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Gridlock Sam

March 5, 2002

A public radio commentary

The word "Gridlock" seems to have been with us forever, but it is only of recent origin. It appeared first in 1980, and it was coined by an engineer. His name is Sam Schwartz, and he says he "hates traffic."

He began his professional career as a taxi driver in New York City. So it was natural for him to choose transportation engineering when he went to college. After graduation, he planned to return to New York City and, in his own words, "save the subways." But the Subway Transit Authority wouldn't give him a job, so he joined New York's Traffic Department. It was there he coined the term "Gridlock."

In 1971 John Lindsay, the Mayor of New York, proposed an ambitious "Red Zone" to reduce traffic in midtown Manhattan. This zone would ban all cars. Schwartz spent hours studying this plan with his partner, an old-time traffic engineer named Roy Cottam. They considered what would happen if the Red Zone plan were approved. They concluded Manhattan's "grid" of streets would "lock-up" and all traffic would grind to a halt. Schwartz recalls that very naturally they just transposed the words and the term "gridlock" was born.

They kept this term to themselves until 1980 when New York suffered a transit strike. Schwartz and his colleagues found themselves media stars - and their term gridlock becoming a catchword.

As the transit strike burst onto the front page, "gridlock" grabbed the attention of William Safire, the language maven at the New York Times. He called Sam to get the details, and featured him in his "On Language" column. Sam tried to share credit with his colleague Roy Cottam, but in Sam's words, Roy refused, "he didn't want to be blamed for it." Maybe this was wise, because it earned Schwartz the moniker "Gridlock Sam."

He's put it to the best use in his career. For years he wrote a popular traffic column for the Daily News, and published a book of secret routes for avoiding traffic jams.

Although Scwhartz has had a distinguished career - in 1985 he earned a Public Service Award, and in 1988 was honored as Transportation Engineer of the Year - he will forever be known as Gridlock Sam.

Copyright 2002 William S. Hammack Enterprises