When Sam Schwartz went into transportation planning in the 1970s, he never thought he would leave behind the asphalt of Manhattan for the sandy beaches of Aruba.
At a conference a few years ago, Mr. Schwartz, who runs an eponymous engineering firm in Soho, had just finished up a panel when a woman approached him and asked for his help. The American tourists coming to her country were too lazy to walk to the historic city center, which had been languishing, and she hoped Mr. Schwartz would help. He joked that she should fly him down for an inspection. The next day, the trip was booked. “I’ve done that before and no one has ever taken me up on it.”
After dismissing horse drawn carriages, Mr. Schwartz hit on a novel solution: a team of former Spielberg and Disney imagineers had created a super-high-tech trolley system, totally battery powered with an 18-hour running time. No new infrastructure is required. “Can you believe it? Mass transit on this little Caribbean island,“ Mr. Schwartz marveled. A lei of pink flowers hangs in his lofty office overlooking Houston Street, one of hundreds of tokens of gratitude clogging up the walls and shelves like the cars and trucks, constantly honking, in the gridlock below.
Gridlock. A term Sam Schwartz coined, one of his countless tiny little innovations that have endeavored to make traffic move a little faster. After two decades working for the city’s Department of Transportation, Mr. Schwartz has taken his show on the road, and what he sees across the country both delights and troubles him.
“I’m as much a New Yorker as anybody,” Mr. Schwartz explained. “I live, eat, breath and sleep New York. Anybody knocks it, they’ll hear from me. But L.A. is doing some very interesting stuff right now. San Francisco, too. Portland. Chicago has its own Janette Sadik-Khan, and a mayor as strong as Bloomberg. It won’t be tomorrow, but in 20 or 30 years, if we don’t act now, New York will no longer be the mass transit capital, the transportation leader.”
Mr. Schwartz knows first hand, having worked on transportation projects in many of these cities, including an extensive program in L.A., where Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is using billions of dollars from a new sales tax to expand a transit network often seen as a joke. Laugh, but L.A. has a bus that costs a quarter, and an apparent desire for more: that sales tax was passed through a voter referendum.
That’s right. L.A. is about to overtake us, and on an issue as near-and-dear as mass transit.
Mr. Schwartz has a plan, one at the same time as old as the city’s transportation infrastructure, and as new as a the most current infrastructure thinking. Just don’t call it congestion pricing.
If anyone knows about tolling the East River bridges, it’s Sam Schwartz. “We’ve tried this four other times, so we obviously know it’s something that has to be done,” Mr. Schwartz said. He has been there for almost every effort, back to the Clean Air Act effort to curb emissions in the early 1970s and dealing with the 1980 transit strike. “Koch, Dinkins, Bloomberg, they’ve all tried it,” Mr. Schwartz explained.
In a March 4th New York Times column, Bill Keller sketched Mr. Schwartz’s new plan, the public unveiling of a project two years in the works, called “A More Equitable Transportation Formula for the New York Metro Area.” The Fair Plan, for short.
“I’m not surprised, when people call it congestion pricing, that it’s dead on arrival,” Mr. Schwartz said. “This is really about revising and strengthening our tolling system. Right now, the tolls are all in the wrong places.”
To garner support, Sam Schwartz first went to those most affected and disaffected by past tolling plans. “As I made the rounds, people that would normally be opposed, each of them gave me something,” he recounted. “One said, ‘The day I’ll support this is when you put a toll on the bikes.’ Another said they wanted to see support for the local buses. Another said, ‘What about the drivers in Manhattan? The idea is to have a plan that works for everyone.”
Mr. Schwartz’s plan calls for $5 tolls on the East River bridges (more for those paying without EZ Pass) as well as for vehicles traveling south of 60th Street into the central business district. This is nothing new, but what is is a simultaneous reduction in the price of almost every outer-borough bridge―the Henry Hudson and all the Jersey crossings are left at current rates.
