Q&A with ‘Gridlock Sam’ Schwartz: Why We Need Cyclist Bridges

Sam Schwartz says a bridge for cyclists and pedestrians only is needed because of the rising number of New Yorkers, and a shift in the way people travel. Image courtesy of Sam Schwartz Engineering.

People aged 18 – 29 aren’t buying cars like they used to, and even G.M. knows it: The New York Times reported last week that the American automobile manufacturer has turned to MTV as a way to seduce young consumers.

But Sam Schwartz, aka ‘Gridlock Sam,’ sees the downturn in four-wheel purchases as a reason to build three cyclist and pedestrian-only bridges that access Manhattan from Brooklyn, Queens, Hoboken and Jersey City.

Last week, Schwartz, a traffic engineer and former New York City Department of Transportation deputy commissioner, released his blueprint for the future of New York City’s transportation infrastructure: “A More Equitable Transportation Formula for NY Metro Area.” Schwartz, who has worked on projects ranging from Brooklyn’s IKEA in Red Hook to the rerouting of traffic in anticipation of the Barclays Center at Atlantic Yards, said he has paid for the researching of this proposal himself.

Schwartz’s plan proposes “fair pricing,” which adds tolls to the East River bridges but also lowers the tolls on the bridges that do not enter Manhattan. He also proposes a 50-cent toll for cyclists both entering and leaving Manhattan. He projects this will bring in $1.2 billion annually.

MetroFocus spoke with Schwartz about the three new cycling and pedestrian-only bridges, which The Wall Street Journal referred to as “fanciful initiatives.

Q: Why does the city need these bridges?

A: Well, I look to Mayor Bloomberg’s plan for 2030 that says a million more people will live in New York City metropolitan area. And in 2010, Gov. Chris Christie nixed the tunnel from New York to New Jersey. There is tremendous growth all along the waterfront in Brooklyn and Queens, and Jersey City and Hoboken, and people are getting more and more involved with what we call “active transportation.” The people moving in along the waterfronts are in many cases young and mobile, and they ride bikes and walk.

Q: How much will the construction of these bridges cost?

A: $250 million each, about the cost of the High Line, except it goes somewhere.

Schwartz is proposing three cyclist and pedestrian-only bridges for New York City. Photo courtesy of Sam Schwartz engineering.

Q: What are the other benefits, after easing congestion on the other bridges and building for the future?

A: There are all sorts of benefits. People in subways burn more calories than drivers. This is a much more health-conscious generation.

Q: Your plan proposes a 50-cent toll for cyclists on the East River’s current bridges. Will that toll also apply on these bridges?

A: Yes, to pay for maintenance. For 30 years, I was in charge of roads and bridges in the city, and every pedestrian and bike path was in disrepair. The Williamsburg Bridge was a real danger, we had to close it entirely in 1988. I insisted that when the bridges got rebuilt, every one would have a bike and pedestrian lane.

We have a pro-biking mayor and a pro-biking transportation commissioner, but we may not in the future. This sets up a dedicated fund for for the bike paths. It’s only fair that bike riders pay for the maintenance. This strengthens the legitimacy of bikes as a viable transportation option in New York City.

Q: Why is now the time for bridges that prohibit cars?

A: When Christie killed the tunnel, I realized we don’t have plans for a single subway being built from the boroughs into Manhattan. There is zero chance by 2030 we’ll see additional subway facilities by bridge or tunnel. This is a way to deal with that issue.

Also, it’s the first time in my career that 18 to 29 year-old’s are driving less, by 12 percentage points across the United States. Car ownership has plummeted. I have a young staff, 60 people in the New York-area, and 80 – 90 percent of them don’t own cars.

Q: So this is for younger people?

A: Except I’m an older person, and I walk and bike.


Sam Schwartz discusses the history of tolls on the East River bridges in a video by NYC Bridge Centennial Commission, co-founded by Schwartz, on the 100th Anniversary of the last toll collected on the East River bridges. Video courtesy of StreetFilms.org.

Q: How will this be paid for?

A: The capital construction will be paid for with the revenue generated through the Equitable Transportation Formula, which is projected at $1.2 billion net revenue gain annually.

Q: What are you doing now to make this happen?

A: It’s clear it all comes down to the state. Mayor Bloomberg is inclined to be supportive but he’s not going to lead with his chin. He’s not going to lead again. (Ed. Note: in 2008, Bloomberg proposed a similar project called Congestion Pricing, which failed.) It comes down to three men in a room: Gov. Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. Putting tolls on bridges requires the state. I’ve put in calls but it’s budget season and no one’s taken them.

I’m looking for a champion, a titan of industry.

Q: Who do you have in mind?

A: I’m not going to mention names, but they’ve reached out to me. Maybe one of them will step forward and call the governor.


Want to know about the life of  Brooklyn-born Sam Schwartz? Forward Thinking Museum tells his story. Video courtesy of Forward Thinking Museum.

MetroFocus Multimedia Web Editor Georgia Kral conducted this interview, which has been edited and condensed.

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