Segment from Stuck

Gridlock Sam

The hosts hear the story of Sam Schwartz, inventor of the term gridlock. It just might be, he says, that you are the direct cause of the traffic jam you are stuck in. Read more here.

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**Note: this transcript come from the original broadcast of the show. There may be small differences from the stories you hear.**

PETER: Major support for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the University of Virginia, and the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation.

ED: From the Virginia foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory with the American Backstory hosts.

BRIAN: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh, 20th Century guy, and I’m here with Ed Ayers.

ED: The 19th Century guy.

BRIAN: And we have Peter Onuf with us.

PETER: The 18th Century guy. And we’re going to start today with a word, a word you’re probably all too familiar with.

MALE SPEAKER: Is gridlock inevitable or is there a solution?

MALE SPEAKER: Is it gridlock? Has it been gridlock?

MALE SPEAKER: Our question this morning, is the center crumbling in Washington as gridlock continues?

BARACK OBAMA: You deserve better than the same political gridlock and refusal to compromise that has too often passed for serious debate over the last few years. And that’s why I’ve been reaching out to Republicans and Democrats to see if we can untangle some of the gridlock.

SAM SCHWARTZ: Every time I hear the President of the United States use the word gridlock, a little chill comes over me saying if I didn’t utter that word, he wouldn’t be uttering that word.

PETER: That word, of course, is gridlock. And the voice you just heard after President Obama was none other than that of Sam Schwartz, the inventor of the word Gridlock.

SAM SCHWARTZ: I began working on traffic for the City of New York in 1971. And I was assigned to work on solving Midtown’s traffic problems. And we began to look at different alternatives. And as we looked at alternatives, we noticed if we made a certain change that streets would begin to block each other.

BRIAN: This isn’t so complicated, right? You close down one avenue, say, Fifth Avenue. All the cars that would usually be taking Fifth are now diverted to a nearby avenue, probably Park Avenue, which means traffic on Park Avenue gets a little nutsy. Manhattan’s grid system would stall.

SAM SCHWARTZ: And the grid would lock up. Eventually we began to use the work gridlock. And we didn’t even think it was a word. And we never even wrote it down. We just used it as jargon until 1980 and there was an impending transit strike.

PETER: When New York City’s public transit workers go on strike it can become a real mess on the streets. There are more drivers on the road, many of whom don’t usually drive. And Sam, still working for the city, wrote a warning to the mayor.

SAM SCHWARTZ: So I wrote a gridlock prevention program. But I hyphenated the word gridlock. And about the third day of the strike, a reporter heard that there was something called gridlock. So reporters went wild with the word. The city is afraid of this thing called gridlock.


And within days, William Safire called me for his “On Language” column in the New York Times. And then I was besieged by dictionaries and encyclopedias as to where this word came from.

BRIAN: The image of literal gridlock is actually pretty neat. First, imagine a series of streets and intersections from a bird’s eye view like a Tic-tac-toe board.

ED: What happens, Schwartz says, is that one car going north, south along one of those streets can block an entire intersection. And that one car keeps the east, west traffic from moving at all.

BRIAN: So on the Tic-tac-toe board, we now have an L shape of backed up traffic.

PETER: Now if that traffic, the east, west traffic, gets backed up one full block to the next intersection behind them, the traffic trying to go north, south in that second intersection is stopped as well.

BRIAN: We now have a U or like a horseshoe shape of traffic jams. And if that traffic gets backed up a full block, well, you get it. It’s a box-o-stalemate.

SAM SCHWARTZ: And if you go all the way around the block, you’ll end up finding the first person ended up blocking himself.