Before the eager young New York traffic department employee who would eventually become known as Gridlock Sam had begun his long war against cars in earnest in the early 1970s, he got a dull assignment: standing out in the cold weather, timing car traffic as it crossed into Midtown.
At least, it would have seemed dull to most people. For Sam Schwartz it was exciting, because it was data collection for a clean air proposal known as the "Red Zone". Within this zone, private cars in Midtown would be banned, outright, between 10am and 4pm. Schwartz loved the whole idea. "It was just a very exciting time to be in city government," he recalls. "There we were - going to do the first car ban."
Few people know that, 45 years before the bike lanes and public plazas New Yorkers now take for granted, there were people inside the city's transport department, people like Schwartz, trying to crack down on cars. Schwartz's hair and beard are grey now, and it's been two decades since he left city government to found a transportation planning firm, but he's just as gregarious as he was back in the 1970s.
In those days, cars were the technology of the future. The automobile, despite being highly controversial in its early days, was as dominant in New York as it was in all cities across North America. Mass transit infrastructure was allowed to decay, or actively ripped up, even when doing so made a city's transport network less efficient.
The city even went as far as manufacturing 'No Cars' signs. Photograph: Samuel Schwartz
When streetcar tracks were removed from the Brooklyn Bridge (the last were ripped up in the early 1950s), the number of people crossing daily dropped from 400,000 to 170,000. "Even progressive groups who you'd have thought would say 'slow down' supported removing tracks from the Brooklyn Bridge," says Schwartz.
But in the tumultuous 1960s, with the freeway revolts and environmental movement, the pendulum began, very slowly, to swing the other way. And by 1971, when Schwartz joined the New York City traffic department full of "crazy" ideas such as bike lanes and public plazas, a plan like the Red Zone seemed like its time had come. The city even went as far as manufacturing "No Cars" signs.
At the last minute, however, mayor John Lindsay - who had initially championed the plan - got cold feet, and the Red Zone was cancelled. But it was just the beginning.
'We got further than Bloomberg'
Today, we tend to think of congestion pricing as a new idea, but New York has been trying to implement some variant of it for decades. "It was conceived here in New York by William Vickery, a Columbia University professor, who later won the Nobel Prize," says Schwartz. "He used to badger me about it in traffic meetings."
One of the few officials not caught up in the corruption scandals of the 1970s, Schwartz earned the nickname Gridlock Sam under mayor Ed Koch, when he was selected by David Gurin, a founder of advocacy group Transportation Alternatives, as deputy traffic commissioner. His big break came with the transit strike in 1979: he landed the job of developing transportation contingency plans, and produced his now famous "Grid-Lock Prevention Program".
The new term, coined by Schwartz and a colleague, became a media sensation. And his plan - which, among other things, would have prohibited any cars with just one occupant entering Manhattan - worked wonders during the 11-day strike. "It worked so much better than 1966 [the year of the previous strike] that people hailed us as heroes," Schwartz recalls. He was eventually promoted to New York City traffic commissioner, and "gridlock" has since become synonymous with stalemate and immobility, not just in traffic but in politics and beyond.
Sam Schwartz with longtime New York mayor Ed Koch
But Schwartz had been fighting gridlock even before the phenomenon had a name. After the Red Zone failure, he and Lindsay tried again in 1973 - but this time, rather than simply banning cars, they would implement congestion pricing, in the form of tolls on the East River bridges.
The main bridges into New York had originally been built as toll bridges, between 1883 and 1909. In 1911, however, the city removed tolls on the Queensboro, Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Williamsburg Bridges. City officials soon realised they had blundered, but discovered that it's a lot easier to give people something for free than to convince them to start paying for it again. Repeated tolling attempts were beaten back.
This time, however, the stars seemed aligned. "In 1973 we got further than any other time - further than [Mayor] Bloomberg," Schwartz says. Not only was the then-mayor committed, but New York's governor backed the plan, too. "He signed the plan to do tolls on all the bridges, and then the feds approved it as part of the Clean Air Act."
A street market on pedestrianised Broadway in 2009. Photograph: Alamy
In 1974, Abe Beame took over from Lindsay as mayor and tried to cancel the plan. But the Natural Resources Defence Council and others sued the city to enforce it, and the Environmental Protection Agency ordered the city to put tolls in place by 1977. The city fought back in federal court, and lost. "Only an act of Congress could stop it now," says Schwartz. And that's exactly what happened.
"Two of the most progressive elected officials that one would think would be supportive of such a plan ... came out and wrote the Moynihan-Holtzman Amendment," Schwartz says. "It allowed Beame to skate and not implement congestion pricing." Subsequent proposals had no better luck.
Both conservatives and liberals support congestion pricing: the right likes the market-pricing mechanism, and the left hates cars. So why is it so hard to get through? "I have found support from the right and the left," Schwartz says. "It's the middle we have the hardest time with on congestion pricing."
