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Walk this Way

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Walk this Way

How “Gridlock Sam” helped rescue New York from the legacy of Robert Moses January 8, 2016
The Social Order
New York

Street Smart: The Rise of Cities and the Fall of Cars, by Samuel I. Schwartz with William Rosen (Public Affairs, 312 pp. $26.99)

Twenty years ago, Cynthia Wiggins used public transportation to get to her job at a suburban Buffalo mall. She died doing it. A dump truck hit her as she crossed a seven-lane highway on foot after getting off a bus, the only way she could get to the mall without owning a car. Advocates often complain that transportation policy isn’t sexy. Wiggins’s story, though, recounted in Sam Schwartz’s new book, Street Smart, reminds us that transportation is not supposed to be sexy. It’s supposed to be about, at least in part, saving lives—often the lives of poor people for whom speeding motor vehicles aren’t a way to get around, but mortal threats. The good news is that cities, towns, and even suburbs have started to undo the damage done by bad transportation policies over the past few decades.

Nobody is more qualified to write a book about transportation than Schwartz. He has worked in the field almost his whole adult life—he even moonlighted as a New York City cabdriver while going to school. At Brooklyn College in the 1960s, he was good at math and physics but hadn’t a clue about what to do with his life. Schwartz’s brother asked Sam what he liked, and he settled on one dislike: he didn’t like suburbs. That meant he liked cities. His brother recommended that Sam study “traffic” in grad school. He did, landing at the city’s traffic department in 1971. He stayed for 19 years, becoming traffic commissioner in 1986 after a corruption scandal felled his boss and colleagues.

During the seventies and eighties, Schwartz saw firsthand the “bad old days” of transportation, when a near-bankrupt city had no money for luxuries like safe bridges. In 1973, a portion of the elevated West Side Highway collapsed, its beams so corroded that it was “as if someone had opened a concrete trapdoor.” In 1986, the Manhattan Bridge looked like it might fall down, too. “Half of what looked like steel was actually rust,” writes Schwartz, and a diligent cleaning crew was “blowing it away” with sandblasters. He immediately closed off lanes and subway tracks—to cut the weight while they fixed the bridge—only to discover that another span, the Williamsburg, had “cracked and perforated” beams. He shut that bridge down, as well.

Many transportation officials would have used these failures as an excuse to agitate for two brand new bridges. But Schwartz saw something other than a failure of old road infrastructure. He saw a failure of the way of life that road infrastructure enabled and perpetuated—and how we could live differently. When the West Side Highway collapsed, for example, people expected a traffic disaster: “What to do with 80,000 cars a day?” But much of the traffic disappeared. As Robert Moses learned—or should have learned—when you build a highway to reduce traffic, gutting a neighborhood in the process, all you do is enable more traffic. The reverse is true, too: when you “unbuild” a road, as with the West Side Highway, some drivers will leave. In a city choking under pollution, and where 900 people regularly died each year in traffic crashes, the prospect of a few less cars on the road was a good thing.

Schwartz applied this lesson to his handling of the Williamsburg Bridge. A new bridge would have wider lanes, allowing for more cars and faster speeds—and it was an opportunity, some thought, to knock down “blighted” blocks of the Lower East Side and Williamsburg. “But we didn’t want to move the maximum number of cars into Manhattan,” Schwartz mused at the time, “and we sure didn’t want them going any faster when they got there.” Moreover, wider lanes, contrary to popular belief, weren’t safer. People drove more carefully in the crowded, narrow lanes. So New York kept, and fixed, its old Williamsburg Bridge, and it kept Williamsburg and the Lower East Side intact, too. The Robert Moses era was finally over.

The best parts of Schwartz’s book are the personal details. As a boy growing up in Bensonhurst during the fifties, Schwartz watched his father walk to work at his grocery store. Neighborhood kids walked and biked everywhere. When they used the streets, they used them for ballgames. Cars weren’t transportation; they were in the way. “We didn’t realize it, but Bensonhurst was already more like a museum of a long-forgotten way of life—a kind of ethnic Colonial Williamsburg—than a picture of America’s immediate future,” Schwartz writes. But as Moses crisscrossed outer-borough New York with highways and people fled cities for suburbs, Schwartz embraced that future, too. He bought his first car to drive to college. Now, nearly half a century later, Schwartz walks to work just like his father did. “My father was the wisest of them all” in staying in the city, Schwartz notes. “He picked his home to minimize travel.”

Americans’ mid-century preference for suburbs over cities and for houses over apartments wasn’t a free-market choice. The street on which Schwartz grew up was the definition of a free market: anyone could play. But the government encouraged the dream of a house and a car—building the federal highway system rather than investing in rail and providing low-cost loans for people to buy single-family houses, not to buy or rent apartments. Ironically, the free market—or, at least, profit-seeking monopoly companies—had built the railways and the trolleys. Government-funded roads and houses, though, eventually eclipsed them. And as cars and trucks came to define our landscape, government rules and regulations over the streets—including high speed limits—favored faster vehicles, meaning that walkers and bicyclists could no longer compete.

Meanwhile, as the population grew, but grew less dense, the dream of a nice house in the suburbs got further and further out of reach for most Americans. Commutes got longer, and commuters’ health—and mental health—deteriorated. Commuters quickly get used to that big house in the suburbs—but they never get used to their dreary, unpredictable commutes. Walking to work is good for your brain as well as your body, and kids who grow up on streets where they can safely walk can draw their neighborhoods more accurately, outlining houses, trees, and landmarks. Children stuck in the back of a car have vaguer notions of their world.

Today, urban and suburban leaders are reversing more than half a century of “solving” congestion with more highways. They’re finding that when people can bike and walk safely—or take a train or a bus—many will. During the Bloomberg era, New York transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan used the same philosophy Schwartz absorbed after the West Side Highway collapse: take away space from drivers, and many of the drivers will make other choices than to drive in the city.

As New York has invested billions in transit and built bike lanes and pedestrian plazas, the people have come, on trains, foot, and bicycles. For nearly two decades, New York has grown in population and jobs without adding more car traffic into Manhattan. Instead, hundreds of thousands of new New Yorkers take trains daily, sending subway ridership to record levels of more than 6.2 million people daily. Mayors of other cities, towns, and suburbs are emulating New York, albeit on a small scale. They’re doing it partly because they don’t want to lose their young people—who, in turn, don’t want to end up like their parents, never using that yard because they’re stuck in the car. But density isn’t just fun for younger people who grew up sitting in the back of their parents’ cars. New York City has cut its traffic deaths from 701 in 1990 to 230 in 2015.

Schwartz writes that it feels good to be part of a “revolution”—where more and more people prefer a train to a car, or prefer a walk to a park instead of a drive to a yard. But the revolution is incremental. Though more people are biking and walking, most people outside the New York City region are still in their cars. Many of these people like driving, and like suburban neighborhoods. That’s fine; it’s a free country. But many people who would like to live in a city where they don’t need a car— and can ride a bike without inviting death by speeding SUV—can’t afford to. If Cynthia Wiggins didn’t have to a cross a highway to get to work, she’d be alive today. We should do more to help people like her.

Photo by City Clock Magazine

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