Janette Sadik-Khan helped change New York. As commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Sadik-Khan and her staff implemented an unprecedented number of progressive streets projects. They built more than 400 miles of new bike lanes, including the city’s first protected bike lanes, created a massive pedestrian plaza in Times Square by closing five blocks of Broadway to cars, built 59 other pedestrian plazas throughout the five boroughs, launched a rapid bus system and much more. Her new book, Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution, chronicles the lessons she learned in her time as commissioner. I spoke to Sadik-Khan about her approach to streets projects, the successes and struggles of her work, and more.
It seems like “implement fast, tweak problems later” was your battle cry as commissioner. Why did you use pilot projects and why did it work so well?
We tend to take our streets for granted. The lanes and the signals and the signs, they really hold the keys to our economy and safety and the livability of streets. But for so many cities, our streets have been in some kind of suspended animation for the last 60 years. The expectation is that our streets are for cars. Car-dominated design has really wreaked havoc on cites. Changing that street code and working fast to show people what possibilities are hidden in plain site is really important.
Were there downsides to that approach?
Changing the culture of the city is hard. You push the status quo and the status quo pushes back and pushes back hard. Making sure you are trying possibilities out, showing the world of the possible, measuring your success, it’s really great. You can create a showcase of projects that people can point to. For too long there has not really been a vocabulary for the kinds of people-focused street designs we need in cities.
It seems safe to say that most city DOT commissioners and bike/pedestrian planners don’t have the same level of mayoral buy-in as you had with Bloomberg. And even in cities where they do have mayoral support, active transportation projects often get the short shrift. What advice do you have for less-empowered planners who still want to make big changes?
Well it certainly helps to have strong political will. But I do think it is important to look at rewriting operation code of cities and following the people. When a lot of people think of cities they think of the landmarks, skyline, the cultural institutions. But the street is a fundamental operational unit of the city. And each one contains a code for how people should use it. In New York, we fundamentally rewrote that operating code, but not with mega projects and billions of dollars. It doesn’t have to take a lot of money and it can happen quickly just by adapting the space that was already there.
Janette Sadik-Khan speaks at a news conference in 2011. (AP Photo/Henny Ray Abrams)
Changing the streets can happen fast, changing expectations takes a little longer. I really think you can lead best when you lead by example. Instead of arguing and debating, try something first and give people something to experience. When you adapt a place and adapt a space, people adopt it.
Was it still important to get the backing of streets advocates and citizen activists, even though you had support from the top?
It was critical. The public domain is the public domain. People are very attached to their streets. The notion of “we’re the government, we’re here to help” is a difficult maxim to overcome. We needed the support of the advocacy community. They are the ones who go to community board meetings and stand up to support projects and send out mailing lists. They are convincing city councilors to support progressive laws.
Every city has NIMBYs, auto-centric 20th-century streets, obstructionist politicians. What was the most unexpected impediment to change you encountered in your time as commissioner?
Every inch of the 180 acres we reclaimed from cars was a fight. When you change the DNA of a city it can raise hackles. People in every city have reasons why they can’t lose a parking space, why every lane is needed, and a lot of times that they need even more lanes. Navigating that fight is a key part of the process. It requires not just a new vocabulary for street design in our cities, but literally a new vocabulary to describe these kinds of changes. And it does require political courage to try something for the first time and strategies to win buy-in from the public.
But the bottom line is that people really liked it after all. Just two years after we left office there’s a new status quo in New York. I don’t know if you saw the headlines about Times Square when the new administration talked about putting cars back in and taking out the plaza to deal with scantily clad women and the Hello Kitties. There was an immense backlash. The plazas were controversial just a few years ago. But today no New Yorker wants to get rid of them.
New York, like most cities, has been criticized for concentrating its bike and pedestrian infrastructure and transit investments in whiter, wealthier neighborhoods. Does a results-driven, technocratic approach to planning and infrastructure exacerbate inequity?
What we’re trying to do is see equity of public space. When you build your streets for cars, you’re actually building in the expectation that people are going to have cars. It costs $10,000 per year for a household to own and maintain a car. We’re talking about building in affordable options for people to get around. Make it easier for people to get around.
We’re actually lucky to live in the 21st century because we now have 100 years of experience to know we’re not building our way out of congestion and that it just encourages people to drive more. … There’s little evidence of new roads turning the corner on congestion. The real lesson here is if you build eight lanes of roads you’re going to get eight lanes of traffic. But if you want streets that are safer, more walkable, more affordable, better for the economy and transit, you can start by building a bike lane. And again it is about choice. People aren’t motivated to move to cities out of some environmental altruism. They only come if cities offer a better quality of life and opportunities and culture and cities are competing for the best and brightest. One way to do that is to create a city where you don’t need to own a car and pay the costs associated with that to get around.
What project are you proudest of from your time at the DOT?
That’s like making me choose my favorite among my kids. I think I’m proudest of the fact that when we left office, we had the lowest traffic fatalities in 100 years. Our streets had never been safer and that was at the heart of everything we did at New York City DOT.
Certainly Times Square tops the list. We really did showcase this approach at the crossroads of the world. People had tried for generations to change the angle of traffic in Times Square. That angle of traffic exists in lots and lots of cities. So trying it out as a pilot project and measuring it and showing what happens before and after gives people a taste of what’s possible. On the pilot project we could say “if it doesn’t work, we’ll put it back to the way it was, but we’re going to try a new approach.” That made all the difference. It allowed a flowering of that kind of innovation all across the city.
Looking outside of New York, is there anything innovative you’ve seen other cities doing that you’re excited about?
I think what’s really exciting is you’re seeing the dramatic increase of protected bike lanes in Salt Lake City and Austin and Houston and Cincinnati. It’s not just Portland, Oregon, that’s at the peak of the sustainable streets movement. It’s catching on like wildfire because people really understand that to change the world you really need to change your streets.
Americans are looking for new choices to get around. All of this kind of innovation, whether it’s bike lanes, rapid bus service, plazas, you’re seeing that in city after city. It’s a really exciting moment in time for cities across the world.
What should people know about your new book?
We really take our streets for granted. But the way they’re designed tell people how to use them. In this book we really show how to read the street step by step. Streets that are designed for cars tell people to drive everywhere. It’s bad for business. We tried to crack this code in New York and found that by reclaiming just a little bit of road space from cars we could create a whole new world of possibilities.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Josh Cohen is a freelance writer in Seattle. His work has also appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, Pacific Standard and Vice.