Affordable Transit

An Interview with Gridlock Sam, Part II

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.

"Gridlock" Sam Schwartz

“Gridlock” Sam Schwartz

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. Part I of our interview can be found here. In the coming days, I’ll post the final segment.

LISA: There’s a whole new generation of voters whose favored modes of transportation are not the automobile and who prefer urban centers to the suburbs. You’ve written a fascinating chapter on Millennials and how they are upending the American landscape. Will the older base of elected officials be forced to address this first non-auto-centric generation’s preferences for proximity and access over mobility? What are your predictions in the next ten years?

SAM: It’s already happening. I think today Indianapolis announced that they are doing something to capture their downtown. Almost every day I see that. My company, Sam Schwartz Engineering, which is known for walkability, bike programs, and transit programs, has been called into Boise, Idaho to help rethink that city. We’ve been called into Macon, Georgia. Tampa. Allentown. A lot of elected officials are beginning to get the message. And while on a state basis it seems like it’s a blue and red preference – red more car oriented; blue more transit oriented – on a city basis, we find Republican mayors are saying we’ve got to do something about transit, we’ve got to make our cities more walkable, and we have to attract more young people. Salt Lake City – a republican stronghold – is doing wonderful things in transit. They are a frontrunner. Oklahoma City is another, where the mayor says, “I’m tired of us being the butt of jokes as one of the fattest cities in America.”

When I met with the mayor of Tampa – a democratic mayor in this case – a theme came up that is beginning to resonate in a lot places. He said, I have teenage daughters. I want them to stay in Tampa, and I have to make a city that keeps attracting them when they are in their 20s and 30s. This is a generation that is more about access than mobility. A lot of people don’t understand the difference. Access is when you can go to the corner store, you can go to a movie or a play, you can meet friends at a restaurant, you can go to a library, you can go to a park – all those things – and you can walk or bike. Mobility is measured in speed. So your speed may not be very high – it’s walking speed, and in many of those areas, car speed is terrible.

I faced this in Los Angeles. I give a talk called “The Ten Myths of Traffic Engineers.” It was about three years ago when Los Angeles DOT was beginning to rethink whether they continue to increase capacity everywhere. That’s all they do. That’s what they’ve been trained to do: increase capacity. Traffic engineers have grades – Service Levels A through F. Everybody imagines A is the best, but A is like a dead street. There’s no street life. There’s nothing to slow the traffic.

Broadway in Los Angeles was one of the busiest strips 100 years ago. There were trolley cars going down the center, and Broadway at 7th or 6th street was the busiest corner in America with pedestrians. And then, of course we know the history – I go through that in the book: the trolley car was squeezed out. So Broadway in 2012, when I was giving this talk, was desolate. There were a couple of stores, but the traffic was moving fast. And during my presentation, I showed Broadway and said this is Service Level A. This is what A looks like. And then I showed them a picture of State Street in Chicago – with excitement, lights, and people and cars moving slowly. I said this is probably an E. But wouldn’t you say that’s better than that? So I proposed that a Level of Service A for a Main Street would be slow traffic speeds, some good density, pedestrians, and lots of transit services.

There were probably at least thirty people in the room. I’d say 1/3 of them were hardliners that said that’s going to degrade the level of service. We have to keep it at A. We’ve got to keep it moving. I said, well, let’s go down to B. And one third actually said great; this is what we want to hear – those were the younger staff. And then the last third just didn’t care. Fast forward to 2014, there are little parklets and bike corals on Broadway, stores are opening, and there’s density there. It’s no longer a traffic Level of Service A, but it’s going to approach human Level of Service A preferably within the next five years. It’s obviously a process, but it’s wonderful to see.

LISA: Under Mayor Bloomberg, the City went through an incredible street transformation. You praise former DOT commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan for bringing a pedestrian mall to Times Square. The contributions to quality of life are impressive, in its relatively short life span: traffic speeds up to 17% faster; injuries to motorists and passengers dropped 63%; injuries to pedestrians dropped 25%; 74% of business owners pleased with the economic improvements; and nitrogen oxide levels fell by 63%.

