories and send your comments to AutoMatters@gmail.com. Enjoy the archives and more at www.AutoMatters.net. Drive safely and do join me again next time.

 

Copyright © 2006 Jan R. Wagner Ė #188r2 AutoMatters

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