At the Oculus Book Talk on 02.08.16, Sam Schwartz, PE, president and CEO of Sam Schwartz Engineering, and Alex Garvin, Hon. AIANY, president and CEO of AGA Public Realm Strategists, Inc., discussed Schwartz’s new book, Street Smart: The Rise of Cities and the Fall of Cars, at the Center for Architecture.

Schwartz’s text is a delightful account of his decades at the NYC Department of Transportation (DOT) – where he earned the moniker “Gridlock Sam,” and his work as a transportation consultant throughout the country. Before reading Street Smart, I would have never imagined that a book by a “transportation consultant” was going to be entertaining, informative, and radical, but what Schwartz puts forth is a rich history of the movement through, away from, and back to cities. The most effective element of Schwartz’s presentation is his avuncular tone, which is friendly and clear-headed – his observations and war stories don’t get caught up in distracting urbanist jargon.

Schwartz is a lifelong Brooklynite. Born in the 1950s, he traces the history of automobile culture through the filter of his childhood, but without the typical nostalgia. He grew up in a historic era for a subject he’s passionate about, end of story. This journalistic approach makes for a very balanced book. He never says that cars are evil; he merely illustrates the cultural consequences of an auto-centric urbanism. His knowledge of the evolution of this auto-mania and “road history” is extraordinary, and his account of Robert Moses’s design and political machinations for the Cross Bronx Expressway particularly stands out. Schwartz describes how the highway was threaded in between an elevated subway line above and the Grand Concourse below. He also points out that not only is this piece of infrastructure heroic in its engineering, it was also Moses’s first experience with political opposition, and set the tone for the infamous city planner’s legacy, which unfortunately triggered the deep urban decline of the 1960s.

Unlike other urbanists’ texts I have encountered that seem all prophecy and no resolve, Street Smart offers up a little-noted phenomenon to frame new attitudes about transportation: the ever-confounding demographic, the Millennial. According to Schwartz, this group has transformed the face of car culture and may chart its demise. He states that, for multiple reasons, car ownership holds almost no broad appeal to Millennials. New modes of online socializing and shopping, extensive student debt, which leads to limited disposable income, and the advent of the “sharing economy” includes Uber and Lyft are among the reasons. In his lecture, Schwartz coined this phenomenon a “Backseat Rebellion.” Millennials spent hours in the backseat on the way to extracurricular activities; they were privy to anxious and grumpy parents. This, Schwartz asserts, has instilled a new idea of freedom, a new idea about happiness: freedom and contentment means not having a car. This is an epic shift from the Baby Boomers’ ideal, and has made VMT (vehicle miles traveled) plummet. In capitalistic terms, “cars purchased by people aged 18 to 34 declined by nearly 30% from 2007 to 2011, the opposite of good news” for Toyota.

Schwartz seems, at times, to say what no one else has said: urban transportation issues are directly linked to urban racial issues. In particular, he calls out Atlanta for its strange transportation apartheid. In some of his stories, he casts himself as a DOT super hero, or at least the only man not suspected of graft and corruption. So, much like your favorite uncle, you come away from the book feeling as if he knows and has seen everything.

In Street Smart, Schwartz exposes us to a mind that was trained in physics, a highly educated engineer, a deft and sometimes subversive bureaucrat (I am surprised that he actually erased a Brooklyn street while in DOT), all under the umbrella of a citizen of Brooklyn and the world. While the book is a history, it serves as one of the most forward-looking texts I have encountered in a very long time.

Event: Oculus Book Talk: Street Smart: The Rise of Cities and the Fall of Cars
Location: Center for Architecture, 02.08.16
Speakers: Sam Schwartz, PE, President and CEO, Sam Schwartz Engineering, and Author, Street Smart; and Alex Garvin, Hon. AIANY, President and CEO, AGA Public Realm Strategists
Organized by: AIANY Oculus Committee