“Everybody has to pay to get into Staten Island, not Manhattan,” Mr. Schwartz pointed out. “There are so many things wrong with that, and with the rest of the system.” One of his favorite examples is that, to avoid a toll of up to $70 on the Verazano, truckers will get off the BQE, drive on local streets, onto the Manhattan Bridge, and across Canal Street to the Holland Tunnel, which scores do every day.
It would also solve a relative injustice within the system now. The Queens-Bronx bridges alone generate $600 million a year in revenue for the MTA. “But try traveling between the Bronx and Queens by mass transit,” Mr. Schwartz said. “It stinks.” His plan would do two things to appease outer-borough constituents, reducing their bus fares by a dollar while also spending about a third of the $1.2 billion a year raised by the new tolls on road improvements, making life better for drivers.
One of his preferred projects is widening the Belt Parkway and letting trucks on it. “Robert Moses came up with this idea of pleasure driving,” Mr. Schwartz said. “The Belt Parkway was built for pleasure driving, with trucks forbidden, and here it is the most direct route for them to take to JFK. Meanwhile the 18 wheelers are plowing through the surface roads of Brooklyn, and every year, a few kids die because of it.”
To further even things out between boroughs inner, outer and outer-outer, cabs and limos see an added fee, and no more tax credits for permit parking, a big boon for Manhattanites. And those bike tolls, of course, pegged at 50 cents a crossing. Money not spent on roads could go toward expanding transit in the outer lying areas as well as the core.
Easily the most novel component is a series of pedestrian bridges connecting Red Hook to Governors Island and Lower Manhattan, Greenpoint to Long Island City to Midtown, and Hoboken to Chelsea. “Look at the Millenium Bridge in London,” Mr. Schwartz said, referring to a new, popular pedestrian bridge across the Thames. “It’s hugely popular, and these would be, too. And they would only cost a few million dollars each.” In light of the billions being spent on the Second Avenue subway or East Side Access, the project becomes rather attractive.
“Sam’s plan is a transportation plan, pure and simple,” Charles Komanoff, a transportation economist, said. “It is not masquerading as an environmental plan, like congestion pricing was, and for that reason it just might work.”
Gridlock Sam—as he’s come to be known in his Daily News column and on Twitter—knows congestion. Born in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn in 1947, he spent the first three years of his life in a two-room apartment he shared with his parents, two brothers and a sister. When the family finally moved to Bensonhurst, it was into an actual two-bedroom apartment. Even then, Mr. Schwartz did not have a bed of his own until he was a teenager. He would bounce between the twin beds of his brothers and his parent’s queen until his eldest brother, Harold, was drafted.
These kinds of conditions would drive most people hate city life, but not Mr. Schwartz. “The suburbs took from me everything I ever loved, everything I held dear,” Mr. Schwartz explained. “In 1956, my best friend moved to Los Angeles and my beloved Brooklyn Dodgers followed suit a year later. I never forgave the suburbs for that.”
He attended Brooklyn College, where he fell in with the student movements. He even led the local campaign to impeach Nixon and attended the first Woodstock. “When he came back, he was so caked with mud, my mother wouldn’t let him into the apartment,” said Harold Schwartz, his elder brother.
It was his older brother, Brian, whom Mr. Schwartz was following into a career in physics when the middle child disabused him of the idea, explaining that young Sam would spend a decade in school followed by a decade at some community college struggling to get tenure (his brother happened to teach at MIT). “It was like that scene in The Graduate, I was a big fan of that movie, where the guy tells Dustin Hoffman, ‘I’ve got one word for you: Plastics,’” Mr. Schwartz said. “Except he told me, “You’re good at math and science, you love cities—I’ve got it: Transportation.”
He went to Penn to study transportation engineering, one of the first to graduate from the program, but when he returned to New York from Philadelphia, there was no work. Mr. Schwartz returned to driving cabs, which he had done to pay for his undergraduate studies—an experience that no doubt helped inform his later work. After a few months, a low-level job in the Department of Traffic opened up and he took it. “I was a bit of a hippie, so I guess this was my way of infiltrating the man, trying to change the system from within,” Mr. Schwartz said.
