When New York City tried to ban cars – the extraordinary story of ‘Gridlock Sam’

When new york city tried to ban cars – the extraordinary story of 'gridlock sam'
Brooklyn Bridge c1890. Toll charges were removed in 1911, and the streetcar tracks ripped up by the 1950s / © Imagno/Getty Images

Decades before New York installed bike lanes and pedestrian streets, Sam Schwartz – the man who coined the term ‘gridlock’ – was at the centre of a bitter fight to create a car-free Red Zone in downtown Manhattan

Before the eager young New York traffic department employee who would eventually become known as Gridlock Sam had begun his long war against cars in earnest in the early 1970s, he got a dull assignment: standing out in the cold weather, timing car traffic as it crossed into Midtown.

At least, it would have seemed dull to most people. For Sam Schwartz it was exciting, because it was data collection for a clean air proposal known as the “Red Zone”. Within this zone, private cars in Midtown would be banned, outright, between 10am and 4pm. Schwartz loved the whole idea. “It was just a very exciting time to be in city government,” he recalls. “There we were – going to do the first car ban.”

Few people know that, 45 years before the bike lanes and public plazas New Yorkers now take for granted, there were people inside the city’s transport department, people like Schwartz, trying to crack down on cars. Schwartz’s hair and beard are grey now, and it’s been two decades since he left city government to found a transportation planning firm, but he’s just as gregarious as he was back in the 1970s.

In those days, cars were the technology of the future. The automobile, despite being highly controversial in its early days, was as dominant in New York as it was in all cities across North America. Mass transit infrastructure was allowed to decay, or actively ripped up, even when doing so made a city’s transport network less efficient. […]