“Gridlock Sam” joins Alex Roy in this episode of No Parking to talk about cities (mostly the Big Apple), what a degree in Traffic Engineering (yes, that’s a thing) can teach you, and how the father of the term “gridlock” changed transportation.
Hey, everyone. This is No Parking, the podcast that cuts through the hype around self-driving and artificial intelligence. I’m Alex Roy, and in this episode, we’re going to talk to a guy named Sam Schwartz, a guy who changed my life when I was a kid. I didn’t even know who he was or until quite recently, because he came up with the word “gridlock.” We use the word “gridlock” all the time, but little did I know that the word was actually invented in the early 80s by Sam Schwartz, when he was the traffic commissioner for New York City.
Today, Sam is one of the most respected and entertaining, I guess, traffic and transportation experts out there. He’s a real expert. But before he invented the word “gridlock,” he was a cab driver in New York City, which makes him really a true expert. If you haven’t been a cab driver in New York, you really can’t be talking about this stuff. Things like bike lanes and pedestrian zones were ideas that Sam tried to put in place almost 40 years ago in New York City.
Now he’s got a lot to say, so I’m not even go into it. I’m just going to let Sam speak for himself. Sam, how’d you get the nickname “Gridlock Sam”?
Sam Schwartz (01:13):
I’ve had the nickname now for quite a few decades. It dates back to the early 1970s, 50 years ago when I was a traffic engineer working in the New York City traffic department. We were talking about programs from Midtown Manhattan. We talked about the grid, and if we did something to the grid, maybe the grid would lock up. We never made it into one word until 1980. There was a transit strike. 1980, I was very much aware of the 1966 transit strike in which the police ran things and didn’t do a very good job. So I said, “We need a traffic scientist, a traffic engineer at the helm here, but I need a hook.” The hook was the gridlock previous plan. So it’s the first time gridlock was ever written down was in a 1980 document. It was two words, grid lock, prevention plan. The mayor’s office saw it and said, “What is this thing, gridlock? We need the guy who could solve it.” So they put me in charge of the city transportation for the 11 days of the transit strike. The media picked it up as one word, and soon, encyclopedias, dictionaries, William Safire On Language column was calling me, and I became the father of the word gridlock.
Sam Schwartz (02:38):
Soon gridlock and Sam became synonymous, and gridlock took off, meaning so many more things, any kind of stalemate. I would say every single president of the United States has used the word multiple times. I still get a tingle down my spine when I hear a president of the United States say gridlock.
Well, I think I was about nine years old, living in New York City, east Midtown. I think that’s when I first heard that term. That was Mayor Koch at the time.
Sam Schwartz (03:10):
Yes, Ed Koch was the mayor, and Ed Koch liked hooks. He heard this hook called gridlock prevention plan. He liked it and ran with it. I was the guy who had to carry it out.
Now, at some point in my youth, gridlock became such a … People were so angry that a policy was enacted where the grid, the square, at the center of an intersection was painted in a cross-hatch pattern. If your car’s tires were stopped in it, you would get a serious fine. When did that play out?
Sam Schwartz (03:48):
Well, you could thank me for that.
How did I know?
Sam Schwartz (03:51):
Well, you could blame me on a lot of things. But we started doing that, I’d say the late 70s, early 80s. We called that spillback because what happens and the mathematical definition of gridlock is you have to have a grid first of all. An alternating one way grid is fairly typical. When one vehicle is in the intersection, it blocks the perpendicular movement. That ultimately leads to a queue, which blocks the parallel movement. That leads to a queue which blocks the opposing movement. Soon, you can’t move in any direction.
Sam Schwartz (04:31):
So one intersection spillback grows exponentially to four to 12 to 36, and you could see how gridlock gets started. So, but I wasn’t only issuing tickets to bad guys. I gave good guy tickets who stopped when the light was still green, had no place to go. We gave them a ticket with a free subway token in it. Good guy tickets.
Well, that’s really nice. My father, I remember, said to me, he says, “This policy’s really unfair. I have a Cadillac. It’s a very long car. Maybe I’m doing my best to get across, and some other guy’s car is forcing me to stop at the intersection.” He didn’t like that at all. I know you were a cab driver before you joined the city. What year did you start driving a taxi?
Sam Schwartz (05:19):
I was driving a taxi from around my 1967 to ’71, on and off going to school. Then for a while, I was out of work, but I was driving a taxi cab.
How do you go from driving a taxi cab to joining the city and becoming Gridlock Sam?
Sam Schwartz (05:37):
Well, I had no idea there was a field like traffic engineering, and I certainly didn’t think of it when I was a cab driver. I was just as crazy as every other cab driver. I really knew very little about what I wanted to do in life. I had very few role examples. My parents were immigrants from Europe. They fled Europe between world wars. The only one that I knew that went to college personally was my brother, Brian. Brian had a PhD in physics. So I figured I’d go get a PhD in physics because it’s the only thing that I knew.
