Stay Free! magazine


Stay Free! Daily: media criticism, consumer culture and Brooklyn curiosities from Stay Free! magazine

Got a blog tip? Contact us

« Recycling in New York: Urban Myth? | Main | Speaking of transit »

Solving New York's traffic problems

My new favorite blog, Streetsblog, recently posted a fantastic video interview with transit guru Sam Schwartz (aka "Gridlock Sam"). Do wider roads create less congestion?  How reliant are New Yorkers on cars? How much traffic congestion does closing roads create? Schwartz punctures a lot of myths in just under a half hour.

I loved this interview so much that I transcribed it. You can read the full edit below the fold.

- - -

Interview by Mark Gorton of the Open Planning Project.

Q (Mark Gorton): Could you talk about how things have changed at the Department of Transportation since you were there?

A (Sam Schwartz): The traffic department came out of the police department around 1950. There was no profession in traffic until the 1960s and 1970s. It was mostly cops and some engineers. I joined in 1971. Around 1975 the mayor's wife got caught in a traffic jam around the Upper East Side and complained, so we were told to open Central Park to cars. At the time it was closed from 10am to 4pm. I was given the assignment to justify the change, and I came back not exactly justifying it. One of the senior engineers at the time tried to explain my position. He said, "You have to understand Sam. He lives in the city and rides the subway." They were all suburbanites driving to work. 

Q: You mentioned Central Park. Central Park is still an issue, with people fighting to open it to traffic and others fighting to close it. What if you did open it?

A: Most of the park is closed to cars most of the time. You have to have patience. Around 1978 and 1979, there were three-car lanes around the park. I went around with a fellow named David Gurin to [Brooklyn's] Prospect Park, which is very much like Central Park, and I told him we could take a lane away from cars and use it for bikes and runners. We did that in Prospect Park and then followed suit in Central Park. People who are fighting the battles now don't see how much we've gained.

Q: What about the concern that if you close the park to traffic, it'll cause congestion elsewhere?

A: In the very beginning whenever you close a road, there's congestion as a result. Every time Central Park is closed for various races or museum events you see increased traffic volume on 5th Avenue and Central Park West. But what happens over time, if it's permanent, is that people adjust. They chose different routes, they drive at different times, or they chose different modes. One of my first assignments was racing out to the West Side Highway [formerly Miller Highway] when it collapsed; this was an elevated platform that fell to the ground. We were hired to measure the impact on traffic. I put traffic counters all across the avenues and traced the diversion; it went to the FDR Drive and to the West Side avenues. But over time, we didn't see any increase in traffic: the other avenues absorbed it and we weren't able to trace it.

Q: So a big highway disappears and the traffic increase on other streets was barely measurable?

A: Yes, a highway carrying 80,000 vehicles a day collapsed and... nothing. We couldn't even measure a change in speeds!

People make so many decisions when it comes to traveling. They'll choose mode, so they could decide to take the train. They chose the route, so they could decide to drive a different way. And they choose the time. When we look at peak-hour traffic over the last 30 years, that hasn't changed. But people are now traveling at 6 and 7 am--they're adjusting to the conditions. A decision was made post-Moses not to add any capacity in Manhattan. Turns out that was a good decision. Had we added capacity we would have had short-term improvement but ultimately more traffic.

If you look at New York City history, peak at transit ridership was in 1947 and 1948. More people rode the subway then than at any other time. Over time, from the 1940s, we did a lot of highway building, we encouraged people to spread out and to own cars. So when you look at 1948, the number of people coming into the central business district was 3.7 million. In 1998, 50 years later, it was almost the exact same number. But between 1948 and 1998 the transportation that people rely on changed. In 1948, two-thirds of people came in by public transit. In 1998, only one-half did. In 1948, 18 percent came in by motor vehicle; in 1998, 33 percent did. It's only been in the last couple of years that we've seen an increase in the number of people in the central business district but we're moving people differently. We could move more people if we had the transit numbers we had in 1948.

Q: So the policies of the past have encouraged people to drive cars. Is that still the case today?

A: Yes. On a federal level, we're doing very little to get people out of their cars. The biggest outcry is from high gas prices. In 1978, I thought it was wonderful to see long lines of people getting gas because people were finally getting out of their cars to ride transit. We need to get a message out that we can't rely on gas or private automobiles. It's like giving everyone in the Sears Tower in Chicago their own private elevator. Sixty percent of cars coming into Manhattan central business district are driver-only.


Q: How could New York be different with the transportation system that you envision?

A: First off, New York is different than any other city in the United States. During the peak hours, we have 80 to 90 percent of people coming into Midtown and downtown business districts by public transportation. The nearest city like that in North America is Toronto. Mexico City is the other. New York is the U.S. city least dependent on the automobile. We are, however, very dependent on shoes--we walk a good deal. The subway and other rail are also dominant modes of transportation.

The car accounts for very few people in total. There's a misperception because cars use so much space that we think so many people are using them. It's like the Yogi Berra quote, which in this case is very true: "it's so crowded nobody goes there." When I looked at Canal Street, I found no one goes there anymore. Traffic volume is very low, even though it's so crowded and filled with cars. All cars are doing is providing seating for people to view Chinatown.

Our policy is dysfunctional. If you want to get in your car or truck and go on the expressways, go over the Verrazano Bridge over the Staten Island Expressway, out the Outerbridge to New Jersey, we're going to charge you $40. These thruways are designed for heavy traffic. But if you're in a truck and travel across the Manhattan Bridge, bounce along Soho and Tribeca, spewing exhaust fumes into all of those buildings, and go out the Holland Tunnel, we're not going to charge a penny.

