An End To Gridlock

In September 2015, New York City’s former Traffic Commissioner Samuel Schwartz published a book entitled Street Smart: The Rise of Cities and the Fall of Cars in which he foresees the increase use of public transit and of urban toll systems. POLIS’ policy officer Nicolas Hauw spoke with the commissioner-turned-author about the future of cities in the USA and what can be learnt for and from European cities.

  • As former commissioner for New York traffic, what were the biggest transport challenges in New York you faced when you started? What are the main challenges for urban mobility now?

The biggest problems was failing infrastructure. We had a highway that collapsed, cables on the Brooklyn Bridge failed. We didn’t maintain our infrastructure and we had to find the funding to rebuild the infrastructure.
The challenges now are that our population grew fairly rapidly over the last two decades, and our transportation system has not kept up with it. Our subways are the most crowded since WW2, and we don’t have the necessary funding in place to keep our transit system in a good state.

  • In your views, how does this former position differ in terms of governance and decision-making power from a CEO of a European local transport authority?

Back in the 1980s, I had a good deal of power, but our finances were scarce. I may have had more power than my EU counterparts as I could not only do the engineering work but also the traffic enforcement while at the same time I could institute certain kinds of programmes. I don’t think this kind of power does exist in the EU, and that is a mistake, as Public Transport Authorities’ CEOs should be able to plan, engineer but also enforce rules.
On the other hand, the EU fully understands the benefit of a more balanced transportation system. In the US, there was too much reliance on the automobile. The US population often thinks about more and wider highways, while my EU counterparts did not seem to encounter this issue that much.

  • In an online article you wrote in early September of this year, you mentioned the choice that cities have to make between proximity and mobility. How is this reflected in today’s city planning in the US?

We are finding that younger people are extremely mobile and adopt a different lifestyle in terms of transportation patterns. For example in San Francisco, a lot of young people have decided to live downtown, without cars, and use the public transportation system to do their daily activities instead.
In terms of city planning, we are beginning to see cities and mayors implement a new approach toward transportation planning. For example in Salt Lake City, Utah, a Republican mayor invested in transit and a walking environment and encouraged dense development in downtown. In New York City we went from a Republican mayor to a Democrat and very liberal mayor; nonetheless the city kept the same approach and continued the ongoing work. This proves that agreements can be reached at a very local level, which is not the case at the national level. The federal government played a role after WW2in developing highways in local areas and had resources to do so with a clear vision on what to achieve at that time. This is no longer the case: funds and vision are clearly lacking at the moment, and the Congress is not passing bills or funding that could cope with the demand.

  • Your new book calls for the heavy reduction of cars in cities, but at the same time you seem to accept the idea that a car-free future is a myth. What would be your best advice to local public authorities’ managers and urban planners in order to promote a drastic reduction of cars and a shift to public and non-motorised transport modes?

What I suggest is that cities begin to imagine the year 2030 and look at the transportation services that will be around, including autonomous vehicles. What I fear is that it will be so convenient to use these vehicles that the transportation system will suffer and we will have huge congestion in cities. In that sense, city centers should not allow for too many vehicles. While I do support a market force approach, cities should envisage minimum speed thresholds and pricing for all vehicles that are in the central area. I am personally a huge supporter of pricing. Big cities like London and Stockholm have that already; I hope US cities follow suit.

  • Your “Move New York” toll reform proposal suggests the implementation of toll systems in New York. How would such a system work in practice and do you think it would be socially acceptable? Would it be applicable to all TLC-regulated vehicles, including for-hire vehicles?

We are projecting about 15-20 per cent reduction in vehicles coming in the business district, hence traffic flow will increase by 20 per cent. The for-hire vehicle should also be assigned congestion charges, with a flexible approach: the slower the speeds, the more you pay. In terms of scope, we should have a regulation that embraces all the services, with clear distinction between private cars and for-hire vehicles.

  • Über backed “Move New York” and has been working closely with the City Council to provide their trip data in order to better understand the current trends and routes taken by for-hire vehicle users. What is your long-term perspective on shared services and their role in restricted access zones as well as open-data sharing?

For hire or apps system are here to stay, we will see more of them and in the future these services will also merge with autonomous vehicles. Google has invested in Uber so I predict what I call “Goobers” traveling our streets by 2030. The market forces along with government should be used to regulate this market. For outlying areas, we should be concerned with social and economic equality, hence for-hire vehicles should not deprive public transportation because of the forces of Uber and other Transportation Network Companies. Move New York welcomed Uber of course, but it’s not surprising since the reform pretty much asks for self-market regulation that Uber advocates for as well.

  • The European Union is currently promoting smart cities as a new concept that promotes a better integration between the energy, ICT and transport sector: how does this concept apply to the US, for example in the development of driverless public and private transportation?

There’s no equivalent I can think of in US cities that includes the melding of these different service markets.
In terms of driverless transportation, very few governments are looking ahead to the development of autonomous vehicles. But cities like Seattle are trying to envision the year 2030 and how a city should prepare itself. In that sense, we still have a lot of issues to address by then: storage issues for autonomous vehicles, how they perform and their impact on the transit system, plus general legislative rules over autonomous vehicles. We should be forward thinking but unfortunately there is no national approach to that.

  • Are there any particular European developments in the urban transport field that the US is looking at with interest and could learn from?

Cities are looking to some of the EU transportation practices we see in terms of pricing. I found also very interesting what Barcelona did by renaming the transportation department as a mobility department. This clearly defines the way we move: Barcelona found out that most of the trips are taking less than 10 minutes and are often accomplished by walking or cycling. They also introduced a reduced automobile target, which has no equivalent in the US.
This is also true in terms of automation: the US is a bit behind on this issue while the EU is already well advanced in terms of automated parking. I’ve seen this as effective with  underground parking in the EU; it is also something we could use in the US.
But again, to transfer these technologies, we should have a national approach, but at the moment, the country as a whole is not really forward thinking.

  • What would be your ideal transportation system in the future in metropolitan areas?

To me? Walking! An ideal city should make walks easier for citizens and it’s healthier. But more generally, such a city should definitely have a balanced approach between all different modes of transportation and let passengers choose their best mode to move around. In that sense, a smart city is the one that takes advantages of all modes and maximizes accessibility, followed by mobility.
Samuel “Gridlock” Schwartz is the former Traffic Commissioner of New York City. Between 1982 and 1986 he led the reorganization of New York’s public transportation system. In 1990, Schwartz joined Hayden-Wegman Consulting Engineers, Inc. as Senior Vice President in charge of transportation engineering, infrastructure, quality control and planning, and five years later opened The Sam Schwartz Engineering consultancy.
Nicolas Hauw is Policy Officer for Polis Network