Sam Schwartz (06:11):
In my senior year, I wasn’t a great student, but I went to see him. He was a professor at MIT at the time. He’s 10 years my senior and I was not being recruited by the A schools, by the B schools. The only reason I was being recruited by the B schools was there weren’t Americans going into physics. So I went to him with the idea, “What school should I go to?” He came back to me and said, “Why do you want to go into physics? At best, you’ll be a mediocre physicist. You’re going to spend seven years getting a PhD. At the end of that, you’re going to be in some obscure university, studying the 27th spin on an electron atom. Is that what you want to do with your life?”
Sam Schwartz (06:56):
I said, at that point, my whole life changed because I thought I would be a student for another seven years. He said, “What do you like?” I thought for a while, and he was pulling like pulling teeth. I said, “I like cities” because everybody abandoned me. I lived in Brooklyn. My brothers abandoned me. The Brooklyn Dodgers abandoned me. My best friends all abandoned me. I felt like the last kid left in Brooklyn. So I said, “Cities.” I really resented suburbs. I resented Los Angeles that took the Dodgers. So I said, “Cities.”
Sam Schwartz (07:32):
He thought for a moment. He thinks in equations. He said, “Cities plus math and science. You’re pretty good in math and science, not good enough to be a physicist. But cities plus math plus science equals traffic.” I applied to graduate school in traffic engineering and science. Amazingly got into MIT because a mediocre physicist in traffic engineering is a star. So I didn’t want to be there with my brother. I went to University of Pennsylvania, which was less of a traffic science program, but more of a transit program. I graduated from Penn, came back, thought I was hot stuff. Couldn’t find a job, drove a cab. After a few months, ended up getting a job with the traffic department.
What does a traffic engineer study? What is the nature of … I didn’t even know there was a traffic engineering degree program, I don’t think.
Sam Schwartz (08:29):
Yeah, everything that’s out there is measurable.
There you go.
Sam Schwartz (08:34):
So the traffic engineer knows the width of lane lines, knows something called the capacity of a street, knows the volume to capacity ratio, figures out how to time the traffic signals, figures out the safe stopping distance, figures out how to create a bottleneck or how to unclog a bottleneck. So it’s a pretty wide field. Now in my days, when I went to school, you did it by hand. Now computers all tell you what to do.
Sam Schwartz (09:03):
You plug it in, and you simulate an entire city. So SimCity, which was not around while I was a kid-
Oh, that was one of my questions. My thesis was on SimCity but please go on. I’m so thrilled you bring it up.
Sam Schwartz (09:14):
But what I was amazed at is my kids, who are now, one is 44, another 38, they weren’t terribly interested in what I did. But when the game SimCity came out, all of a sudden I see them managing cities and planning cities, and they were enjoying it. So SimCity gave a big boost to the whole idea that you could improve the quality of people’s lives by changing the city, changing the streets, changing the patterns, changing how people live and walk.
So in your tenure, working for the city in here in New York, what would you say would be the simplest change that you made that had the biggest impact?
Sam Schwartz (09:58):
There are so, so many. One change that I made was the way we think about something called standard dimensions, the width of lanes, that the wider the lanes are, the safer they are. So in the 1980s, the federal government looked at the cranky, creepy Williamsburg Bridge that was corroding. The federal government came in and said, “We’re not going to give you …” And the city was broke. “We’re not going to give you any money to repair this bridge.”
Sam Schwartz (10:31):
The bridge, the wires holding the bridge together were cracking. You could see broken wires attached to the cable. Steels were falling into the river and actually hit a boat.
Sam Schwartz (10:45):
So the federal government said, “You know what? We’ll give you a ton of money. We’ll give you a billion dollars, but you got to get rid of that Williamsburg Bridge. Not only that, we’re going to beautify this city by taking this neighborhood that is so blighted called Williamsburg, and we’re going to build these nice spaghetti ramps through Williamsburg. Nobody lives there. The Lower East Side, we’ll do the same thing on the Lower East Side. Who wants to live on the Lower East Side?”
Sam Schwartz (11:11):
These are the days when Soho, when there was a low Manhattan expressway. I proved simply to the feds that the places on the bridge where the lanes were the narrowest were the safest parts of the bridge. It’s a much longer story, but I managed to save the Williamsburg Bridge from demolition. The community of Williamsburg was untouched at the Lower East Side, and look how gloriously they unfolded on their own without the intervention of the Department of Transportation building beautiful ramps.