Beyond popular opposition in Queens and Brooklyn, powerful Manhattan interest groups - including the parking garage owners, their Teamsters-represented workers, and the hotel industry - have opposed tolls on the East River bridges. Schwartz points out the irony that these groups practise a form of congestion pricing themselves. "You go to the very centre of Manhattan, the price is the highest," says Schwartz. "They practise congestion pricing but they don't want the city to do it."
Schwartz fought the primacy of the automobile in New York in other ways, too. Having given up on closing Midtown entirely to private cars, he worked on a smaller plan under Mayor Lindsay to close Broadway to traffic in Herald Square, home of Macy's flagship department store on 34th Street, as well as in Times Square.
New York Mayor John Lindsay carries in his budget on 15 April 1966. Photograph: Everett/REX/Shutterstock
According to Schwartz: "Macy's said, 'Over our dead bodies.'" The company's concern was apparently not a sense of entitlement to free driving, but fear of the crime that was overrunning the city and its public spaces. "Crime was rampant. It was not like it is today. The concept of what were public spaces then was totally different from today."
The vast reduction in crime under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani is often overlooked when people discuss how New York now uses its public space. Safer streets helped make businesses more comfortable with the actual closure of Broadway, which happened under Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
"If we didn't have the drop in crime, there's no way people would have allowed it to occur," Schwartz says of the pedestrianisation of Times Square. He points to the recent proliferation in the square of so-called desnudas, topless women in body paint who pose for photographs for tips. "Look at the outcry when we had a few bare-breasted women - they immediately said, 'Let's open it up [to car traffic].'" The fear that public spaces create public disorder still lingers.
For his part, Schwartz also put permanent bus lanes on Madison Avenue, which are still there today, and implemented the city's first protected cycle lanes. "One of the things we did every morning during the  transit strike was to have our volunteers put up cones that created bike lanes on Fifth and Sixth Avenue," he says.
A 'desnuda' in body paint poses in Times Square in 2015. The controversy sparked calls to reinstate car traffic. Photograph: Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images
But, as with congestion pricing, New York was not ready for bike lanes when Schwartz tried to install them permanently, and there was a chorus of public complaints. They also came at the time of "a bizarre two-to-three month period in which three women were hit by bikes and killed", Schwartz says. A story goes that Governor Hugh Carey, riding in a limousine down Sixth Avenue with Jimmy Carter, told the US president: "Look out your window and see how Ed [Koch] is wasting your money on these bike lanes."
Koch folded under the pressure and removed the lanes. "It only lasted for about two months and that killed it for the next 20 years," Schwartz says, adding that, to hide from angry activists, "I shaved my beard so no one would recognise me, but they did anyhow."
Back in the fray
Two decades later, protected bike lanes finally had their day. In his recent book Street Smart, Schwartz admits his jealousy of Mayor Bloomberg's transport commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan. "She was doing things I had just dreamed about or had to abort: creating pedestrian plazas, adding physically separated bicycle lanes, and … speeding buses through the densest parts of the city with a form of Bus Rapid Transit."
Related: Streetfighting woman: inside the story of how cycling changed New York
As with the Broadway closures, it was broader civic change that had helped pave the way. Cycling was newly hip, the success of cities such as Copenhagen was more widely known, and web activist sites such as Streetsblog had built a bigger public constituency for cycling.
Congestion charging, however, remained elusive. In 1990, Schwartz eventually left city government, watching from afar as his successors continued to be foiled in their pursuit. Bloomberg made major progress with public plazas and protected bike lanes, but not congestion pricing: the state legislature shot down his attempt to implement tolls on the East River Bridges, after a public outcry and lobbyist pushback.
But in the last few years, congestion pricing is back on the agenda - and Gridlock Sam is back in the fray. While running his own engineering firm, he was privately taking stock of the complaints against congestion pricing, and one day announced a new private proposal called MoveNY.
A direct salvo against the opposition to the Bloomberg plan, MoveNY would not just add tolls on the East River bridges but, ingeniously, reduce tolls significantly on outlying bridges such as the Throg's Neck, connecting the Bronx and Queens, where there are no good transit alternatives. Like the London congestion charge, it would also charge Manhattanites to enter the congestion pricing zone south of 59th street. And it would reinvest a quarter of the proceeds back into roads and bridges, with the rest into transit.
Gridlock Sam with New York mayor Michael Bloomberg
The plan is still not popular with everyone, with Queens borough president Melinda Katz leading the opposition. "There's just something fundamentally not right with making people pay to drive across the street in the same city," she says, adding that the original bridge tolls were never intended to subsidise other activities.
The debate is only going to intensify. Traffic congestion is worsening in Manhattan, the subways are overcrowded and increasingly unreliable, and the state is struggling to pay for it all. Whether congestion pricing passes or not, the price will be paid, one way or another.
In the meantime, Gridlock Sam is enjoying the public spaces and bike infrastructure he longed to see for so many years. On the ceiling of his office at his engineering firm, he has affixed one of those "No Cars" signs from the Red Zone plan - a reminder of how close New York came to getting rid of cars entirely, nearly half a century ago.
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