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Gridlock Sam: Car-free Central Park

In this segment of our interview with Sam Schwartz, he draws upon his decades of experience as a transportation engineer to explain how eliminating cars from the Central Park Loop Drive will not result in long-term traffic nightmares for the surrounding neighborhoods or NYC in general.

"Gridlock Sam" Schwartz served as NYC's Commissioner of Traffic from 1982-86 and is a former Chief Engineer/First Deputy Commissioner at the NYC DOT. He also writes a daily transportation column for the NY Daily News.

[intro music]

Mark Gorton: [00:32] I’m here today with Sam Schwartz who is perhaps the most famous traffic engineer in the world, is former Head of the Department of Traffic in New York City and used to be First Deputy Commissioner to the Department of Transportation under Ed Koch, and now runs his own consulting firm which is pre-eminent in the field of traffic engineering, and I’m very lucky to have him here with me today to talk about New York and transportation. So Central Park is still an issue and there’s still people who are fighting to keep it open and fighting to close it to traffic.

Sam Schwartz: [01:03] Most of the park now is closed most of the time, it’s really amazing what’s happened over the years. You have to have patience. You know I started working on Central Park in the ‘70’s. In 1978 or 1979 there were three car lanes that went around Central Park, with a fellow named David Guerin who was really a pioneer in public spaces. He took a bike ride with me in Prospect Park, which is very much like Central Park, and I told him we could take a lane away from cars and use it for bikes and runners and whatever. And so we did that in Prospect Park, and then we followed suit in Central Park. People who are fighting the battles now don’t see how much we’ve gained, but nonetheless they’re continuing the struggle and the fight that parks shouldn’t be used for car traffic, and I support them.

Mark Gorton: [01:56] I guess there’s this concern if you’re going to close the park to traffic that, you know, all these people who are driving through the park would have to go somewhere and it will be… cause congestion elsewhere.

Sam Schwartz: [02:07] In the very beginning, whenever you close a road, there’s plenty of congestion that’s a result of that. So every time that Central Park is closed for various races and we see a big increase in traffic volume on 5th Avenue and a big increase on Central Park West. But what happens all the time, if it’s made permanent, people begin to adjust in several different ways. They choose different routes, they drive at different times, or they choose different modes. Now we have a terrific example of that. In 1973, again as a junior traffic engineer, one of my first assignments was racing out to the West Side Highway that collapsed at Gansevoort Street. The highway actually fell to the ground. This was an elevated highway over what is a boulevard today. I put traffic counters all across all of the avenues, and in the very beginning was able to trace the diversion. And a lot of it went to the FDI drive, many of it went to West Side avenues. But then over time we began to see a phenomena that the volume of traffic across a screen line at 60th Street did not grow that much. So we didn’t see any increase in traffic and the other avenues began to absorb it, and it was hard to really trace what happened to the traffic.

Mark Gorton: [03:26] A big highway disappears from Manhattan and the traffic impact on the other streets, barely measurable.

Sam Schwartz: [03:32] Yes, a highway carrying 80,000 vehicles a day collapses. And you know what? We couldn’t measure a change in speeds. A lot of traffic in a very dense urban area, like Manhattan, is circulating traffic. So the quicker people get to their destinations, the less circulation they do, the more opportunities you give them to circulate, the more they do circulate. So there is this reduction in circulation, the shrinkage in terms of traffic volume, people adjust the time they travel. And that’s incremental to people that travel at eight in the morning, they may say, you know what, it’s too tough, I’m going to travel at 7:55.

Mark Gorton: [04:08] And that makes you think that there is some flexibility in the systems, so if you were to close the loop drive in Central Park, there wouldn’t be chaos in the city, that the system is capable of absorbing that sort of change?

Sam Schwartz: [04:19] Exactly. If we lost Central Park, it’s open so few hours now, the traffic impacts over the long term would be barely measurable. It’s only the short term. And one of the things that you have to do is to withstand the kind of pressure that you’ll get. Taxi cab drivers, Mayors, spouses, whatever, whoever’s complaining. People will complain. The people on 5th Avenue, they are really loud complainers. I’ve had to work with that community and they have a lot of power. So they’re not going to be happy about it.

Mark Gorton: [04:51] It’s a little counterintuitive. You sort of would think these people are here, they’re going to go somewhere else, and that to think through all the second order effects of how it affects the system and peoples’ decisions over time is more than the average person really understands.



Clarence Eckerson Jr. has been making fantastical transportation media in NYC since the late 1990s. He's never had a driver's license and never will.

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