The department was mostly run by old traffic cops, and he was the only person interested in working on weird mass transit and traffic flow projects. Mr. Schwartz found himself with pretty much free reign.
To help further his goals, he became a mole for the NRDC, which had just won its case for the Clean Air Act and was needling the city to comply. When the tolling effort failed, Mr. Schwartz would feed pet projects—like express bus lanes or a pedestrian plaza on Madison Avenue—to the NRDC, which, with its new-found legal mandate, would then impose on City Hall. “We’d say, ‘Look, why don’t you try this,’ and they’d take it to Sam, and he’d say yeah, that’ll work,” Steve Jurow, one of the NRDC attorneys, said. “He was our Deep Throat.”
Mr. Schwartz’ first big success was when he oversaw the 1980 transit strike. Cars carrying fewer than three passengers were banned from entering Manhattan, a provision he tried to make stick. The same year, he installed the very first bike lanes. They were torn out a month after being installed. As Mr. Schwartz tells it, as Jimmny Carter’s limo was passing along Sixth Avenue, where the lanes had been installed. with Governor Hugh Carey and Ed Koch in the car. “Carey turns to Carter and says, ‘Look at him pissing away your money,’” Mr. Schwartz said. “That was the end of bike lanes for Ed Koch.”
He was promoted to traffic commissioner in 1982. At only 34, he skipped over numerous levels of bureaucracy to take charge of the city’s streets. Not long after, the 1986 Donald Manes ticket-fixing scandal engulfed the Koch administration, leaving a stain on City Hall. “I was the only clean one in the whole Department,” Mr. Schwartz said. Ross Sandler joined from NRDC as Transportation Commissioner and tapped Mr. Schwartz to be his first deputy, solidifying his work.
“Sam really helped professionalize the agency, bringing about a different way of thinking,” Mr. Sandler said. He spent four years in the position before leaving for the private sector, first as a professor at Cooper Union, then as an engineer at another firm for three years, before starting his own in 1995.
More than his innovations on the streets, it was his savvy with public relations that has impressed many. “He had a way of taking these incredibly complex issues and ideas and explaining them to the average New Yorker,” current DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan said. From coining the “gridlock” to straightforward street signage—“Don’t Even Think About Parking Here”—Mr, Schwartz has seduced drivers and pedestrians alike. But, his biggest seduction lies ahead.
For Mr. Schwartz’s new plan to succeed, it is going to require a good deal of his public relations prowess. Dead political ideas are exceedingly hard to revive, and just two weeks ago, Governor Cuomo said as much. “We’ve tried to pass it in the past,” he said at a press conference. “It hasn’t passed. I don’t know that anything has happened to change that dynamic.”
Still, Mr. Schwartz points to the governor’s “can-do attitude” and the fact he has already discussed cutting tolls on bridges to the Rockaways. “How crazy is it to pay a toll to travel within a borough?” Mr. Schwartz points out. He said the success of his plan will hinge on finding two champions, one from the world of politics, one a captain of industry.
As for the politicians, Mr. Schwartz has already written off this year, as there will be elections for the Legislature. The Observer polled the current crop of mayoral candidates, and Scott Stringer is the only one to have openly endorsed the plan. All the rest are studying it.
A number of pols told The Observer they have their reservations, some vocally so. “You can call a banana ‘broccoli,’ but it’s still a banana,” former Westchester Assemblyman and chief congestion pricing opponent Richard Brodsky said. “They are looking for answers in the wrong places, still pursuing tolls. Equitable? That’s not equitable.”
Mitchell Moss, the NYU professor and dean of the streets, believes politics is precisely the problem with the Fair Plan. “It’s a political plan, not a policy plan,” Mr. Moss said. “He’s trying to be all things to all people, and that will never work.”
But Mr. Schwartz is willing to wait, and said he’s focusing on an endorsement from the business community. “There’s a couple of sparks out there, and I’m waiting for them to catch fire,” he said.
Just so long as he doesn’t crash and burn.