It is true. The DOT, whatever actions they make, in terms of whether they take a road out or put a road in, there are real impacts, in terms of how it segregates communities and divides them. It can create huge changes for good or for bad, depending on the case. That’s fascinating.
I didn’t know that. You see that in parts of Pittsburgh where you see the highway overpasses and in Miami, like Overtown and the other neighbors downtown, where they put the overpasses, are not great.
For sure. There’s also a place in Michigan where there’s a drawbridge, and when the drawbridge gets stuck open, the closest way to get to the other side is a 31 mile detour. We have critical infrastructure and bottlenecks in this in country that we have to take care of that infrastructure.
Sam Schwartz (12:37):
While there wasn’t a chapter in our highway engineering book called Racism in Cities, essentially highway engineers, which went wild after the 1956 Interstate Defense Network Act that was signed by Eisenhower old 40,000 miles of interstate, the way we built interstates, which was to connect cities. But the money was so cheap. It was 90/10 money, meaning if there was a hundred million-
Sam Schwartz (13:03):
Money was so cheap it was 90/10 money, meaning if it was a hundred million dollar project, that only cost the city 10 million or the state $10 million. What did we do? We went through the poorest neighborhoods. And what were the poorest neighborhoods? Often people of color. And we split communities. Very sound neighborhoods were just destroyed. And here in New York, the Sunset Park community was separated, or in the Bronx, where the Cross Bronx goes. When it came to Brooklyn Heights and you had rich folk there, Robert Moses then did this triple cantilever to narrow the impact and not take any of those, well, now they’re multimillion dollar brownstones, but those expensive buildings.
So, I remember reading The Power Broker, which is the story of Robert Moses, when I was in high school, because I went to school in Westchester, but commuted back to Manhattan. And then suddenly my picture of the city was completely changed. But Robert Moses, didn’t he live into the seventies? Right? Did you work with Robert Moses? Did you know him?
Sam Schwartz (14:06):
I know a lot of him. Robert Moses came out of power in 1968, 1971 is when I started and I worked with a lot of Moses’ men, and those were the terms. So I knew a good deal about Robert Moses. And I’m going to say something very strange if you know New York City, we have Robert Moses to thank for the fact that we are the only city, top 25 cities, that does not have an interstate going through our central business district.
If I recall, there were plans floated for the 57th Street, 14th Street, and 23rd Street to have these massive cross things.
Sam Schwartz (14:43):
Yeah, there was the Lower Manhattan Expressway, which would’ve gone through Soho. There was one at 30th Street, there was an earlier version at 57th Street. But the reason I thank Moses is he activated the anti-car enthusiasts in the fifties.
Sam Schwartz (14:58):
So when the sixties came around and Jane Jacobs and Shirley Hayes and a number of others, were mobilized to stop the Lower Manhattan Expressway, which would’ve gone through Soho. Soho became Soho because A, manufacturing left, B, you couldn’t develop anything because there was a cloud on the property for a highway. So nobody was going to invest. So artists move in. So in the sixties, when I was coming of age as a teenager, Soho was the place to go to. And then it developed for artists and then I was part of the Department of Transportation that demapped the highway that would’ve gone through Soho and now it became an extraordinary community.
My father said, “If we’re going to go to Soho, we take the Cadillac and we stay in the car.” So I just reread your book. I’m going to plug it for a minute, which I rarely do on the show, No One at the Wheel: Driverless Cars and the Road of the Future. And there’s a wonderful section where you describe… You’ve joined the city, and this is before Koch, you’re working for John Lindsay. And I had never heard the story until I read your book, the story of the Red Zone, which really was visionary. Can you tell us that story?
Sam Schwartz (16:18):
Sure. And I even have the sign for the Red Zone. I came to work in 1971 and John Lindsay was way ahead of his time. So you think about projects like the closing of Times Square, that was proposed under John Lindsay. He proposed the pedestrian mall in the middle of Madison Avenue. He closed off Fulton Street in Brooklyn to only buses.
Sam Schwartz (16:41):
In April for Earth Day 1971, John Lindsay wanted to ban cars from a portion of Midtown Manhattan from 37th Street to 57th Street, from Third Avenue to Broadway/Seventh Avenue from 11:00 AM to 4:00 PM. I was at the traffic department. We have a sign shop. We manufactured the signs. We installed the signs. We covered the signs. And two weeks before it was to go in, and my job as a junior engineer was to measure everything, two weeks before, he got cold feet and abandoned the Red Zone. But I held onto one of those signs and if you go to my office, when you enter my office, the hallway and you look up, there is a sign that says “Red Zone,” and it’s got a car with a slash through the car, “No cars in Midtown Manhattan.”
Was it just privately owned vehicles were banned?
