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Interview: “Gridlock Sam” Weighs in on Big Transportation Issues in Columbus

Brent Warren Brent Warren Interview: “Gridlock Sam” Weighs in on Big Transportation Issues in Columbus
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The Center for Urban and Regional Analysis at OSU recently brought former New York City Transportation Commissioner Sam Schwartz to town. Schwartz, who actually coined the term “gridlock” in the 1970’s, writes a popular column for the New York Daily News under the moniker “Gridlock Sam.” He gave a lecture at OSU on Tuesday in which he discussed the many ideas about cities, cars, and active transportation that he explores in his recent book, “Street Smart: The Rise of Cities and The Fall of Cars”.

Columbus Underground caught up with Schwartz after a roundtable discussion with local transit advocates, planners and business leaders.

CU: This is your first trip to Columbus, what was your impression of the city?

Schwartz: Of course, I was in a focused area of the University, Downtown, and Franklinton, just a few areas, but I was very impressed… very impressed to see the activity, the nighttime activity that’s going on, to see the energy levels, to see bike lanes…

CU: Did you see some actual bikers, too?

Schwartz: I saw a few bikers, though this morning one was on the sidewalk heading towards me. It starts with very few bike riders. The New York Times had a wonderful story earlier this week about notable failures or famous flops, and one was mine, and there was a picture of me adjacent to a bike lane that’s coming out in 1980. There were too few users in most people’s minds, and I always thought, had they kept it in 1980, by 2000 people would say, “Schwartz is brilliant.”

Now you fast forward, and Janette Sadik-Khan came in and put in a bunch of bike lanes and they’re well-used, and biking is growing rapidly, and that’s happening in other places as well. So the fact that you might not be seeing enough bike riders doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be doing it, because you’re going to be attracting more and more people who decide to come to Columbus, or decide to leave whatever other mode, to start biking. Since there’s bike-share in New York, I bike more often because it’s available, even though no one was bike-sharing three, four years ago on it.

Columbus is doing a lot of the right things. I met with some people from the Public Service Department, and they seemed pretty enlightened as to what needs to be done, although of course they may not have enough budget. Columbus was successful in getting the Smart City grant, but it also could backfire if it’s not done right.

CU: In the roundtable discussion you talked about the need to plan for autonomous or driverless vehicles. If you were to give advice to the planners in Columbus who are working on the Smart City initiative right now, what would you tell them?

Schwartz: I would focus on fleets as opposed to individual cars, I would focus on transit, some real transit, maybe I would focus on the last mile to existing trunk lines. I don’t know enough about the existing transit systems here, but those are the kinds of things, where I think autonomous vehicles belong, and where I think you can solve a lot of problems, if you try to do autonomous vehicle “trains” (that run on the street) with individual occupants, that’s going to be a mistake.

CU: Rail is another thing that came up in the discussion, and that’s a perennial topic in Columbus, as the largest city in the country without any type of passenger rail. With the Smart City grant, I think there are some people here who think, “oh, we have autonomous cars now, we can kind of skip that step.” What are your thoughts on that?

Schwartz: I think it’s a mistake to think that autonomous cars are just the natural evolution. The healthiest cities are those that will be multi-modal. I can’t imagine that there isn’t a place for a rail service in a city of 850,000 people, and I suspect if you met with some real estate developers and others, that they’d build the density if you don’t have the density now.

And the amount of construction happening here is really impressive, so obviously you’re adding density, and you’re going to start looking at higher capacity transit systems. Autonomous vehicles don’t give you the capacity that you think, it’s not gonna give you great intersection capacities, it won’t give you high capacities — on your highways, it’ll increase capacities, but it will bring people into your central business district too quickly… it’s like people rushing to the gate and then you still have to go through one turn-style or revolving door.

Also, if you transfer from driver-operated cars to autonomous vehicles, you will increase the volume of vehicles, but will you increase the volume of people? That’s a question. Are you going to in some way destroy some transit systems that are marginal now and therefore you end up with more vehicles and fewer people?

You know, one of the examples I point to — in the 1920’s and 30’s, the Modernist movement, with Corbusier and others, was talking about cars everywhere. So the Brooklyn Bridge used to have four tracks going across it. When it had four tracks, it was moving 400,000 people a day. But people in New York bought into the Modernist movement, and replaced the tracks with car lanes. The new, modernized bridge moves 170,000 people a day, so the new, modernized autonomous city may actually move fewer people. Gotta watch out for that.

CU: You talk a lot about Millenials, and how their preferences, in terms of cars and transportation, are so different than previous generations. Do you see them as being the fast adapters of new technologies like driverless cars?

Schwartz: Oh yes, I mean, they understand technology, you’ll find older people who won’t use a Car2Go, or may not understand Uber, or all the varieties of Lyft, or Via, where the younger people instantly adapt to it, they’ll instantly be able to canvass five or six transportation systems, and decide what’s best for them.

CU: There’s a debate about whether the future will bring a system of shared driverless cars or individually-owned driverless cars, do you see the younger generations as being more open to that shared system?

Schwartz: They’d be more open to a shared system, but you’re still gonna have people who are like, hey, I want my golf clubs in my car, in case I have a chance to run out, I want the child seat, because I don’t trust any child seat other than mine. So there are a lot of forces at work, and a big one is the market. The car manufacturers will say, we want to sell as many of these vehicles as we can – and there is always that maximum point that you look for in a business where you make the greatest profit, so it’s not necessarily to sell the most, but where you reach the greatest profit — so there will be a push in that direction.

But in terms of the Millennial generation, it would be a mistake not to take advantage of their ability to understand technology, to accept technology.

For more information, visit www.gridlocksam.com.

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