Gridlock Sam I am
From cabbie to traffic guru, Sam Schwartz goes the extra mile to find shortcuts

By David Tanner
staff writer

I do not like them in my truck. I make less money when I'm stuck. I do not like those traffic jams. I do not like them, Gridlock Sam.

Anyone who has ever been behind the wheel knows how frustrating a traffic jam can be. But there is a man out there fighting for your freedom from the dreaded gridlock.

He's Sam Schwartz, a renowned New York traffic guru with a penchant for getting out of a jam. Things didn't always come naturally for the former New York cab driver, who was pondering a career in physics in 1969 before finding his true calling.

"I cut my teeth in some of the toughest transportation in the world," he told Land Line.

Schwartz, born into a blue-collar Jewish family, always had the presence of mind to help others. He grew up to front peaceful demonstrations in college and even attended Woodstock before deciding to set a career goal.

"I really didn't know what I aspired to," he said. But, as he raised college money by driving a cab, his mind began to turn to transportation.

On a suggestion from his brother, Schwartz went on to get a master's degree in urban planning from the University of Pennsylvania.

"I was interested in transportation. My brother asked me, 'What is the biggest job in transportation?' . and 11 years later, I became traffic commissioner of New York City," Schwartz said.

When the 1980 transit strike crippled New York's public systems for 11 days, Schwartz motivated the private sector to keep people moving on ferries, on foot and even on roller skates.

"Every mode was used," he said.

It was during that strike that Schwartz and a co-worker coined the term "gridlock," a buzzword that became part of everyday conversation and landed in the dictionary.     Schwartz later adopted it as his nickname when marketing his transition into private business.

Make no mistake about it, "Gridlock Sam" hates being cooped up for too long or stuck in traffic, and yes, the man who makes his living solving traffic problems does experience road rage.

"I get very angry when I'm driving, but less at other drivers," he said. "When I see the system isn't working right, or the light isn't working, the officer isn't working right, that's when it becomes a big deal."

A big deal can turn into a Schwartz phone call to the proper authorities, and they listen.

His persona can be reactionary, but he also tries to take a pro-active approach to solutions before the problems get worse.

One example of this would have to be Schwartz's self-proclaimed proudest legacy: Saving New York City's historic bridges from deterioration. He did it by fast-tracking crucial repairs, particularly to the Williamsburg Bridge.

"My favorite line is, if you have an idea, do it," he said.

Solutions don't always require rocket science, either, he said. Sometimes a solution is applying common knowledge and sense, which was not always the case in the past.

"We went through the last 50 or 60 years building infrastructure, so to buy a quart of milk you have to use a quart of gasoline," he said.

Although Schwartz officially left the public sector after 20 years to become a developer, engineer and consultant, he is a phone call away from helping out in a crisis.

As president and CEO of Sam Schwartz LLC, he has turned pavement into green space in the case of one almost-forgotten New York park; he has consulted with Nobel Prize winners and has been the go-to guy for traffic nightmares caused by the terrorist attacks of September 11, transit strikes and the 2003 power blackout.

One of Schwartz's recent challenges was to help the city of Windsor, Ontario, in Canada overcome the bottleneck of traffic faced by heavy trucks on the approach to the Ambassador Bridge that crosses into Detroit.

Windsor welcomed him with open arms when he set up a satellite office there.

"With his extensive knowledge of bridges and tunnels and networks, he was asked by Windsor to work with community groups and others to come up with a traffic plan, presented in January (2005) to the City Council," Norma Coleman, chief of staff for Windsor Mayor Eddie Francis, told Land Line.

"Windsor is going to be home to the next border crossing, but there are quality-of-life issues people deserve to have like in any other city."

Quality of life is exactly what Schwartz had in mind when he said the busy Huron Church Road in Windsor was inadequate for handling the load.

"There was an error made 40 or 50 years ago when Highway 3 ended several miles from the waterfront and from any river crossing, and as a result, all the international truck traffic has to go through Windsor streets to get to the bridge or the tunnel," Schwartz said.

"As a traffic engineer, one can see that was a mistake. You don't subject city streets to heavy trucks."

Schwartz proposed adding feeder lanes for trucks to bypass the city's historic corridors, and those are being eyed by the City Council. He also reiterated the border city's need for a new bridge to twin the existing Ambassador Bridge. The existing structure is eight decades old and is privately owned.

"Right now the U.S. and Canada are so vulnerable at the Ambassador Bridge, and it need not to be a terrorist attack," Schwartz said, describing lanes too narrow and antiquated for today's trucking commerce.

"You don't want to be dependent on one mode or one crossing, or things could go wrong. Like in New York when we had 9/11 and transit went down and even highways and bridges went down."

Schwartz predicts that by 2017 at the latest, the solitary Ambassador Bridge will not be enough to handle the border traffic, even if the structure gets a major overhaul.

"Even if you solved all your customs issues, even if you eliminated customs, you would still have problems the bridge couldn't handle," he said.

Windsor officials have, so far, bought into Schwartz's plans and are moving ahead.

There are problems unique to trucks at the border that Schwartz has addressed.

"The trucks do not follow any kind of peaking pattern," he said. "In most traffic situations, there are marked peaks. Here, from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., the truck traffic is consistently 300 to 400 trucks per hour."

He said "just-in-time" deliveries have contributed to the steady pattern of trucks.

"Rather than following what would be a trucker's schedule, the user dictates when the trucks will arrive," he said. "The just-in-time deliveries have created a different kind of demand than we've seen in the past with traffic."

Schwartz does not dedicate his whole existence to traffic problems and solutions. He is a family man and father of grown children. He says his heroes are mostly family members, but he notes one U.S. president as a personal hero.

"I still remember John F. Kennedy. I was a teenager when he died. I remember him saying, '. ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country,' " Schwartz said. "I very much have always felt involved."

Another saying Schwartz adheres to is "you're either part of the problem, or part of the solution."

"I always want to be part of the solution," he said.

Schwartz balances historical outlooks and modern techniques as he continues to tackle the toughest gridlocks in North America and around the world. His concepts are being eyed in Los Angeles; London; Seoul, South Korea; and Stockholm, Sweden.

He's got more on his plate than traffic jams. He's a busy man, that Gridlock Sam.


Editor's note: For more information about Gridlock Sam, visit www.gridlocksam.com and www.samshwartz.com.