Sam Schwartz (17:40):
All cars, but buses would’ve been able to go through, so public transportation, emergency vehicles, but yeah, all private cars would’ve been prohibited from Midtown Manhattan.
What about medallion taxis?
Sam Schwartz (17:55):
Medallion taxis would’ve been allowed. So they were part of the public transportation system, so don’t bring your private car.
What about… I remember growing up and taking privatized bus services that sometimes are contracted with cities or schools, was that allowable?
Sam Schwartz (18:13):
If it was a franchise, in other words, if it was just a charter, it might not have been, but you’re asking me to remember 50 years ago each little detail. But if it was a franchise service and we did have franchise service, even all the buses we still had MaBSTOA, the Manhattan and Bronx bus system was separate from New York City Transit.
Sam Schwartz (18:34):
And so, yes, those buses would’ve been allowed.
That was 50 years ahead of its time. But in the opening chapter of the book, you talk about how impossible it would be for someone from 1885 to conceive of what New York City would look like 100 years later. And then the book ends with speculating what will people think a hundred years from now about what we’re doing today? So we’re only halfway, 50 years after you set up that argument, how would you try to explain the cons of jaywalking to someone from 1885? Or a sidewalk and hugging the walls because of cars?
Sam Schwartz (19:11):
Yeah, it’s an amazing thought process. So what I tell people to do is erase anything you could possibly know after say 1910, when the car really started to get popular. And how did you walk? You walked in a straight line. You’ve been doing that for millions of years as a biped. And all of a sudden somebody comes to you in 1910 and says, “You know what? In the next few years, we’re going to shine a light in your face. It’s a particular color light, in this case, red. When you see that red light, you have to stop. Now, we’re going to shine another color in your face: Green. That means you can go.”
Sam Schwartz (19:58):
And you’d look at that person. “What are you talking about? You’re going to shine a light in my face? I’ve been a Neanderthal, I’ve been running, I’ve been going, I cross streets every which way I want.” “No, and you can’t cross streets every which way you want. When you walk, you have to hug the building line, to walk along the building, and then can only cross at the corner. And if you don’t do that,” and so you say, “Well, I’m not going to do that,” “if you don’t do it, we’re going to throw you in jail. We’re not going to just make it a fine, we’re going to make it a criminal offense.”
Sam Schwartz (20:33):
So there was a huge battle from roughly 1910 to 1930, where people who owned the streets, walking in the streets of New York City, of Baltimore, of Cleveland, of Chicago, of Los Angeles, where suddenly they were being told what they had always done for years was a crime. And not only that, the clever PR guy said, ” Hmm, what could we call this thing to really get at these kinds of violators?”
Sam Schwartz (21:08):
Well, a jay was a hayseed, somebody from Nebraska in New York… I hope nobody’s listening from Nebraska. Not that I think they’re hayseeds. But what kind of an insult could you use? So they called those people, jaywalkers, as if they didn’t know any better, they’re not real city people. And so for 20 years, some cities fought. Cincinnati said, ” We don’t want to have this. We want cars to go slowly.” This is real crazy to have people walking in the streets, playing in the streets. I grew up in Brooklyn, we played in the streets, that was our ball field. That’s where we played football. That’s where we played baseball. We called it punch ball or we called it stickball or whatever games we made, the street was our playground. There weren’t very many playgrounds.
Sam Schwartz (21:57):
So they just passed these laws. Cincinnati fought it. Advertisements came from all over. “Cincinnati, you’re going to be a backwards city.” The modernists joined in like [inaudible 00:22:10] and others and said, “You want to be a modern city? You have to be a fast city.” So the car is the symbol of the city of the future. And it was a bloody 20 year period and it’s been bloody since. Monuments were erected into city after city for hundreds of children that were killed on city streets. It was a bloody battle, at the end, the car won and the rules were stacked against the pedestrians. They were criminals if they did what they always did before. The cars had the rights of way in so many cases, the dead pedestrian often didn’t have a say in who was at fault. And we lost so much.
It’s interesting what you say about a modern city is a fast city because in car racing, the lesson you learn in racing school is fast is slow. If you want to get around a corner as quickly as possible, you must slow down to do it. And that a number of vehicles coming through fast, they’re going to crash. But if you know when to modulate your speed, you’ll be safer and you will get through, your overall time will be faster. It’s more efficient.
Sam Schwartz (23:19):
I can give you an analogy that I use. So many people in transportation are talking about mobility, mobility, mobility, speed, faster. I talk about accessibility. So instead of… and in your example, going faster to get to buy a quart of milk, if I can walk two blocks to get a quart of milk and be back in five minutes, that’s better accessibility than if I had to drive in a car five miles and come back for that same quart of milk. So we confuse accessibility with mobility. And when it comes to cities, the form of transportation that’s most efficient is walking.
