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

Sam and his patron, Ed Koch. (SSE)

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.

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