Time to make Brooklyn’s roads less car friendly

for The Brooklyn Paper
Share on TwitterTweet
Share on Facebook

Don’t miss our updates:

Sam Schwartz grew up tearing through Brooklyn on his bike, making deliveries for his family’s mom-and-pop grocery. He rode the subways, too, and sometimes took them all the way into the train yards with his friend — “which was pretty scary,” he admits.

But his dream form of transit was none of the above. When he finally scraped together the cash, he purchased his prized possession, a 1960 Chevy Impala with huge, flat fins.

Like everyone else in Bensonhurst, he spent an inordinate amount of time waxing his beloved. Pull up next to him at a stoplight? He’d gun it. He was such a car fanatic that in between getting his physics degree at Brooklyn College and his masters at the University of Pennsylvania in — what else? — civil engineering with an eye toward traffic planning, he worked as a cabbie. Eventually Schwartz became the city’s chief transit commissioner and then our Department of Transporta­tion’s chief engineer, even while he wrote the book — literally — on New York’s traffic shortcuts. His column in the New York Daily News was called “Gridlock Sam.” (And in the Yiddish press, “Gridlock Shmuel.”) But these days?

“I don’t think I’ve driven my car in three weeks,” he said. “It’s gathering a lot of dust.”

We’re sitting in the buzzing Chelsea office of Sam Schwartz Engineering, surrounded by brainy-looking Millennials doing the work he is dedicated to today: figuring out how to get more people out of their cars and onto subways, buses, streetcars, bikes, and their own two feet.

Oh, he still tackles traffic. In fact, Barclays Center folks hired him to figure out how not to make game nights a snarling, honking nightmare for all of Downtown Brooklyn. But Schwartz sees the writing on the asphalt, even if the federal government, intent on building ever more highways, does not. The future isn’t on four wheels. If you want your area to attract young people, entrepreneurs, and capital, you have to make it walkable.

That’s the premise behind his new book, “Street Smart: The Rise of Cities and the Fall of Cars” (Public Affairs Books). His facts are hard to refute.

“Something happened around the millennium and nobody noticed and it’s nothing short of a revolution,” Schwartz says, eyes twinkling as he pointed out that in 2003 — for the first time since World War II — Americans drove fewer miles than the year before. And then they drove even fewer in 2004. And even fewer in 2005. “It went down for 10 straight years, and nobody noticed it.”

Talk about a cultural shift. Schwartz only began to notice the decline about 2010, but he also noticed nobody else was noticing it. He’d go to conferences about the future of transportation and see graphs with highway construction projections pointing up, up, up, as if to meet a growing need for a need that wasn’t growing.

So his mission today is to explain the real trend: Young people don’t want to spend their lives behind the wheel. They’d rather call Uber or hop on a bike or commute virtually.

“In 1990, about two-thirds of 19 year olds had licenses,” says Schwartz. “Now it’s less than half. In 2014, more cars were retired than bought for the first time.”

The auto companies are worried, but cities should be excited. They’re already poised to attract the kids without cars, and Schwartz’s research shows that the more walkable a city is, the higher the G.D.P. — the gross domestic product. So fewer cars equals more capital.

What irks him, then, is the way government funding still flows to highway construction, and yet any money earmarked for public transit is dubbed a “subsidy.”

“As if highways aren’t subsidies, too — for drivers!”

It looks like the future is a break from the past, but Schwartz says it’s really a return. For millennia, humans lived in small, densely populated areas. It was the 70-year suburban experiment that was radical. And now, he believes, its time is up.

And New York is obviously poised to reap the benefit of being the ultimate walkable town.

“But New York could lose its edge if we lose a tunnel or a transit facility,” Schwartz warns.

Cars have their place — some place else. The future belongs to the cities that can pack us in and get us around.

Read Lenore Skenazy's column every Sunday morning on

Lenore Skenazy is a keynote speaker and author and founder of the book and blog Free-Range Kids.

Updated 10:17 pm, July 9, 2018
Today’s news:
Share on TwitterTweet
Share on Facebook

Don’t miss our updates:

Reasonable discourse

Brooklyn from bed stuy says:
I hate bicycles! they are fanatics, reckless. no insurance, no id, no tickets. oh and its always car drivers fault! streets getting shrunk to make way foror bicycles. how much money bicycles are generating for dmv and ny? biycles must be insured and properly regulated just like cars.
Oct. 18, 2015, 9:31 am
Rufus Leaking from BH says:
Face it honey, you live in a city. Schwartz is a Marxist who wants all the comrades on the bus. Cars represent individual freedom, something that is against the Marxist code.

