Sam Sees End in Sight for Car Culture

lenore skenazyBY LENORE SKENAZY | 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, all 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, the 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 ten straight years, and nobody noticed it.”

Talk about a cultural shift. Schwartz only began to notice the decline around 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 nineteen-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 GDP — 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.

Lenore Skenazy is a public speaker who authored the book, and founded the blog, Free-Range Kids (freerangekids.com).