Transportation Equity, One Smart Street at a Time
By Lisa Rainwater
Street Smart. Street Wise. Street Creds. All descriptions of a person who knows how to handle one’s self and gain respect along the way. Street Smart is also the title of a new book by native Brooklynite, “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz, who played stickball and learned how to outrun bullies on the streets of Bensonhurst in the 1950s, outsmarted bureaucratic hacks in the 1980s to save the Williamsburg Bridge, and has garnered enough engineering credentials to make him a renowned, global transportation consultant. Street Smart: The Rise of Cities and the Fall of Cars (PublicAffairs, September 2015) is an engaging trip down memory lane, where trolleys and pedestrians and bicycles intersect and collide with cars in what Schwartz calls “an accident of history,” replete with a promising path toward a multi-modal urban revival.
Schwartz begins at the dawn of the twentieth century, when bicycles had become so popular that America’s largest special-interest group – The League of American Wheelman – led a successful campaign to improve the nation’s roads. But as the number of personal automobiles rose (by 1925, 17 million cars were clocking 220,000 miles), so, too, did the need for new and “improved” roadways that accommodated not wagons and bicycles but the automobile. And this cost money. With the Highway Trust Fund offering 90 cents to the dollar to any municipality, local politicians stepped up to the plate with open palms, and the love of the American automobile was born (in Schwartz’s case, it inevitably led to the permanent displacement of his beloved Brooklyn Dodgers).
And with that, cities began to crumble:
“Instead of arresting the decline of cities, the IHS (Interstate Highway System) paid billions of dollars to accelerate it, in precisely those neighborhoods with the least political clout and money. Families that might have been inclined to stay in a metropolitan area now had another, compelling reason to move to the suburbs that were sprouting like toadstools everywhere in America where a new Interstate could carry commuters from home to work and back again.”
Coupled with the Federal Housing Authority’s directives – which drew money away from cities and into the suburbs – streetcars, buses, walking, and biking to and from work, school, and shopping were no longer a possibility. The car became “an absolute” necessity.
Schwartz yens for less reliability on the auto as the prime mode of transportation and has spent a great deal of his professional life remodeling urban streets that were choked off by traffic engineers focused on mobility not accessibility. But Schwartz is not anti-car. Throughout the book, the reader gets a first-hand glimpse of Sam the Boy becoming Sam the Man. And to a man in the 60s – even in Brooklyn – a ’64 Pontiac Grand Prix was “very cool.” He made the purchase with money he earned from driving cab and soon learned he wasn’t the only man in Bensonhurst who had a hankering for those white bucket seats.
Schwartz is a champion of multi-modality. Buses, subways, streetcars, automobiles, bicycling, and walking are all a part of our post-modern society, and he isn’t proposing that everyone from the suburbs give up their autos and move back to the city (at least not today). But it is happening at a much greater rate than ever before, and it has a lot to do with the Millennial generation. He devotes a whole chapter to those born between 1980 – 2004, for whether they want to or not, they are changing the American landscape. Millennials are moving back to cities in droves, eschewing the automobile, and embracing public transportation. From 2007 to 2011, there was a 30% drop in car purchases by people aged eighteen to thirty-four. As Schwartz notes, the auto industry is scrambling. (On a recent trip to Target, I scratched my head at a front aisle display of a mini electric Mercedes Benz for children with a shocking sticker price of $400. Perhaps the industry has decided to skip the Millennials, I thought, while watching a four-year-old squeal in delight.) There are many explanations for the Millennials’ shift in preferences, and Schwartz argues that access to 24/7 digital technology and accessibility greatly impacts their decisions. It’s worth noting that two of Schwartz’s smart street principles are walkability and Internet and GPS-enabled wayfinding.
No doubt, the book is a love letter to his hometown – New York City. Schwartz knows his city – the good, the bad, and the ugly. Sordid stories of Robert Moses and city officials abound, making for juicy gossip to share at a dinner party on the Upper West Side. But you don’t have to be from one of the five boroughs to understand that Schwartz’s youthful days traveling the city by subway opened his eyes to a world far greater than the Big Apple. The reader accompanies him on trips to Los Angeles, Chicago, Tampa, Columbus, Oklahoma City, Barcelona, and Zurich – where forward-thinking mayors are combatting obesity, congestion, pedestrian and biking fatalities, and abandoned storefronts by installing bike lanes, pedestrian malls, parklets, and more. It is this future that Schwartz promotes not only in his book but also at Sam Schwartz Consulting, a firm he started in 1995 after leaving government work.
Schwartz ends with an eye on equality, a theme that runs throughout his book. From displaced peoples and neighborhoods at the height of the rush to build roads to today’s displacement of lower-income families by Millennials able to pay top dollar for rent, a smart city is only smart if equitable:
“To the degree that we smarten up neighborhoods in places where Millennials, in particular, already want to live, we run the risk of making them unaffordable to all but the most prosperous of them. If the revolution were simply to promote more active transportation and easier-to-use transit in the wealthiest American and European neighborhoods, it will have fallen short of its promise.”
Even if Sam “the Kid” Schwartz lost a glimmer of childhood hope when Ebbet’s Field was abandoned because of lack of parking, “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz has hope that the return of smart streets isn’t too far away. And he’s asking us all to join the revolution.
Samuel I. Schwartz with William Rosen, Street Smart: The Rise of Cities and the Fall of Cars, published on September 8, 2015 by PublicAffairs and available for purchase online and at bookstores nationwide.