Schwartz was a traffic comisar whose solution to traffic was to eliminate cars, parking and lanes. Now he has a private business where he lobbies for the same. Nice work - he's an expert.
Oct. 18, 2015, 10:13 am
Charles from Bklyn says:
So cars are for only the very wealthy now? Too bad middle class and poor people from Bklyn, no cars for you? Take your economic war against the non-Manhattan upper class and just leave the city.
Oct. 18, 2015, 10:49 am
jay from nyc says:
I have not read this guys book, but there is a couple of basic problems with the article.
You want people not to use cars but refuse to have the mta charge what it actually costs to operate. That can work for a while, but over time, as we currently see the mayor and governor fighting about this, it does not.
The other thing that this guys premises fails on is that the reason people are driving less is because they can't afford a car, young people are living with their parents because they cant even get real wage paying jobs, how can they pay for a car?
IN other words, the same reason there is no money for the MTA is the same reason the so called millennials are not buying cars, its the economy stupid.
Not enough money for the consumer means less money for the gov. too, which then equals MTA failure, which means people leave NYC and business losses money.
So go ahead force people out of their cars into an MTA that does not work and will never have enough money to work at a level that would be needed to support the city and then look at the number of lost jobs and lost productivity the MTA currently is costing the city and then multiply it.
We need to stop with the empty theoretical academics and policy wonks and get some actual work done.
Getting more people to use the train is not going to fix the mta money problem, the trains are packed already, there is no more room for more people, and the mta still has a 16 Billion dollar shortfall.
Indeed there are about 46,000 delays every month on the mta currently, and the mta says over crowding is the number 1 reason for those delays.
Finally nyc-ers have the longest commute time in the country, despite having shorter distances to travel. The average commute speed is about 14 miles per hour. I run at 8 miles an hour. For free. I won't stop becausue of rain sun snow or cold. I don't stop because of signal problems, sick passengers, or "train traffic".
Therefor using this guys logic everyone should run to work and we should subsidize showers at work that would get everyone out of cars except the disabled and would be way more cost effective.
Oct. 18, 2015, 12:40 pm
Rufus Leaking from BH says:
Don't worry Jay, if the train is too crowded, "There's another one right behind this one!" (snortsnickergiggle.)

Notice how you get to hear about the 'hours wasted in traffic' but never the hours wasted waiting for trains that never come.
Oct. 18, 2015, 2:47 pm
Tal Barzilai from Pleasantville, NY says:
Unfortunately, Sam Schwartz needs to know that not everybody is like him. It's great that he didn't need a car to get around, but that's not the case for a lot of others who have to. The city boundaries don't end where the last stop of the subway is. Even though some of the outlying areas do have commuter trains, the fares are much more than the subways while their travel intervals tend to be sporadic. Unless your work day is in the normal hours of the day, you have to wait nearly an hour to get a train, so you're better off driving to get to where you need to be and back sooner. Any idea that involves road pricing in any way or form will never go through especially since those living in the outer boroughs and suburbs oppose them greatly, plus they don't just see it as a regressive tax on them, they see it as a punishment on them for having no choice but to drive to get around to most places. Why should those that drive have to cover a good part of the costs on a transit system that's hardly available to them? Another reason I can't take Schwartz's ideas on driving seriously, is mainly because he has an anti-car bias. This is like asking for someone to give a fair report on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when that person is known for having anti-Israel bias. Some just need to understand that the car culture is like the WNBA, because no matter how much you hate this, it's not going away anytime soon. As for making more pedestrian friendly, I suggest first starting with the ones that already exist first not to mention there is already a number of public spaces known as parks, which some really need to be fixed up but are ignored quite constantly.
Oct. 18, 2015, 3:24 pm
MJ from Bay Ridge says:
Many European cities are bringing streetcars or trams.
Oct. 18, 2015, 10:03 pm
JAY from NYC says:
Rufus that is a good point, but I would add this, in NYC trains are packed and so are the streets. None of it works. Even our airports suck. The reality is political leadership, the MTA, the DOT, etc, have all FAILED.
Oct. 18, 2015, 11:09 pm
puzzled1 from flatbush says:
I hate all the bikes and wish they'd just go away. You cannot schlep even a 14-lb. container of cat litter on a bike much less something bigger. Food shopping in my neighborhood is not what I want, so I drive. Once when my car was unavailable, I took a bus and a train to get to Shoprite on Ave. I; what a nightmare! Never again. I will drive, no matter what. Subways and buses and bikes are not the answer to everything.
Oct. 19, 2015, 10:59 am
Pedro Valdez Rivera Jr. from Southside, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York, United States says:
Tal, I agree. Even though that Sam Schwartz was an alum from CUNY Brooklyn College, just like me, he wanted to vision just like other major cities in Asia and in Europe. As for me, I focused on a "universal approach," through the critical emphasis of "transportation equity" for all users, whether if it's bicyclists, commuters, drivers, pedestrians, straphangers, truckers, etc. As for subways making the last stop near the city limits, only several lines in the Bronx and the IND Rockaway Line to Far Rockaway were that geographically close to the suburbs. However, that doesn't change the fact that much of Northern Bronx, Eastern Queens, and Ststen Island are considered to be "transit deserts," where there are a lack of public transportation access available. As of a result, the only kind of transportation that was available to use, in order to go from point a to point b, is the automobile; any vehicle is not subsidized as much, unlike, roads, bridges, tunnels, buses, commuter trains, intercity trains, passenger trains, regional trains and subway trains. As for the Move NY Fair Tolling Plan, unless there is an immediate danger to our own crumbling infrastructure, it is not politically and publically feasible in the short-term, especially in the outer areas of the Central Business District of Manhattan. Finally, yes that Sam Schwartz coined the term "gridlock," there should be equal terms for each transportation group.
Oct. 19, 2015, 11:36 am
TOM from Brooklyn says:
I find it annoying when someone bolsters a weak argument by inserting made-up terms that add -equity, -justice or -violence to a word that just doesn't communicate what they want to spin. A bit of newspeak.

