Understanding gridlock Lecture

| 19 Jul 2016 | 11:23

Some New Yorkers may find traffic to be one of the least sexy topics out there, but the Museum of the City of New York’s first speaker in its “Fast, Cool, and Convenient: Meeting New Yorkers’ High Demands” lecture series could very well change their minds. “Gridlock Sam” Schwartz is a leading expert in transportation and urban engineering, and has held many of the powerful positions in the industry. He will be giving a talk on traffic at the City Museum at 6:30 p.m. this Thursday as part of the museum’s second partnership with the New York Academy of Medicine and the New York City Council for the Humanities. Two more installments in the series — one on air conditioning and one on plastics — will follow in August and September. Here’s a preview of Schwartz’s talk.

How do you get to work in the mornings? Subway.

What are you going to be talking about on Thursday? I’m going to be talking about [Schwartz’s most recent book, “Street Smart: The Rise of Cities and Fall of Cars”]. Then I’m going to switch it over to how does that relate to New York City. The New York Academy of Medicine is a sponsor [of the series], so I’m also going to talk about the links between transportation land use policies and public health.

That’s a pretty broad topic. Can you narrow it down a little? What prompted the book is that for 50 years or longer … I watched the growth of vehicle miles travelled in the region, in the country, and saw that it always went up. More people were buying more people were driving. Sure, there was a little dip during the Great Depression … but it kept shooting up during the 20th Century. Around 2003, unbeknownst to anyone, it started to go down. For 10 straight years in this country vehicle miles travelled were going down, something we never saw before since the advent of the automobile.

It’s largely millennials. This was a reduction of 20 to 25 percent in driving by younger people, which is astounding. We created this generation … that decided they like accessibility versus mobility. Mobility allowed for you to live an hour out from where your school was, but after a while that mobility decreased because it took longer and longer to get where you were going. What the younger generation wants is to be able to go downstairs, go to a restaurant, catch a subway, go to a local bar, walking, without relying on a car. [Millennials] are driving a lot less but that doesn’t mean they’re doing a lot less. They go places without thinking about how they’re going to get home because they don’t have to. There are so many choices — it’s the cell phone.

Do you think New York City is prepared to handle the fact that vehicle use is declining for the first time ever? It’s a real risk. We’re already seeing deteriorations in service. Part of it is the bursting at the seams. I don’t see anyone recognizing that at a high enough level in government. A $27 billion transit program that the MTA put forward is probably less than half of what’s really needed to keep up with the demand.

Who is the ideal audience for your talk in terms of benefiting from your knowledge and recommendations? Drivers. Parents who have teenagers. Manhattan is different … but in other places I say “if you don’t want to lose your children [to more accessible cities] you have to create a different pattern.” With a New York crowd I hope more people from the medical community come. There was a medical doctor who was a pediatrician and he said, “The reason I’m here is I see too many children in my emergency room and also I see too children with diseases that children didn’t used to get.” And he says “I see the link as transportation.” That’s the other thing [millennials do], they already know that being active equals being healthy for the most part.

*This interview has been edited and condensed.