There’s now a panel, appointed by Mayor de Blasio, considering its removal, due to painted ladies and aggressive costumed panhandlers. At what point do the pros outweigh the cons?

SAM: I think right now, if I were a betting person, it’s a safe bet the plazas are going to remain. I don’t know about the desnudas, but the plazas will be there. I don’t think there is a constituency that is very big or powerful enough to overcome the fact that this is now a New York place. People are enjoying it. Times Square is more for visitors than it is for new Yorkers, but it’s ideal. Maybe the costumed characters have gotten out of control, and there have been some suggestions to have these little areas where you can do what you want to do – busker zones. But Times Square has had buskers since time immemorial. So it would be a mistake. I was looking at recent pedestrian causalities, and they are still way down And what people don’t realize is Broadway was not a big help to traffic. Broadway is a diagonal street – a diagonal thrown into a grid. And it screws up traffic. So when you get to Harold’s Square, you have Broadway approaching Harold Square, you have 34th Street in both directions, you’ve got 6th Avenue approaching. It was a mess. It’s better now, a little less of a mess. Not that people are going to be speeding through Midtown. We don’t want anyone speeding through Midtown. So speeds will remain slow, and it’s not bad at all.

LISA: Last year, INRIX ranked New York City the 5th worst congested city in the country. In your book, you refer to a study from Texas A&M that found for every 10 percent increase in traffic delay, there was a 3.4 percent increase in per capita GDP and note that “places with a lot of congestion are economically vibrant; those without, not so much.” What is the tipping point, when the increase in traffic delays begins to lower the per capita GDP?

Sam creator of Don't Even THINK of ParkingSAM: We’re approaching that in New York City now. It has to do with the rapid change in the makeup of our traffic. I thought the mayor was right when he proposed slowing down the transportation network companies – the Ubers, Lyfts, and others – so that they can be studied. We are beginning to see a point where we have had a “level of misery” that the driver has accepted in Midtown for about 100 years. When I used to be in charge of traffic research for the City, I had speed records that went back to 1915. And the speeds were relatively constant, even though there’s been so many improvements over the years. I had this theory that we had a “level of misery,” and that if it got any worse people would go into the subway, and if it got better maybe more people would drive.

We’ve never had a period of time where we’ve seen such a rapid increase in vehicles that stay in motion. The closest correlation to inversely related speed is the higher the number of vehicles in motion, the slower the speeds. Things always happen gradually. But now what we’ve seen is Uber go from virtually nothing to a major player in two years. I think the latest number I heard is about 100,000 trips a day in New York City. And that’s probably old data. They are recruiting more and more drivers, knowing they have a four-month window to really do heavy recruiting. They’re recruiting on the backs of buses. They’re saying become an Uber driver and probably looking to take some people from transit. And the cost of Uber is cheaper than a taxi for the most part, except when they have surge pricing.

One recommendation I would have, if asked, is do unto Uber what Uber does unto others. Uber is a good addition to the transportation system but not how it’s priced. It is a service that is a better service than a taxi and should be priced higher than a taxi. When you have individual cars and limousines for people and they’re more comfortable, that should be priced higher. So Uber, and I think Uber would probably agree with it, could use their principle of surge pricing and pay a congestion charge – the same thing with taxis under the Move NY plan that is related to vehicle hours of travel. Vehicle hours of travel are really important in New York City in measuring price, whereas in lots of other places that are not congested what’s important is vehicle miles traveled. That’s the Oregon experiment right now, where they’re going to eliminate the gas tax and replace it, in the proposal, with a Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) tax. VMT tax doesn’t work in New York, because you can go thirty miles in thirty minutes in Oregon and in thirty minutes you can go one mile in New York.

Up next: Part III: Sam on politics in the 1970s, Move NY, and some of his favorite cities

5914161f-9392-4298-96ec-4dabce56084aSamuel 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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