I looked at the latest USDOT figures for total vehicle miles traveled(VMT) in the country. We are again setting new record highs this year(3.1 TRILLION miles for the last twelve months running), and no signs of abating.

Since the federal government started tracking total VMT a century ago the totals each month have taken off like a rocket, but dropped only for the Depression, WWII, the oil shortages of the seventies and the recent economic crisis. Each time it rebounded and shot up again. The VMT per person Peak that occurred a decade ago should be topped next year. The academicians who postulated the Peak admitted as much in their original paper. Maybe I was the only one to read that far into it.

Planners had announced "Peak Miles" some years ago when mileage growth fell back and stalled for the length of the economic troubles(rising fuel costs, falling jobs numbers, falling house prices, the Great Recession, the burgeoning education debt, etc.). It has rebounded without notice or scrutiny.

Road-lanes haven't lengthened much but vehicle sales are getting up there(one in ten employed worker buys a new car each year it is estimated), and fuel is back done(for how long?).

BTW: It is a myth that only the wealthy possess cars. It always been true that the majority of cars are owned by the poor and not-so-poor. This was first noted in a Congressional study back in 1939. Those who need a car to get to work must have one.

I'm looking forward to reading Comm. Schwartz tome to see why he dropped the widening of the Belt Parkway to accommodate trucks between the Verrazano and JFK Airport from the Move NY Plan. A fatal mistake. Too much truck traffic now on I-278 and I-95.
Oct. 19, 2015, 12:43 pm
Muhammad from Mill Basin says:
If you want those of us in the parts of Brooklyn without subways not to drive our cars so much, then bring subways to us. Take a look at the subway map of southeastern Brooklyn: East Flatbush, Flatlands, Bergen Beach, Georgetown, Canarsie below Flatlands Avenue, Marine Park, Mill Basin, Gerritsen Beach, much of Sheepshead Bay, Manhattan Beach, etc.

It can take some of us more than half an hour (given waiting time) to get buses to the nearest subway stop: the ends of the 2/5 and L trains at Flatbush Avenue/Brooklyn College or Rockaway Parkway; the Utica Avenue stop at Eastern Parkway; the Q/B's stops at Avenue H, Avenue J, Avenue M, Kings Highway, Sheepshead Bay, etc.

Just going to, say, Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn (Eastern Parkway/Flatbush Avenue/Union Street) can take an hour by public transit as we know. If we want to get to Grand Army Plaza in Manhattan (Fifth Avenue/59th Street/Central Park), it can take us as long as would a flight from JFK to Cleveland).

