May the Schwartz Be With You: Gridlock Sam Wants to Turn New York Traffic On Its Head—the Same Thing He’s Done for 40 Years

Fixing gridlock one sign and tweet at a time. (Sam Schwartz Engineering)

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.

May the Schwartz Be With You: Gridlock Sam Wants to Turn New York Traffic On Its Head—the Same Thing He’s Done for 40 Years