I'm encouraging city officials to consider congestion pricing. In 1980, I introduced congestion pricing in New York, got it implemented as law and then was sued by the Garage Board of Trade and the Automobile Club. In April of that year, there was a transit strike, and we reduced traffic dramatically by placing occupancy restrictions on cars coming into Manhattan. If every car has an occupancy of two or three, you can reduce number of motor vehicles dramatically. It worked well and we were hailed as heroes. So the mayor asked, "What can we do to keep this momentum going?" By September, we had our law. It said any driver-only car must use a toll facility to come into Manhattan. But we were sued and lost the lawsuit, which argued that the city didn't have the authority. And there was no state official willing to step up to the plate.

Q: It seems like there are solutions out there, so it's not so much a lack of know-how as a lack of political will.

A: Yes. The far-right and far-left agree that the most capitalistic solution and the most socialist solution is the same solution: congestion pricing. On one hand, it's pure capitalism. We've got a precious resource in the city and we're going to price that space according to supply and demand. If you want to come in the city at Christmas and show your family the Christmas tree in your SUV, we'll let you, but you're polluting the air and consuming space and so it'll cost you $50. The socialists on the left-wing say it's wonderful because the money raised will go toward public transportation. There's a marked skew between people in subway and cars. A study found that people in cars make $14,000 more on average than people in subways. Congestion pricing would move wealth to the less wealthy. Plus there are other benefits: the air will be better and the streets, quieter. But there isn't a politician ready to step up to the plate.

Q: Why isn't this being done?

A: Opponents use the word "tax" and "toll" to describe this. It's a killer in an election. We have to be smarter than a soundbite. We need politicians who can go beyond the soundbite. Ken Livingstone in London implemented congestion pricing--and he was reelected!

Q: One thing you can do to regulate traffic is to regulate parking. If people can't park, they can't drive.

A: True, but there is a percentage of people who are always going to drive. "Choice riders" are the people we should go after. To make congestion pricing agreeable to people in Brooklyn and Queens, I would give those drivers something. I would price the entire central business district but I'd remove the tolls from the Rockaways.

You need two things for congestion pricing: congestion and good transit. Only the central business district of Manhattan has strong public transportation.


Q: When people propose changing roads, they use traffic modeling, and the results they get depend on the assumptions they make. Is there a way to make those models more predictive?

A: The models we use now are very limited. They help with traffic volume and light timing, but they won't make any judgements in terms of traffic that might shrink. Those are the kinds of things you have to manually input. You have to have the courage to stand up and say 5 percent of traffic won't be there. I'm in battles like that right now. On the West side of Manhattan, the boulevard being built between the World Trade Center and the World Financial Center has plans for ten lanes of traffic. That's way too much for New York City. I proposed three lanes in each direction and one for turning, so that's seven lanes instead of ten, which is 36 feet less for a pedestrian to cross. The signal timing would allow pedestrians to get across in one cycle. The current model has it in two cycles, which means it would take 5 minutes to walk across the street and New Yorkers aren't going to stand for that. They're going to try to run across and it'll create a dangerous situation. But the state model says you have to include every single vehicle there and that what I propose will create massive traffic jams.

Q: So the state model says you have to count every car. Even though the Miller highway disappeared and all of those cars disappeared, they're saying cars don't disappear?

A: That's right.

Q: Does the state have official guidelines for how you're supposed to do this?

A: Yes, they have massive manuals, with rules saying you must include every vehicle and do a worst-case analysis. To provide more service, you need more lanes. That's the rule.

The problem is that the model applies to cars and not pedestrians. Walking is the dominant mode of transportation downtown. But when the calculations are being done, calculations for pedestrians are almost nonexistent. Every book has been written about traffic engineering, so I'm writing a book about pedestrian engineering.

Q: There are some models for pedestrians, but people aren't like cars. Cars just drive and park. Pedestrians can do all kinds of things: stop and talk, skateboard, drink coffee by the side of the road. The current model seems to treat people as if they're mini-cars. What happens when you observe what people really do?

A: There are lots of benefits to having pedestrians. For instance, having activity on street makes street safer. When the traffic engineers do assign levels of service for pedestrians, you're right: they treat pedestrians almost as little vehicles, and yet they don't do what they do for cars. For cars they introduce delays. For pedestrians, they never calculate the delay it takes in crossing the street.

Q: Isn't there a federal law saying you don't have to do things according to the guides?

A: Yes, there is a waiver allowing you to use engineering judgment as a substitute for a guideline. I was chief engineer so I had the authority to do things differently than federal guidelines. But there are hardly any officials who appreciate that capability or have the courage to abandon the guides. Most will hide behind the wall of saying, "What if we get sued for not following the manual?" The safest thing is to follow the manual.

Posted by carrie on 02/13/2007 | Permalink


Excellent interview!

If you'd like to hear Gridlock Sam in person, he'll be speaking at the Five Borough Bicycle Club meeting on Monday, February 26, 6:30 to 8:30 PM.
Location: Hostelling International, 891 Amsterdam Avenue (at 103 St), Manhattan, Room 111 (Board Room). Subway: #1 to 103 & Broadway.

Posted by: Brian | Feb 13, 2007 4:27:14 PM

The last five seconds of this interview are worth repeating:

"Telling people they should be able to drive to work is like telling everyone in the Sears Tower in Chicago they're entitled to their own private elevator to get to the office."

Posted by: allderblob | Mar 3, 2007 12:07:20 PM

why does New Jersey have heavy traffic problem

Posted by: siomara | Oct 25, 2007 9:57:51 AM

I think the best way to avoid traffic is to watch traffic cams before hitting the road.
See NYC traffic cams at

Posted by: Reader | Apr 6, 2008 5:52:34 PM

Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear on this weblog until the author has approved them.

If you have a TypeKey or TypePad account, please Sign In