The public plaza and bike lanes now found throughout New York City have affectionately become known to detractors as the “war on cars.” But amazingly, a 1973 plan got very, very close to banning cars in Manhattan outright, thanks to a man known as “Gridlock Sam.”
Over at The Guardian, Aaron Renn profiles Sam Schwartz, a former New York City traffic commissioner. Schwartz is somewhat of a legend in city-nerd circles and remains an authoritative voice on transportation issues (I wrote about his excellent 2015 book). But in the early 1970s, he was just an engineer in the traffic department who put together a proposal to clean and green what was not a very livable New York City at the time.
Schwartz’s idea was an early version of “congestion pricing”: Designating a swath of the city where private vehicles are prohibited—or allowed for a very high price—during certain times of day. The plan was not only to reduce emissions that might help clean the city’s air, but also to reduce vehicular congestion from cars traveling in and out of the city during rush hour. The specifics took on many forms over the years, but the one idea that stuck was a plan to dramatically increase tolls on Manhattan’s bridges, something that Mayor John Lindsay was on board with—until he left office:
In 1974, Abe Beame took over from Lindsay as mayor and tried to cancel the plan. But the Natural Resources Defence Council and others sued the city to enforce it, and the Environmental Protection Agency ordered the city to put tolls in place by 1977. The city fought back in federal court, and lost. “Only an act of Congress could stop it now,” says Schwartz. And that’s exactly what happened.
Yep, an amendment to the Clean Air Act banned the banning of cars.
In the decades since, congestion pricing has actually become very popular in many cites, and much of that success can be attributed to the groundwork of this proposal. London’s congestion pricing has been so successful that there are now more bikes than cars in its city center. DC has a similar proposal for congestion pricing on the table. Many cities have variations on congestion pricing to combat horrific levels of smog. Even Mayor Michael Bloomberg tried proposing his own version when he took office, although it was also beat down by opponents.
But all was not lost for Gridlock Sam. Elements of Schwartz’s plan made such a great case for removing cars from at least some of New York’s streets that they led to the many pedestrian plazas you can see in the city today. And his ideas live on in a new congestion pricing plan called MoveNY, which is currently being billed as way to pay for New York City’s aging public transit infrastructure. It’s an idea that’s already 40 years too late.