Sam Schwartz's Traffic Plan to Save the City


A few weeks ago, Sam Schwartz, traffic guru and the former New York City Traffic Commissioner, presented his Equitable Transportation Formula [ETF] at the monthly Institute of Urban Design breakfast club. With a series of images punched up with bold graphics, Mr. Schwartz laid out the pitfalls of the congestion pricing plan proposed by Mayor Bloomberg in 2008; gave us a brief historical snapshot of the East River toll rates for horses, pushcarts, and automobiles at the beginning of the 20th century; and presented his solution for increasing transportation revenue to support infrastructure development.

Part of the current challenge with transportation in New York is geographical: everybody wants to get into Manhattan which is not only the center of commerce, but where there is some of the highest priced real estate in the world. This frustrates the citizens of the outer boroughs and Upper Manhattan who, in Mayor Bloomberg’s scheme, were charged for the privilege of driving below 86th Street. As much as the congestion pricing proposal made sense, the political hurdle of charging those in a lower economic demographic was too high. Mayor Bloomberg should have anticipated this; over the past several decades whenever the MTA has faced a budget crisis, it has floated out the concept of zoned fares, similar to London’s Tube system. Almost before it is announced, it is quickly withdrawn as advocates for the less wealthy citizens in the outer boroughs cry foul.

Mr. Schwartz makes an excellent argument for reallocating fares and using market-driven forces to increase revenues while solving our growing congestion problem. For example, in one of his more effective slides, he showed how a commercial trucker can drive from Staten Island across the Verrazano Bridge, head up the BQE, navigate local streets to the Manhattan Bridge, take a ride down Canal Street, and exit through the Holland Tunnel without paying one cent. This is absurd and has profound affects on people who live near these transportation corridors. As Robbie Whelan recently wrote in Wall Street Journal column, ‘Spaces,’ Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn is an eyesore that had an amazing opportunity to reinvent itself as a boulevard a few years ago when significant stretches were re-zoned. Sadly, through some very badly designed buildings and lack of planning, Fourth Avenue is nothing more than a service road for overflow commercial traffic that links the Verrazano with Downtown Brooklyn. With the opening of Barclay’s Center this fall, one cringes at the thought of post -event traffic driving south towards south Brooklyn, Staten Island, and the bedroom communities in New Jersey.

This is not to say that Mr. Schwartz’s plan is perfect. If he truly wants to play fair with the outer boroughs, then giving discounts to EZ Pass tag holders may not sit well with those who cannot afford to pre-pay tolls. Nor should there be a free pass to cross the Hudson River from Manhattan. And cyclists should never, never have to pay a toll to ride their bikes across any bridges.

At the end of his presentation, Mr. Schwartz presented a slide showing how new funding from the implementation of his ETF could fund the construction of three pedestrian/bicycle crossings across the Hudson and East Rivers. Even though this seemed a bit quixotic – do we really need more crossings? – and an argument can be made to remove vehicular traffic from one or two of the East River bridges, it was inspiring to see how Mr. Schwartz, despite many years of dealing with the city’s traffic problems, could still conjure a hopeful image for the city’s future.

posted by David Briggs