If you want us to stop using our cars so much, you have to give us a better option, Mr. Schwartz.
Oct. 19, 2015, 1:44 pm
Steph from clinton hill says:
Bikes are awesome. Bike riding is awesome.
Oct. 19, 2015, 3:01 pm
Tal Barzilai from Pleasantville, NY says:
Pedro, Muhammad, and TOM, all of your statements are correct about why there are those that have to drive. It's not always because we want to, it's because in some cases we have to. The MTA did have numerous ideas for what would be known as the IND Second System, but much of that was scrapped mainly due to costs, and had that been done, more outlying neighborhoods would have gotten better alternatives so that they wouldn't always have to drive. Another thing that annoys me is that much of the money collected from the tolled crossings don't even go to where they are supposed to go to and they keep on getting raised just to make the claim that they will. Why should those coming from Staten Island have to pay such a huge toll to get to the rest of the city? Better yet, why must those living in Broad Channel and the Rockaways have to pay a toll just to get into the rest of Queens? Even those living in northern Queens and the southeast area of The Bronx don't like paying tolls to go across to get to each other. Better yet, when is that toll between upper Manhattan and the western side of The Bronx going to be removed? More importantly, why do all the East River tunnels still have tolls despite the fact that they connect to the same city? Just hearing the name Move NY Fair Tolling Plan sounds very suspicious to me. How exactly will it be fair to place tolls on all the other crossings to Manhattan for those who can't get around from places that don't viable alternatives to driving. A similar idea was proposed by Richard Ravitch when he called it the Rescue Plan for the MTA when I, who happens to drive a lot doesn't feel rescued. Overall, I'm really getting tired in how perversely funded the MTA is when it comes to transit and that so many riders who use it that don't want to pay the real costs in that it's too much for them despite the fact that they can afford to live where they don't need to drive. It's really annoying that we motorists should continue to pay tolls on crossings and highways that have been long paid off decades ago just to fund a transit system we can barley use ourselves, which is why I find such ideas as placing new tolls nothing more than a regressive tax and a punishment to those of us having no other alternatives.
Oct. 19, 2015, 3:32 pm
Jay from NYC says:
One other thing I would point out, the article is titled time to make roads less friendly for cars. Not sure how that is possible, I think they are already pretty unfriendly, they are full of pot holes, laws are not enforced, except for parking, they are crowded and backed up, and you pay through the nose for this "privilege".
Oct. 19, 2015, 8:46 pm
Tal Barziali from Pleasantville, NY says:
The idea of road pricing or even just placing tolls on the so-called free crossings isn't even a new idea, it goes all the way back to the 1970's, but the idea failed to launch even then. No matter how many times some anti-car fanatics bring this up, it will lose. Seriously, we motorists are already paying a lot to maintain our vehicles every year, and this isn't cheap nor is it subsidized as some try to think it is. As for those so-called free crossings, they aren't exactly free, they are paid for via taxes for infrastructure and that's the only area of driving that is even remotely subsidized. BTW, if the tolled crossings are much better, then why do they seem to be in bad shape a lot of times during rush hour? I thought that the tolls would detour those away just to save money, but it's found out that many use them anyway because it cuts down on travel time. Just recently, it was reported the tolls in both NY and NJ are the highest yet the roads and crossings they are on are still in bad shape. Another reason why some us choose to drive is because of where some of are getting to, and it's faster to get there by driving than using public transportation. Also, express buses to Manhattan from the outlying areas only come during the morning rush hour, while going back is only during the evening rush hour, and that makes difficult for those who don't have the normal work hours having to make their time getting to and from where they have to be a lot longer without driving. The same goes for the sporadic schedules of commuter trains and buses as they become less available when it's not during peak hours forcing many to drive instead.. One other thing, utility workers or someone stocking up a store will always be using a commercial vehicle or van because they have a lot to carry and they can't just do that with a bicycle or public transportation let alone walking. For the record, I'm not against those who don't drive, but I'm really getting tired of them telling us how we have to get around when we don't have the luxury that they do.
Oct. 20, 2015, 3:17 pm
Norman Oder from Brooklyn says:
Schwartz ignores/downplays two significant factors regarding the Barclays Center: 1) the number of New Jersey fans for the Nets is far fewer than predicted 2) many of those who drive seek *free* parking on neighborhood streets.

More here:

Norman Oder
Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park Report
Nov. 3, 2015, 7:11 am

Comments closed.

First name
Last name
Your neighborhood
Email address
Daytime phone

Your letter must be signed and include all of the information requested above. (Only your name and neighborhood are published with the letter.) Letters should be as brief as possible; while they may discuss any topic of interest to our readers, priority will be given to letters that relate to stories covered by The Brooklyn Paper.

Letters will be edited at the sole discretion of the editor, may be published in whole or part in any media, and upon publication become the property of The Brooklyn Paper. The earlier in the week you send your letter, the better.

Keep it local!

Stay in touch with your community. Subscribe to our free newsletter: