Street Safety

An Interview with Gridlock Sam, Part I

S. Schwartz 3

“Gridlock” Sam Schwartz

By Lisa Rainwater

In case you haven’t yet heard, a new book hit stores this week that’s sure to get people thinking differently about how we move about our cities. Written by Move NY‘s very own “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz, Street Smart: The Rise of Cities and the Fall of Cars (PublicAffairs, September 2015) is an engaging look at how the automobile became America’s primary mode of transportation and how its fate may lie in the hands of the Millennials.

Sam is a natural storyteller, which makes Street Smart as entertaining as it is informative. Woven into discussions of traffic, health, public transportation, and urban revitalization are rich tales of his childhood in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, political egos, travels abroad, and last but not least Sam’s love affair with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

I recently had a chance to sit down with him on one of the doggiest days of summer to talk about what makes a city smart. This is Part I of our interview. In the coming days, I’ll post Part II and Part III. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

LISA: The title of your book is Street Smart. As a kid growing up in Brooklyn in the 1960s, I imagine you developed your own street smarts. How have New York City streets changed for kids over the last decades?

SAM: There’s certainly more traffic than there was in the 1950s and that is some concern, although we all watched out for each other and just yelled, “Car!” Everybody went to the side – not too far to the side. We didn’t want to give the car too much room. But there’s an awful sheltering of children today, which I don’t think is terribly healthy. So kids certainly aren’t playing in the street. I think a lot of parents are helicoptering and watching over their kids to the extent that a ten-year-old or eleven-year-old on his or her own is an oddity. But at eight years old, I was riding the buses, and by ten I was exploring the subways. And I loved exploring the subways – my friend and I rode every subway line. And the world opened to us. It’s New York City. It’s the entire world … open to us.

We were coin collectors and found there was a numismatic society museum in the Bronx, so we traveled 20 miles from Bensonhurst on our own. Our parents didn’t know where we were. There were no cell phones or anything like that. And we traveled and explored Central Park, which was unbeknownst to us, and climbed the rocks. Sometimes we stayed on the train until it reached its terminal stop and ended up in train yards, waiting to be rescued when the train would start up again.

Back then we were street smart. Street wise. It’s not like bad things didn’t happen to us. It was a different time. We knew when to run. And I can remember one time running through the Coney Island Station and some bigger kids were mugging us and I ran for my life. But growing up in Bensonhurst you ran for your life a lot. It was not unusual, and if you saw kids running, you always ran in that direction. You knew something bad was happening.

LISA: Let’s talk about street safety. The number of pedestrians killed on NYC streets each year is alarming. You write that in 2013, NYC – with a population of 8.4 million – had 168 pedestrian fatalities, while Barcelona – with a population of 1.6 million – had 10 fatalities. What can we learn from the Catalans?

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To read a review of Sam’s book, click here.

SAM: A lot. They’re wonderful people. Last June I went to meet the [Barcelona] Commissioner of Transportation. It turns out they changed the name of the department about a dozen years ago to the Department of Mobility. And, what’s in a name? A lot. It meant that they began measuring different things. One of the things that they measured is trips that take more than 10 minutes. And they found that more than 50% of the trips 10 minutes or more are done walking or biking, so that kind of changes your approach on how you take care of cities.

In our discussion I asked the commissioner how they achieved such low pedestrian fatality rates. He leaned across the table and he said, as if he was telling me a secret, “I make the lanes very, very narrow.” I told that story to the mayor of Stanford about six months ago and my brother, who lives in Stanford, called me furious, because the mayor said he’s making the lanes very narrow to slow traffic. I wasn’t upset. The message is getting across.

Traffic engineers, from the days when I went to engineering school, learned that the ideal lane width was 12 feet wide. There are lots of stories why it was designed that way, but one is that Eisenhower wanted tanks to be able to ride on the interstate. So twelve foot became the lane width. And just like other myths, that became known as the standard lane and anything that was less than the standard lane was substandard. And if it was substandard, it was unsafe. It turns out, there’s not a single study to support that. In fact, there have been a bunch of studies that have found that narrower lanes do not result in an increase in crashes and, in fact, they may result in a reduction of severity.

I learned that on the Williamsburg Bridge.

LISA: You describe in your book a time when you had to close the bridge down.

SAM: In the 1980s I was chief engineer, and my job — my constituents — were the bridges and roads of New York City. I was like a doctor, and they were in intensive care. I came in as chief engineer largely because of a scandal in which lots of money was being stolen within the Department of Transportation. The secondary scandal was that they weren’t taking care of the infrastructure, and they were lying about it. They were saying the bridges were getting better on their own, and they weren’t doing the work.

So I inherited a Williamsburg Bridge, whose wires were beginning to fray. It became a concern of mine, and I said we’ve got to fix this. It turned out the Feds would release money – remember the City was pretty much bankrupt in the 80s, so we needed the Feds to provide the money for the Williamsburg Bridge. The Feds were thinking that they would recable the bridge and spend the money. But then the bridge community said we’d be spending $250 million dollars on something no one has ever done before. Nobody had recabled a bridge except for bridge damage during war. It was an unknown science. They told the Feds you may as well build a new bridge for that kind of money. And, after all, they said, the communities on both sides of the bridge are blighted. Williamsburg is a blighted neighborhood, and the Lower East Side is a blighted neighborhood. So what’s the big deal if you raise a bunch of houses and build very long ramps and make it standard?

The Feds bought that line, hook, line, and sinker. And said they would not release the money. So I was in trouble. In fact, things got so bad that pieces of the bridge fell. One hit a ship and started a fire, and a couple of pieces fell, leaving a gaping hole in the bridge where you could look down to the water and slip through. In fact, one night I was at the Brooklyn Academy of Music with my wife, and suddenly a police car showed up. A piece of the bridge had fallen, and they whisked me away to the bridge. The media was there, because we were closing the bridge. Mayor Ed Koch and I were on one side of this hole, and the reporters were on the other side. One reporter edging forward fell in the hole, and Ed Koch grabbed him. Kind of a funny scene.

So, I worked out a deal after a year of negotiations. I proposed that we would convene the best bridge engineers in the country and include the Federal Highway Administration and State Department of Transportation. I asked if the Feds would release the funds for whatever the panel decided. They agreed, and we hired the top engineers.

We held an international design competition to replace the bridge, which would have destroyed big chunks of Williamsburg and big chunks of the Lower East Side. All of the bridges had very wide lanes and shoulders since that’s what the Feds liked, and had a very soft rise, which meant long ramps into Manhattan and Brooklyn. And so we reviewed the proposals while studying  how to fix the bridge, and I kept pointing to the fact that the Feds wanted us to replace the bridge because the bridge is substandard. So I asked them why is it substandard. They said the clearance wasn’t high enough, and I said trucks can use the outside of the bridge. Okay. But then the lanes were too narrow, and I said what does that mean? And they said, well, you have increased accident potential. So I studied the Williamsburg Bridge, looking at crashes over a three or four year period and found the place with the fewest crashes on the Williamsburg Bridge was at the towers, where the lanes were under 9 feet wide. So the narrowest part of the bridge was the safest part.

LISA: You debunked the myth!

SAM: Yes. I debunked the myth. During that year I had to shut the entire bridge down because some of the columns split in the middle, and it was in danger of collapsing completely. That bridge almost cost me my career, but the lesson is that it set in motion the notion that maybe “wider lanes are safer” is a myth. Then several studies came out in 2000 and some in 2007, finding no safety benefits on city streets for a 12, 11, or 10 foot lane. So when the Commissioner of Mobility from Barcelona said, “I make the lanes very, very narrow, and that makes it much safer,” it rang true with me. It resonated with me.

LISA: Talking about the Williamsburg Bridge and the proposal to displace “chunks” of Williamsburg and the Lower East Side to build a new bridge, you write in your book that “unless every socioeconomic group in a particular city feels invested in the system, it starves.” Historically, those New Yorkers with the least political clout and money have been the victims of injustice: neighborhoods destroyed for new roads and highways and limited transit options. For years, New York’s transit system has been starved, and some predict that we are at risk of slipping back to the days of old, if a solid funding base isn’t established. In your ideal vision of a smart New York City, how would we right the wrongs?

SAM: First of all, with a community, we would do away with words like “blighted.” Those are human beings. They aren’t blighted beings. They are human beings. We’ve had this tendency, if we are going to build new infrastructure, to say well, it’s just the poor, or homeless, or lower income. Fortunately, a lot of that is no longer happening in New York City. We had many, many years of that happening from the 30s through 60s. The Williamsburg Bridge would’ve been a different story, if those would’ve been two wealthy neighborhoods. I would not have had to invest so much time and money in proving to the Feds that the bridge was worth saving if those were well-to-do neighborhoods.

I think when it comes to service, we really have to look at all the communities of New York. For example, we are rapidly changing some of our transit services with Uber and Lyft and others. Those services are largely Central Business District services and happening in some neighborhoods. Some people will say the services are very good. And it’s true. Service is good. But the job of a public transportation system is not to solely focus on those things that are viable from an economic point of view but also take those who can least afford transportation and provide that transportation. So you won’t find Uber going to the poorest communities. If you live in Brownsville, Brooklyn or in parts of the South Bronx or other low-income neighborhoods, chances are you are out of luck finding an Uber. So we have to make sure that we don’t detract from our transit system with all these new services. And a lot of the poorer people have been pushed out of a lot of the interior communities.

LISA: How have you seen New York communities change in this regard?

SAM: Take Fort Greene, for example. I went to high school in Fort Greene. It was a rough, poor neighborhood – one that didn’t get very much attention. It was once a well-to-do neighborhood post Civil War when some of those buildings were built; gentry lived there. And then we had that terrible cycle post-World War II, which I go into in Street Smart, of all the forces that led toward the destruction of a lot of these communities.

I still remember my brother Brian saying to me in the 1960s to look at where the blacks are living now. Those are going to be the hottest neighborhoods, because those are the neighborhoods that have great transportation. He predicted that some day Fort Greene would come back. He predicted Bedford-Stuyvesant and Harlem and other communities. But what has happened is that there has been a displacement of people to areas where the transportation is not as good. And people do want really good transportation.

So a transit system that is a transit system for all, and for people of the lowest income level, that’s not going to be one that is financially in the black. It’s going to lose money. Now you could say, let’s let Uber and others come in. But what I fear is something called “lemon socialism.” The good stuff is taken over by the privates, and the really losing ventures are taken over by the public. And then it becomes a system of only the poor. And that doesn’t work either, because then that system doesn’t have a voice.

I have a chapter about tuxedos on the subway. That came about when I was at Penn in 1969, and a professor and well-known transportation expert, Vucan Vuchik, was talking about transit systems around the world. He had traveled to so many different places. He was talking about the Moscow system with its chandeliers and comfortable seating in glorious stations. He said it’s not unusual to see people going to the opera wearing tuxedoes and gowns in the Moscow system. And then he paused and said with a little bit of a chuckle, not that he laughed very much, “Can you imagine seeing people in a tuxedo and a gown in the NYC subway?”

1969 was a pretty rough year. You could not imagine riding at night and seeing anyone in a tuxedo that whole period up to about 2000. Now, I’ve been in a tuxedo in the subway, and no one turns to look at me like it’s something odd. So the NYC subway has done well now, because it has everyone riding. Lower income and higher income people. For years, when I’d go to California, people said to me no one rides the subway in Los Angeles. Or only Mexicans and blacks ride the subway. Or they didn’t even know they have a subway. And now the subway is beginning to get used by a lot of other people. And a big part of this rediscovery of transit in places like Los Angeles is that the Millennials absolutely enjoy taking public transportation. It’s part of their repertoire of multi-modal transportation. They are multi-modal people. And that multi-modality comes through their smart phones.

Up next: Part II: Sam on Millennials, Times Square & Desnudas, and NYC Traffic Congestion

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.

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