Sam Schwartz grew up a typical teen in the '60s, desperate for a car. Finally, he got one: a Chevy Impala with huge, flat fins.
Like everyone else in his Brooklyn neighborhood, he spent an inordinate amount of time waxing his beloved. Pull up next to him at a stoplight? He'd gun it. He was such a car fanatic that in between getting his physics degree at Brooklyn College and getting his master's at UPenn in — what else? — civil engineering with an eye toward traffic planning, he worked as a cabby. Eventually, Schwartz became New York City's chief transit commissioner, and he even wrote a book on traffic shortcuts. But these days?
"I don't think I've driven my car in three weeks. It's gathering a lot of dust."
We're sitting in the buzzing Manhattan office of Sam Schwartz Engineering, surrounded by brainy-looking millennials doing the work he is dedicated to today: figuring out how to get more people out of their cars and onto subways, buses, streetcars, bikes and their own two feet. If you want your city or town to attract young people, entrepreneurs and capital, he says, you have to make it walkable.
That's the premise behind his new book, "Street Smart: The Rise of Cities and the Fall of Cars." His facts are hard to dispute. "Something happened around the millennium, and nobody noticed, and it's nothing short of a revolution," Schwartz says, eyes twinkling like a magician about to produce a rabbit. "Around 2003 or 2004, four years before the recession, Americans, for the first time other than the Great Depression and World War II, drove less 'vehicle miles traveled' than the year before. It started to go down." He pauses. "It went down for 10 straight years, and nobody noticed it."
Talk about a cultural shift. Schwartz himself only began to notice the decline in about 2010, but he also noticed that nobody else was noticing it. He'd go to conferences about the future of transportation and see graphs with highway construction projections pointing up, up, up, as if to meet a growing need — for a need that wasn't growing.
So his mission today is to explain the real trend: Young people don't want to spend their lives behind the wheel. They'd rather call Uber or hop on a bike or commute virtually. "In 1990, about two-thirds of 19-year-olds had licenses," says Schwartz. "Now it's less than half. In 2014, more cars were retired than bought for the first time."
The auto companies are worried, but cities, small and large, should be excited. They're already poised to attract the kids without cars, and Schwartz's research shows that the more walkable a city is the higher the gross domestic product. Fewer cars, more capital.
What irks him, then, is the way government funding still flows to highway construction yet any money earmarked for public transit is dubbed a "subsidy." "As if highways aren't subsidies, too — for drivers!"
Though it looks as if the future is a break from the past, Schwartz says it's really a return. For millenniums, humans lived in small, densely populated areas. It was the 70-year suburban experiment that was radical. And now, he believes, its time is up.
The future belongs to the places that can pack us in and get us around.