Having just moved to Miami, I learned a very unfortunate lesson, which is when you open an app, a Google Maps, like, “Oh, what’s my drive time from my apartment in the mainland to Miami Beach?” It gives me a drive time of like 21 minutes. But from the moment I walk out of my door, I have to take an elevator to go to my garage, walk to my car, get in the car that I own, drive it out of the garage, takes another eight minutes because my garage is 10 stories tall and then my drive is 19 minutes. On the other end, I’ve got to go find parking. I orbit for 15, 20 minutes, I find the parking. So it’s really twice as long as just the drive time. And people don’t factor this in, I think, in their lives. And there’s just a lot of fiction and inefficiency. It’s crazy.
You said in your book, there’s a whole section about parking. And one of the things you say is, “Don’t be fooled. There are parking spaces. They’re just not where you want them.” And that made me think of Sim City, because in Sim City, in the early versions of the game, actually in every version of the game, parking is omitted in the graphics of the game. When you build neighborhoods or high density residential/commercial, parking is not depicted on screen. And the reason is if parking was realistically depicted in the game, the map will be filled with parking and the game would really suck. And so can you talk to us a little bit about the history of parking and how it took over cities?
Sam Schwartz (25:37):
Yeah. So for years parking was on your private property or your horse carriage. You had a particular location for that and it wasn’t codified. In some cities it was codified, you had to be off street in New York City, they finally allowed for on-street parking in various areas. But again, it was free on-street parking and that was a mistake…
Sam Schwartz (26:03):
But again, it was free on-street parking, and that was a mistake that was made, that we took, on a typical one-way street, we took one-third of the space, in some cases if we allowed parking on both, two-thirds of the space for cost to store a car that 95% of the time isn’t being used.
Sam Schwartz (26:21):
So sometime in 1935, I think it was Oklahoma City was the first that said, “Well, maybe we should charge for parking,” and come up with the parking meter. People were outraged by that. And here in New York City, with congestion pricing… And I’ve been working on congestion pricing for 50 years. In 1980, I had passed a congestion pricing bill for New York city, and I was promptly sued by the Garage Board of Trade.
Sam Schwartz (26:50):
Well, I was named as an assistant commissioner in it. But it was my plan, and I had to testify. But the irony is the bigger practitioners of congestion pricing are the parking garages. If you’re in the heart of midtown Manhattan, you want to park, and see the tree at Rockefeller Center at Christmas, peak demand time, you will pay triple figures for that. If you want to park in Long Island City, it’ll be a quarter of that. If you want to park a little further out, it’ll be a 10th of that. I mean, it’ll even be a dollar somewhere up in the Bronx to pay for parking.
Sam Schwartz (27:28):
So for some reason, it was okay for the private sector to be charging, but any time the government came in… And right now there’s a huge battle, you hear an outcry going on over congestion pricing again here in New York. And at least seven or eight cities around the end United States are looking at congestion pricing. And we know cities have done it successfully from London to Milan to Singapore to Stockholm around the world.
Sam Schwartz (27:52):
There’s something in which Americans believe that it is written in the Constitution that thou shall drive the free. It’s somewhere in the Second Amendment, you can not only own guns, but you could also drive for free.
Sam Schwartz (28:07):
When I proposed putting up some tolls on the Queensboro Bridge, people marched with signs saying, “Keep the bridge free.” But the bridge wasn’t free, it was crumbling, and what they didn’t know is the bridge had been built with tolls. The Williamsburg Bridge had tolls on it. The Brooklyn Bridge had tolls on it. The Queensboro Bridge had tolls. George Washington Bridge even charged bike riders to go across, and it was a penny for a pedestrian to cross the Brooklyn Bridge.
So I’m going to quote from your book about the history of roads, so, “Ever since car ownership became a middle class right of passage, it has been assumed that individuals should own cars and the more cars the better.” Can you tell us a little bit about that philosophy, and then bring us to the Federal Aid Road Act in 1916? Am I getting that correctly? Because I was unaware of that history, and I’m unaware even of the notion of that people should own as many cars as possible.
Sam Schwartz (29:04):
Yeah. I mean, it’s kind of this love affair. Going back to 1916 and going back to Lieutenant Eisenhower seeing how bad our roads were and seeing how good the roads of Europe were or of Germany were. We believed, again, that a modern, effective, and in Eisenhower’s term, it was to move troops back and forth.
Sam Schwartz (29:29):
But the PR people that seized it, the modernists that seized it, thought this was clean. Remember, the substitute for the car were horses, the horse droppings. So there were articles around the turn of the century about this almost pollution-free vehicle called the automobile.
