Samuel I. Schwartz: “I like the idea that in Barcelona people are talking about a goal, as low as 20%, for automobiles”

Samuel I. Schwartz has worked in aspects related to mobility in New York for more than forty years. An early advocate of sustainable mobility programs, in New York he spearheaded proposals to reduce cars and increase the number of traffic-restricted areas and access tolls, and he defended the implementation of bus and bike lanes.

What do you think Barcelona can learn from New York? And what New York can learn from Barcelona?
You have to invest in your infrastructure; you have to invest properly in your public transportation system. Also, we have instituted a very strong bike-share system. I’ve seen a big difference in the number of bike riders in Barcelona in the last couple of years. You already had a very good plaza program, and New York City has introduced more plazas in the past few years. There are some things, when it comes to pedestrian crossing time, that I think you can do a little better in Barcelona by giving more warning to people crossing. But I would say Barcelona is on the right track, and I would encourage you to keep doing many of the things you are doing. I like the idea that in Barcelona people are talking about a goal, as low as 20%, for automobiles, the percentage of people arriving by automobile. I think that’s a good and reasonable goal. I think it’s key if you are concerned about the environment, the air quality and just general mobility.
You had the occasion to know about the Diagonal tramway project currently under discussion in Barcelona. What’s your opinion about it?
Yes, I went to Francesc Macià and took a look at the segment that doesn’t have the tram yet. While it might be difficult, it looked like there is enough space there;
the problems are solvable. I think there will be some unique traffic problems; the way the grid comes in at an angle creates some very unusual intersections, but all those things are solvable. My recommendation to Barcelona would be to proceed. I have heard estimates that if you are able to connect these two segments, then ridership may very well double from about a hundred thousand two hundred thousand people a day. I think that is very important.
What are the key elements to guarantee the success of the project?
The key is to maintain the system, to provide frequent service, to make sure the service is reliable and then you will see people coming to use it. You’ll have a new Diagonal that is very busy. There’s lots of activity, there’s lots of origins and destinations along the avenue, so I think it will be successful.
Barcelona is one of the few big cities that has not allowed Uber taxi services. What’s your opinion about Uber?
What I’ve seen from New York and other cities is that it is a mistake to have no rules. On the other hand, I think it’s a mistake to not recognize new technologies and the kinds of services that they offer. So, if you are in an area that is very poorly served by taxis or there are periods that taxis can’t fulfil the demand, then it makes sense to introduce a program.
Now, Uber is the biggest right now in the United States, but there are other services that might be more appropriate for a place like Barcelona. One of the problems with Uber is the drivers don’t work for Uber; they are independent contractors. There are companies like Via, where the drivers are company employees, so the company is more responsible, and Via is also a multi-passenger service. Its serves up to eight people, so it’s like a minibus. There will be certain services that Barcelona will like, especially if it serves the lower-density areas and gets people to the transit stations and then brings them in, so that they don’t have to drive all the way.
Parking provision is a key issue in the planning rules of our towns. Should the current regulations be changed?
In the United States, we have rules that say for every adult person you need a parking spot where they live, where they go to work, where they shop, at school. I think it’s horrible for a city because it becomes very unattractive. One of the nice things about travelling around Barcelona is you don’t see these big open parking lots. Somebody estimated in a conference in the United States that the total amount of parking space that we have in the United States equals the state of New Jersey. If that land can be freed up, you could build more houses, universities, parks. We are hoping going forward into the future, a lot of places are now eliminating the parking requirement and that will allow for smarter cities.
The car industry has been developing important new technologies. Do you think that these technologies will allow the car to keep its weight in the urban mobility?
Ford is actually working on transportation other than the car as well. For example, it is looking at electric bicycles; they are trying to redefine themselves. They recognize there is a future in which people won’t need to own cars and they won’t be selling as many cars. I think Barcelona is absolutely right, as low as 20% of people riding by automobile is a correct number for what a city can handle.
Some works show that the millennials have a different approach from the other generations regarding to how to plan their trips. What’s your experience about this?
Millennials are very health-conscious. They are concerned they won’t get enough activity during the course of the day. So, if they can incorporate physical activity with their trip to work or to school, many of them do that. And they almost become addicted to it; lots of employees in New York right now bike to work even when it’s snowing. It could be -10 degrees and they’re still biking to work. In most cities when a millennial travels in a city they know all the options. They will know how to ride the metro, the street car… almost automatically. I hope millennials will not get so attracted by autonomous cars that they would give up some of these other forms of transportation that I think are very good for the city. So I’m a little concerned going forward.

How should be the evolution of cities with regards mobility and urban planning?
I’m optimistic when I come to Europe. People believe in science and that less driving is healthier. I go to some places in the United States and they still want to build more roads. In Minnesota, they have a streetcar like the tram here, and they receive federal money for it, and the Republican legislators said they want to take that tram money and put it into more highways. And they said: if we can’t do that, we don’t want the money at all. So I think in the United States we have a real problem. Our Republican party is trying to say that public transportation is not a responsibility of the federal government, and the federal government shouldn’t provide any aid for that. So I’m more optimistic here or in New York City. I am not more optimistic when I go to other parts the United States.

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