Infrastructure & Environment

Gridlock Guru

Want to drive in Manhattan at rush hour? You'll have to pay for it if Sam Schwartz gets his way.
by | August 2003

It has been almost six months since the City of London began imposing a surcharge on anybody who drives a car there during weekday hours. Although it is still too soon to get a solid read on the results, the early feedback from this scheme to cut traffic congestion has boosted the hopes of so-called "congestion pricing" advocates all over the world--including the United States, and in particular New York City-- the movement's "biggest prize," in the words of London's Financial Times.

This is why, if you pay attention to such things, you may have seen Sam Schwartz's name in the news recently. Schwartz was New York City's deputy traffic commissioner during much of the 1980s, and he has for decades promoted the idea that cars entering Manhattan's central business district at peak times ought to pay for the privilege. Now a consultant on traffic matters and columnist for the New York Daily News, Schwartz has become something of a guru for any journalist writing about traffic in New York.

Full of literal street smarts--in a typical column this summer, he gave his readers detailed directions for getting out to the Long Island beaches without getting stuck on the Long Island Expressway--he is also passionate about limiting automobile use of what he calls "our most precious natural resource"--space. "Why should it cost the same to drive around Rockefeller Center as to drive around 86th St. in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn?" he asks. "If you want to drive by Rockefeller Center and see the tree during Christmas week, and ride at 1 mile an hour while you're polluting the air and showing the family the tree, you should be charged."

Schwartz's theories derive from work done in the 1950s by Nobel- prize-winning economist William Vickrey, whose studies of the price mechanism led to airline reservation systems, long-distance telephone pricing, and Vickrey's own proposal for tolls over New York's East River bridges. This last idea has gone nowhere for half a century; unlike most of the other bridges in the region, the ones over the East River are still free, although in 1986, then-Mayor Edward I. Koch, with Schwartz's connivance, proposed tolls, only to retreat under a withering response.

More recently, Robert Kiley, the city's former transit commissioner, renewed the effort to create congestion pricing. "He was considered a complete lunatic," says John Kaehny, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, a New York advocacy group for bicycling, walking and transit use. "By the time he left, people thought he was discredited." In New York, perhaps, but not necessarily elsewhere; Kiley moved on to London, where he is now transport commissioner and was one of the moving forces behind the congestion plan implemented earlier this year.

Schwartz has been convinced ever since his early days as a traffic engineer that "the car as a solution to city transportation is a failure." In one of his first jobs with the New York traffic department, he closed one of the street ramps into Brooklyn's Prospect Park; as he gained more authority, he went on to close lanes in Central Park in Manhattan; dream up New York's famous "Don't Even Think of Parking Here" signs; and, with a fellow traffic expert, coin the term "gridlock." The New York media still call him "Gridlock Sam."

Although he is convinced that New York City will get congestion pricing someday, Schwartz concedes it will take a messy political battle. "It's like people go back to the Wild West days," he says, "and you're trying to regulate their horses. As though it's in the Constitution that you can drive alone into the central business district with a 200-horsepower engine at speeds below walking speed. For this to happen, you've got to find an incredibly courageous politician or one who's a little out of his mind."

GOVERNING Logo
Rob Gurwitt  |  Former Correspondent
robg@valley.net  | 

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. You can enter an anonymous Display Name or connect to a social profile.

More from Infrastructure & Environment