Sam Schwartz (29:51):
Sam Schwartz (29:52):
… because it didn’t drop things. And the PR people then said, “Wait, we can add to this. And this is something that if Mad Men took place in the ’20s or the ’30s, you would’ve seen the ads for making love to the car, which Saab does. “See the USA in your Chevrolet.” So it attaches patriotism with the automobile and the open road.
Sam Schwartz (30:25):
And freedom. And so, the sign of freedom was pretty much all of those things. You’re in an open road driving as fast as you can. Now, the lie was that one person can drive as fast as they can. To add a second person, that has a little bit of effect. Add 150 million other people, and the fastest we have gone in this country probably occurred in the 1970s, since then, it’s been downhill.
Too many people driving.
Sam Schwartz (30:56):
Too many people are driving with too little capacity. Too many people have abandoned transit systems that were more effective.
People don’t know what the difference is between the fast and slow lane. Don’t get me started on drawbridge chasing.
Of course. This bleeds right into another fun anecdote in the book, which is I think you went to visit Russia and to consult on a traffic mitigation project. And they wanted to build a highway, and you said… You know what story I’m talking about? Can you break that down for us?
Sam Schwartz (31:31):
Yeah. I was in Russia several times in there, a lot of Russian stories that I have. Some I can’t tell at all.
Yes, you can. Come on.
Sam Schwartz (31:43):
But in this one particular time, I was in Russia right after the curtain came down and there really weren’t many cars. But within 10 years, they repeated every mistake that the United States had made, and they allowed cars everywhere. So going in Moscow, it’s not a grid system, but the effect of gridlock jammed in every direction. So I was thrilled when I was brought in by the government.
Sam Schwartz (32:13):
And it’s hard to know what’s government and private sector, they’re the same. So I was brought in by Russia to solve the problem of Moscow and traffic problem. And I looked at a map, and there are nine of railroads that lead right into the center of Moscow. And I thought, “Wow, if we can increase the capacity, the rail capacity, build park and ride facilities, build some cross networks, build some interchanges… ” Because these were more regional rails as opposed to the subway system, which they have a very good subway system, but now people wanted sprawl and living further outside.
Sam Schwartz (32:55):
So I came there talking to them about narrowing roadways, about relying more on walking in the center of the city, in the outer areas, get people onto the trunk lines, fewer cars in the center of the city. And they said, “Nyet.”
Because cars, roads, good, everything else bad.
Sam Schwartz (33:18):
We want a highway on top of every one of these radial lines. Now think of it, six lane highways all leading into one spot.
Sam Schwartz (33:28):
If you did that in SimCity, boom.
I’m so glad you brought that up.
All right, so obviously, Brian is developing autonomous vehicles. You described many times in the book the opportunity for new technologies to solve issues and how they’ve gone wrong. So before we get to autonomous vehicles, I’m going to start with the flying taxi concept, okay? Do you believe that that can scale and solve traffic as we know it?
Sam Schwartz (34:08):
Yeah, for very rich people.
So the answer is, no, it can’t scale?
Sam Schwartz (34:14):
It can’t. In 1995, I think it was, I was in San Paulo, and San Paulo traffic was terrible. And I had a meeting with some executive, and the traffic to get from his part of town to my part of town was almost impossible, so he arrived in a helicopter. And if we think we’re going to solve urban traffic problems by everybody having their little Jetson to go around, it’s not going to work.
Sam Schwartz (34:40):
If we think some rich people could take advantage of it, but if you think the transit worker, or let’s say the person in the bodega… And I grew up in a bodega. They didn’t call it bodegas then. Do I think that that person’s going to be making use of a flying taxi? No.
Well, cars used to be just for rich people at one point, right? And then, things like the Model T and other things came along that eventually became… What did they call it? The every man’s car. Do you think if we could make an affordable flying car, do you think that that would become ubiquitous? Could that become a solution, or do you just think not possible?
Sam Schwartz (35:27):
Yeah. I see it for a very limited number of people. Look at the new forms of transportation and how badly they’ve done on the equity issue. So when you say cars are for everybody, it turns out they’re not for everybody. There is a certain number of people that can’t afford three cars, two cars, one car, or zero cars.
Sam Schwartz (35:50):
If you take a look at when bike share came in, who was riding the bike share? The educated millennials were riding the bike shares. Who’s riding the Ubers? Which was supposed to be equity, we don’t know if you’re black or white when you call us, it’s not the low income people.
No, it’s a huge blocker to many people getting their first job is they just can’t get boots strapped to get reliable, affordable transportation to the workplace, right?
Sam Schwartz (36:16):
That’s such an important point. There was a study that was done on healthcare workers who were our heroes. We relied on them so much. But the study was looking at their commute time, and this was before the pandemic, versus the rest of our commute times. Their commute times were so much longer.
