Street Safety

An Interview with Gridlock Sam, Part III

By Lisa Rainwater

In case you haven’t yet heard, a new book hit stores last 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 twitterSam 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, and Part II here. A review of his book can be found here.

LISA: For decades, you’ve been advocating for a return of tolls on the East River bridges as a means of reducing congestion, air pollution, and traffic crashes. You all but succeeded in the 1970s when you were working at the Department of Traffic. Your new proposal – the Move NY Fair Plan – is being touted by many as the best option on the table for funding the MTA and easing gridlock in Manhattan’s Central Business District. If you compare the political mood of the 1970s to today, do you see similarities or differences in terms of political will?

SAM: It was interesting, because the political will of the 70s was led by the Clean Air Movement and the Environmental Movement. Environmentalism hit a peak around 1970-71. In 1966 we had a new mayor – John Lindsay – a very youthful, athletic mayor: he rode bicycles; he closed Central Park and Prospect Park [to car traffic]; he put a mall on Madison Avenue; and we had the Broadway Times Square closure. There was a sign – can you see that sign overhead?

Sam points to one of dozens of traffic signs covering the ceiling of his lobby. Not the exact sign in the photo to the left but close. An image of the original DOT sign is in his book.

Sam creator of Don't Even THINK of ParkingSAM: That sign was manufactured in 1971 by the NYCDOT. We were weeks away from putting a car ban in Midtown Manhattan, but then the mayor got cold feet when hotel workers unions and others began to attack him.

On the one hand, we had a mayor unlike any mayor who, in his case, the environment was a huge part of his mayoralty. We were making plans that were on the cutting edge. The bus lanes at Fulton Street, Brooklyn — which is a transit mold — was a John Lindsay era proposal. The closings of Central and Prospect Parks [to car traffic], John Lindsay. In the sixties it was a time where if you came of age, which I did — I went to college in the 1960s — you thought the world was only getting better and you were opening every imaginable door and you would never go backwards. Well, that was youthful naïveté.

Then, John Lindsay was no longer mayor, and we had Abraham Beame, a politician that wanted to reverse everything John Lindsay did.

LISA: Was he the mayor whose wife got stuck in traffic and wanted the roads in Central Park reopened?

SAM: Yes, Mary Beame got stuck in traffic. I got called into the Deputy Commissioner’s office, and I was told essentially to write the report to justify reopening the park. That would have been the end to park closings for decades, if not longer. Of course, New York was way ahead of the curve in the late 60s and early 70s doing that.

I was accused of being a subway rider.

Hearty chuckles.

I had lived near Prospect Park from 1970 until 2000, so I was living near Prospect Park and closing roads in Prospect Park without telling anyone. I was reconstructing things they never knew. I never got anyone’s approval, because as a junior engineer you’re the last guy that probably looks at the construction drawings going out, and, by then, everything is stamped to go forward. So I would close a roadway in the park, and trees would soon be planted there.

More hearty chuckles.

If you go to the Parkside Avenue exit, you can probably still make out where the old road used to be. And I did that without anyone’s approval. I narrowed roadways such as Washington Avenue in Brooklyn, because I was living in Brooklyn at the time.

Yes. Back to the politics. It went with one swing from being very progressive to being very conservative. What we are seeing now is a swing from the second half of the Bloomberg administration. His DOT in the first half wasn’t known to be the world leaders in public space, but certainly once Janette Sadik-Kahn came on around 2007 the second half became known as the place where things were happening. And now we are seeing a reaction.

Politically, could it go back? Could it be undone? I don’t think so. I think we could see a slowing of pedestrian plazas. I think we could see a slowing of bike share in certain communities. Of pedestrian treatments. Of Select Bus Service. Fortunately, we’ve seen the mayor endorse Select Bus Service, but there could be pushback. Even from progressives. By the way, it was two of our most progressive elected officials who blocked the tolls on the bridges in 1977: Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Congresswoman Susan Holtzman, who was my congresswoman. It was such a disappointment. For some reason, hearing the complaints of the parkers and the drivers is something that is such an easy political stand to take.

I’ve been watching a show on Yonkers and the housing desegregation in the 1980s — HBO’s Show Me a Hero. There’s a politician who knows the Supreme Court has already ruled that they have to do desegregation, but he grandstands that he will fight even though he knows he can’t. And afterward it’s proven that he was grandstanding. Grandstanding on the parking complaints and drivers drives me a little bit crazy, because I hear that. It is the minority of anyone’s community board – at least when it comes to the Move NY Plan. It’s really tiny percentages, yet we’ve had such a difficult time convincing some of the major powers. But we’re not giving up.

LISA: Your original intention was to get a PhD in physics, but your brother Brian set you on this path. You note your indebtedness to Professor Vucan Vuchik for opening your eyes to how cities can be transformed. For decades, you have worked all over the world trying to develop smart streets. What would be your favorite smart city today? New York can’t count.

SAM: New York can’t count.

Sam pauses for a moment. His book, Street Smart, is in many ways a love letter to his hometown. But as much as he’s a New Yorker through and through, he is also a lover of cities across the globe and has little effort rattling off some of the smartest.

SAM: I’d say one of the smarter cities of 2030, I predict, is Los Angeles. They are doing wonderful things. It’s not one of the smartest cities today. San Francisco is a very smart city. Other places like Copenhagen and a lot of cities in Germany. Almost every city in Germany has infrastructure we would dream about, and you wonder who won or lost the war. I would say from Munich to Hamburg to Bonn — and Germany is known for its cars and the autobahn but nonetheless is very multi-modal. Places that are multi-modal are smart cities.

For a long time, I thought that Tokyo and Kyoto were some of the best cities. There again, they lost the war and you have to wonder. In the 1980s I would’ve put them at the very top, but what’s happened over time is that they keep buying into more and more cars. We’re seeing a loss in Asia – Asia did have an edge in transportation.

Singapore, of course, or Hong Kong – any of the small city-states do a great job, because with a city-state, the people in the capitol are also using the system and they can’t escape from their constituents. So I would say anywhere you have a city-state. London also has a very good transportation system. Stockholm. And now Gutenberg. So there are a number of places. Barcelona, I would say, is one of my favorite cities. It’s a terrific walking city and is looking at bike share. Those are among the cities that I would say are the leaders, and there are new cities are coming up – smaller ones that are just doing wonderful things. And, some are the ones you would least think about: Los Angles to Indianapolis to Boise, Idaho.

LISA: Well hopefully your book will inspire other city planners and traffic engineers in the States, if not wider, if it’s translated. Thank you Sam. This has been wonderful.

SAM: Thank you.

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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