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Sam Schwartz's Street Smart: too smart for own good regarding Barclays transportation plan

There's much smart stuff in Sam Schwartz's new book, Street Smart: The Rise of Cities and the Fall of Cars.

Weaving memoir, policy analysis, and reportage with a light, Brooklynesque touch, Schwartz touches on the origins of "gridlock" (source of his "Gridlock Sam" nickname), congestion pricing, millennial preferences for urbanism, the prospects for driverless cars and Uber, and the success of cities like Zurich and Salt Lake City.

Livable streets advocates will embrace it, especially since the book regularly circles back to New York and Schwartz's battles in city government and experiences as a multi-modal transportation user.

But the book's epilogue and crowning story, an account of success in avoiding gridlock around the Barclays Center in Brooklyn--his firm Sam Schwartz Engineering was hired by arena operator Forest City Ratner--is too self-serving to go without correction.

In other words, sometimes Schwartz the consultant can trump Schwartz the honest broker. (After all, Schwartz's firm is still earning money from Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park.)

Tracing it back

To recap: many feared gridlock when the Brooklyn Nets arrived at the busy intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues, especially because a very large arena, with 20,000 seats, was supposed to attract a good chunk of current New Jersey Nets fans.

Schwartz and others knew it was a "terrific" location for public transit, given the 11 adjacent or nearby subway lines and the Long Island Rail Road.

"The challenge was to change the behavior of a fan base that had been used to driving to Nets games," he writes. "Which was pretty much everyone, ever since the Nets had moved to New Jersey in 1977."

Except it wasn't, as Schwartz himself acknowledges in the very same paragraph: "We made a few assumptions. First, the team would be drawing fans largely from Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island, since it stood to lose a fair bit of its ticket-buying base from New Jersey, and the Knicks remained Manhattan's favorite team."

That assumption, Schwartz fails to tell us, was wrong, though it certainly serves his narrative. (He also told Brooklyn Magazine, which did an interesting interview/profile, "This is where Walter O’Malley wanted to put the Brooklyn Dodgers." Not so.)

The results

According to Sam Schwartz Engineering's own report on the first year at Barclays, some 24.3% of weeknight Nets attendees return to Manhattan, while 7.4% go to Queens, 6.8% to Nassau, and 3.2% to Suffolk. Fewer than 10% returned to New Jersey, some 675 to 1000 people fewer than originally projected.

Some 36.4% attendees come from Manhattan, about 1 in 7 of them them Brooklynites; 36.9% return home to Brooklyn, while 31.6% arrive from the Barclays Center's borough.

Had Schwartz written that more than one-third of Nets attendees come from Brooklyn--with one-fourth of that cohort walking--that might have undermined the drama.

"We had to get the overwhelming majority of 18,000 basketball fans to leave their car keys at home and ride public transit," he writes. "A dozen focus groups, and 15,000 completed surveys later, we had confirmed who the fans were. And we had confirmed that a considerable proportion of them were nearly as car-dependent as any families in America."

(Note that "considerable proportion" is a bit fuzzy.)

Surveys showed that little--not free transit fares, free food, or discounts on team merchandise--changed minds. "Nothing except information," Schwartz writes. "More than 20 percent of the potential Nets fans who planned to drive to a game would switch if they knew which train to take there, when it left, and when it arrived."

That they did. And the arena has significantly promoted transit.

But if only some 20 percent switched, that means nearly 80 percent were not about to change their behavior. 

That begs other explanations. But Schwartz writes simply that the surveys left his firm confident enough to recommend that Forest City build only 541 on-site parking spaces, fewer than half that were allowed "for an arena with more than 18,000 seats."

The triumph, and the complexity

"By March of 2013, we knew that we hadn't hit our targets," he writes triumphantly. "We had exceeded them. Our goal was to have no more than 28.3% of fans arrive by private automobile for weekday games. Barely 25% actually do. In fact, so few people arrive by car that the on-site parking has never filled up... Getting that many people out of cars and into walking, biking, and taking transit is great for the environment and great for the community's mental and physical health."

That elides a lot. First, though the book claims that the arena has "more than 18,000 seats," for Nets games, the capacity is 17,700 (or 17,773) and the average attendance, given no-shows, 15,444.

The impact of those driving is lower for two additional reasons: the vehicle occupancy ratio is higher than projected, and fewer drive at peak hours. 

Also, far fewer people drive from New Jersey than projected, while many more attendees come from transit-friendly Brooklyn. Credit that not to Schwartz's innovation but to the New Jersey Nets' long and painful parting from their home state.

Missing perspective

Perhaps the biggest gap, in both the book and the report Schwartz publicly delivered in 2013, concerns parking. Schwartz in 2013 claimed that "Reduction of parking spaces" and "Lowered expectations for drivers" were key to reducing auto share.

Those deserve significant caveats. After all, the on-site parking lot--with an average of just 160 of 541 spaces filled for Nets games--wasn't empty because no one drove. It was empty because drivers didn't want to pay $35 for parking if could find free parking on the streets of Brooklyn. 

(Today's it's been plowed under for new construction and an eventual below-ground parking lot to serve both arenagoers and residents.)
"Most drivers prefer to pay for parking when they arrive at the facility," Schwartz stated in a 2013 presentation, citing other facilities beyond the dedicated arena parking lot. Rather, most drivers who pay for parking prefer to pay on arrival. Others prefer not to pay at all.

But Schwartz and other responsible parties ignored my request for backup data that would show that most were paying as opposed to cruising for free spaces.

(Remember, 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.")

I estimated that some 1447 cars arrived at Nets games. Putting aside those going to the arena lot of pre-paying for parking, that leaves more than 1,200 either to seek free parking or to buy it at the last moment.

The results is congested streets and frustration for those living in blocks near the arena, and a longstanding lament about the lack of residential parking permits. (Add to that a persistent problem with idling limos and black cars.)

In other words, yes, the Barclays Center has the lowest percentage of people coming by car, as Schwartz stressed to Brooklyn Magazine. But it should, because it backs into a residential area, and the state had to override city zoning that requires a cordon around such facilities.

The true cost of parking

Of course arena developer Forest City Ratner has not pushed for such residential parking permits, nor has Schwartz said anything about pricing or allocating what is now free parking.

Ironically enough, Gridlock Sam, the much-lauded planner behind the innovative Move NY congestion pricing plan, knows that free access to public goods can induce unwise civic behavior.

The availability of free street parking has surely helped the Barclays Center avoid a parking lot. But it's not very street smart.

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