Way longer. And so, they’re not able to show up on time, and then it puts them at risk of losing their job, and it’s this vicious cycle, right? And so, your point is even if you made flying cars just as “affordable” as cars today, you’re still not acknowledging a huge part of the population where that doesn’t work for them, right?
Sam Schwartz (36:54):
Yeah. And so, think of the area. I don’t know if you solve all the pollution problem on it. You need some place to park, to land.
To gas it, you have to pay taxes on it, you have to maintain it, all of that.
[inaudible 00:37:10] landing.
So let’s get then autonomous vehicles. What lessons from the past can guide their successful deployment and what mistakes can be avoided?
Sam Schwartz (37:24):
When I started writing my book, the working title was Autonomous Vehicles: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. And the good is when they’re not individually owned, and they’re seen as part of the transit system, but they don’t compete with the transit system. They go to trunk lines. They get the people who have three or four cars down to two or one car.
Sam Schwartz (37:51):
There’s some equity formula that lower income people can get these autonomous vehicles, autonomous shuttles, so that there won’t be the car. And if you see some are advertised, you sleep in it, you wake up in it, you have your morning breakfast in it. Those kinds of privately owned are a problem.
Sam Schwartz (38:10):
Can it serve people with visual disabilities or other disabilities? Yeah, that’s fantastic. But when you add up all the disabilities, the number of vehicles on the road increases dramatically.
Sam Schwartz (38:23):
Can we avoid the mistakes of the Uber and Lyft in urban areas? An Uber or a Lyft arrives, now let’s take the driver out of it because now it’s an autonomous vehicle, drives 1.8 miles or 1.6 miles for every passenger mile of travels. So 60% more miles of drives. So can those vehicles be more closely spaced on a highway? Yes, they could, but what if some of those vehicles are empty? You’re no longer getting the person capacity. You’re increasing the vehicle capacity through that.
Sam Schwartz (38:58):
So it is an integration with public transportation. It’s also a recognition that you’re in the middle of Fifth-
Sam Schwartz (39:03):
Public transportation is also a recognition that you’re in the middle of 5th Avenue. What do you need an autonomous vehicle that could do 40 or 50 miles an hour? What we need is an agreement from the private sector, the public sector, the community, on rules of the road, that you cannot go into a bike lane. You can’t possibly. You could tell it to go into a bike lane. You can’t speed. So each road is defined, and if the industry would agree to all those things, and agree to make this part of a system, not just adding bike share, not just adding Uber, but making it a system approach to solving the transportation problem-
Sam Schwartz (39:51):
There’s real hope.
Speaker 2 (39:52):
It seems like the approach to deploying any of these new systems or technologies, whatever you want to call them, is to spray and pray. That happens in Pittsburgh. Bike lanes are sprayed all over the place, and they just stop. They just come to a stop, right in the middle of a really complex interchange. Then what? Like, there isn’t thought about how it’s woven into the fabric of what’s there, and how to sort of move us forward and take a systems approach to solving it, right?
To your point, adding more autonomous vehicles just adds more cars to the road, doesn’t really solve anything unless you’re complementing the public transportation system there, and unless there’s something on top of however the person’s getting their ride, that allows them to understand how to use the AV maybe to complete the trip, but maybe there’s public transportation in-between, right? Show them ways in which they can make use of the existing infrastructure, and then use the freedom of an AV to be able to take you the rest of the way. That sort of thinking, culturally, when I come to a city, I don’t think that way. It’s just like, “All right, how do I get from A to B as fast as possible?” I guess my question is, then, if that’s a better way to do it, can we actually change people’s habits?
Sam Schwartz (41:20):
Yeah, well we’ve changed habits. Let’s look at the history. We’ve changed habits for the worst. You know, you take a look at, again, going back in history, the history of the automobile, if you want to know probably the busiest intersection for people 120 years ago, or 110 years ago, was Broadway and 6th Street in Los Angeles.
Sam Schwartz (41:48):
Los Angeles was a great city, a walking city. If you go see the film, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? The detective, he jumps on a bus, and a kid says, “Why are you riding a bus? You know, you’re a man.” And the detective says, “This is Los Angeles. Who needs a car?” So there was a conspiracy. We know that there was a conviction of General Motors, and Goodyear Tires, and Phillips Petroleum, 1948, and all sorts of things, to change behavior for the worse, buying up street car lines. So can we change things for the better? I think, and again, maybe I’m just way too optimistic, but having the industry work closely with city planners, government planners, not to sell the most of their vehicles, and even Bill Ford recognizes this, and I quote him in my book, saying, “By 2050, if we continue on the path we are with autonomous vehicles, we’re just going to have more gridlock.”
Just more gridlock.
Sam Schwartz (42:51):
And more sprawl.
