Friday, May 11, 2012

A caution on the Gridlock Sam admiration society: the consultant still has to satisfy his clients; he and his client already have failed to deliver the transportation demand management plan promised for December

The New York Observer's Matt Chaban this week penned an interesting and admiring portrait of former government official, consultant, and all-around New Yorker "Gridlock Sam" Schwartz, headlined May the Schwartz Be With You: Gridlock Sam Wants to Turn New York Traffic On Its Head—the Same Thing He’s Done for 40 Years.

Schwartz deserves attention for his not-quite-congestion-pricing plan, which would toll East River bridges, improve highways, add pedestrian bridges, and generally try to treat New Yorkers equitably while removing glaring inequities and their inevitable consequences.

And he has an intriguing history, growing up in cramped apartments in Brooklyn's Brownsville and Bensonhurst, becoming a student activist at Brooklyn College while driving a cab, gaining a transportation engineering degree at Penn, and, before getting a job in the Department of Traffic, driving a cab again. (He described "my beloved Brooklyn Dodgers," which may make him sentimentally disposed toward Atlantic Yards.)

During the 1980 transit strike, he banned cars carrying fewer than three passengers from Manhattan. He soon installed bike lanes. In 1982, at 34, he became traffic commissioner, rising to the transportation department. He became an academic, an engineer at another firm, and then formed Sam Schwartz Engineering in 1995. Writes Chaban:
More than his innovations on the streets, it was his savvy with public relations that has impressed many. “He had a way of taking these incredibly complex issues and ideas and explaining them to the average New Yorker,” current DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan said. From coining the “gridlock” to straightforward street signage—“Don’t Even Think About Parking Here”—Mr, Schwartz has seduced drivers and pedestrians alike. But, his biggest seduction lies ahead.
That would be, understandably, the comprehensive transportation plan.

The AY seduction

However, unmentioned, Schwartz has no small seduction left for Brooklyn. On May 22, he and his colleagues will unveil--six months late--the long-promised Atlantic Yards Transportation Demand Management plan.

The general contours of the plan have been well-known, the details not so much. Only this month did we learn that there would be fewer than 550 surface parking spaces on Block 1129, the southeast block of the project site, but we don't know where, if at all, the spaces previously designated for HOV (high-occupancy vehicle) and suiteholder parking would go.

Yes, Schwartz is an able presenter. But he's already sacrificed some credibility. As I wrote 5/5/12, Schwartz, during a 6/4/11 Q&A (video) at a forum on Atlantic Yards traffic changes/mitigations, answered a question about bike parking by saying, "That's over the next six months when we come back to you figuring out how we're going to get people out of their cars."

At that point, the TDM plan was due in December 2011. They didn't "come back to you." The plan was delayed multiple times, for reasons obscure. Did Schwartz really underestimate the schedule by six months? Or was he hampered by his client?

The upshot is that, four months before the arena opens, there will be 30 days for public comment. That's too little time, as Council Member Steve Levin has observed, for public input.

And that's not even counting the emergency work Schwartz may have to do, developing a mitigation plan to control and alleviate the inevitable congestion if the Carlton Avenue Bridge, required to be open before the arena opens, is not finished.

Who's Schwartz serving?

Early in the Atlantic Yards process Schwartz told the 12/5/05 Brooklyn Borough Board Atlantic Yards Committee, according to the meeting notes, "From a consultant’s perspective, you must satisfy your client, but you must maintain your objectivity."

That's not always simple. Already the objectivity of Schwartz's six-month prediction has been undermined.

Last June, Michael D. D. White, in his Noticing New York blog, reflected on the real strangeness of the Forest City Ratner/Empire State Development Corporation session on traffic 6/14/11, given that a private consultant hired by a private developer was explaining--at times not all too well--how public streets would be managed.

White wrote:
The Private Sector Without Sovereign Immunity
So this is what I am wondering: Although Forest City Ratner and Sam Schwartz as its engineering consultant may seem a lot like the government performing a government function, that is not what they are. Forest City Ratner and Sam Schwartz are private sector entities and however much they have intruded themselves into an assumption of what we would expect would be a government process they are no more actual government officials than a privately hired mall security guard.
Brooklyn Borough Board Atlantic Yards Committee 12/5/05 Summary

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