Alex Roy (42:52):
That Sam guy’s pretty smart, huh?
So I mean, if we look at current events, Congress is debating the content of a pretty large infrastructure bill. What is Sam Schwartz’s advice to Congress on how not to waste that money?
Sam Schwartz (43:10):
First of all, the autonomous vehicle industry, which as I said, I believe can be done right, and I’d like to see it be done right, it relies on our infrastructure, so now is the time, while it’s a nascent industry, to have some type of charge. Right now, lots of the vehicles are relying on the infrastructure, the lane lines, the signs to be maintained, the traffic signals, the communication with infrastructure, infrastructure to infrastructure, communications between vehicles, between public vehicles and private vehicles, all of that. It is time on either per-mile basis or per-time basis, when you get to New York City, miles don’t matter, you don’t travel very far. That’s why I say on a per-time basis, but a vehicle miles or vehicle hour travel, that goes into maintaining the infrastructure for all, not just the lanes for the autonomous vehicles, we needed a real infrastructure fund. We see what’s happening. Here in New York City, two streets just fell. Two streets just-
Oh did they? Recently?
Sam Schwartz (44:17):
… caved in. The-
Oh, I didn’t see that.
Sam Schwartz (44:19):
Riverside Drive, and I think it was 2nd Avenue.
Oh my goodness.
Sam Schwartz (44:23):
And this is after the cave-in of the apartment building-
Speaker 2 (44:28):
Two years ago in Pittsburgh, we had a bus just fall through the pavement into a giant sinkhole.
Sam Schwartz (44:33):
Yeah, and what people forget, in the 1980s, I was the chief engineer for New York City. During that one decade of the 1980s, in the New York general area, 15 people died in bridge collapses. Mianus Bridge in Connecticut collapsed, the Schoharie Bridge in Upstate New York, the Brooklyn Bridge cable snapped, killing somebody, the portion of the FDR Drive collapsed, so we need a revenue stream. Congress has been terrible about a revenue stream-
This isn’t a one-and-done thing. It’s not like we pass this bill and then it’s we’re good, right? Your point is infrastructure is an investment, but it also has recurring needs.
Sam Schwartz (45:12):
Yeah, okay? And-
What about like high-speed rail? I mean, why don’t we make better use of rail in this country, right? If you look at how easy it is to get around in Europe, what is the impediment to getting these things done, Sam?
Sam Schwartz (45:26):
Yeah, I think it’s politics. We’ve watched what we had as a pretty good rail system entering the 20th century into a pretty paltry rail system. The car industry had something to do with that. Politicians had a lot to do with that, I think. But I must say, at least some of the early numbers, and this is a moving target. Some of the early numbers have more for rail than I have seen in any bill in the past, I don’t know, 40 or 50 years, so there has been a turnaround. Is it enough? I haven’t assessed whether it’s enough. I doubt it’s enough, but we’re going in the right direction. I mean, there should be a lot of short-haul trips that are now being done by plane or car, that could easily-
Yes. Well, I believe-
Sam Schwartz (46:12):
… be done-
… also in-
Sam Schwartz (46:12):
… by rail.
… choice and freedom, and use the right tool for the right job. There’s no reason for me to sit on in a car for four hours, going from Pittsburgh to Detroit, staring straight with my steering wheel barely moving. It just does not make a lot of sense.
Sam Schwartz (46:26):
You know, it’s so good to hear you say that, and I’ve heard a few other people who are in the industry. I mentioned Bill Ford before, but how the industry can get itself together, and say… There’s the good, there’s the bad, and the ugly, and why would we proceed with the ugly when there’s a real opportunity, with this new technology, integrated with so many other wonderful things, that we can make this a better country, a safer country, a healthier country? There’s so many health risks to doing this wrong, and there’s so many health benefits to doing it right.
Alex Roy (47:04):
If we want to learn more about your company, and the work that you do, where can we find you?
Sam Schwartz (47:10):
Just go to www.samschwartz.com.
Alex Roy (47:17):
Well, that was fun. If you want to check out Sam’s book, it’s great. It’s No One at the Wheel: Driverless Cars and the Road of the Future. But he actually has another book that’s quite good, Street Smart: The Rise of Cities and the Fall of Cars. I’ve read them both, and unlike most books in the sector, they’re actually good. They’re good, because it’s Gridlock Sam. Now, if you enjoyed today’s episode, please connect with us on social. We’re on Twitter, @NoParkingPod. I’m everywhere on social, but especially on Twitter, @AlexRoy144. Please share No Parking with a friend. Like us, subscribe, give us a five-star review wherever you listen to your podcasts. This show is managed by the Civic Entertainment Group. Now, until next time, I’m Alex Roy, and this is the No Parking Podcast.