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"Transportation touches people’s lives every day"

Under Janette Sadik-Khan’s tenure as Transportation Commissioner, New York City’s streets became a lot friendlier for cyclists and pedestrians. She sat down with Katherine Lindemann to discuss how America’s largest city began to reject the supremacy of the car.

The European: Ms. Sadik-Khan, what initially drew you personally to the fields of urban planning and transportation policy?
Janette Sadik-Khan: Transportation in particular touches people’s lives every day. It touches you as soon as you open the door to go out in the morning, and it’s the last thing you do when you come home at night. It’s hard to imagine another area that has as much impact, whether it’s economic impact, health impact, quality of life impact, environmental impact. It’s just an incredibly rich field. So I’ve been active in the field for, (laughs) well more years than I’d like to acknowledge!

The European: During some of those more recent years, when you were Transportation Commissioner, the landscape of the streets of New York changed quite a lot. You and the administration you worked for created pedestrian islands and plazas, redesigned Times Square, increased the number of bike lanes in the city. Do you have a favorite among all those projects?
Sadik-Khan: I feel like I’m a mom having to chose among her kids. It’s a tough question. Obviously Times Square is a favorite. The launch of bike share is a favorite. And the fact that we have the safest streets in 100 years after redesigning 137 corridors city-wide is a really important investment in the future of the city of New York. So, those would be the top three.

The European: I suppose in a way it’s one big project with a lot of smaller components.
Sadik-Khan: Yes.

“If you want a safer city, you should build bike lanes”

The European: Did the drastic increase in bike lanes reflect a growing interest in cycling among New Yorkers, or was it a successful attempt on the city’s part to foster that interest?
Sadik-Khan: A lot of it stemmed from Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC, which was a long-range sustainability plan focused on making the city work better, while also accommodating the million more people that are supposed to be here by 2030. That has had profound implications for how we design our streets, and so we really focused on incorporating more options for how people get around. Obviously a big part of that was creating a really effective, interconnected bike network, a cycling backbone for New York City. And we did that. We built almost 400 miles of bike lanes across the boroughs that connected to key destinations. The number of riders quadrupled, while the risk of serious injury went down 75%. So it’s really clear that if you want a safer city, you should build bike lanes. We also installed the nation’s first protected bike lane, and there are now over 200 across the country.

The European: And the bike share system?
Sadik-Khan: It now has 713,000 registrations, and riders have ridden something like 25 million miles. I forget the exact number, but that’s something like 1,000 times around the world. I think the other aspect of bike share that people forget is that it has had a really positive effect on real estate values. The city’s now working to expand it into new neighborhoods, and you’re seeing that real estate listings in the city are advertising proximity to city bike stations.

The European: Speaking of expanding into new neighborhoods, I get the impression that a lot of the cycling infrastructure in New York seems to be in Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn, where New York’s wealthier residents are. What do you think can be done to expand the transportation choices of people who don’t live in these areas?
Sadik-Khan: Well first of all, you’re wrong. It was a city-wide strategy—everywhere from East New York, to the Bronx, to Queens—and the next time you’re back in the city, I urge you to come out and see the infrastructure we have in place in all the boroughs. But we’ve obviously also seen that the success we’ve had has led the current administration to continue the work, to expand the bike network, to expand the bike share program. It really is a smart strategy, in terms of providing not only an environmentally healthy way to get around, but also an affordable one. It’s light on your pocketbook. Building in that kind of low-cost mobility—which also has all of these other benefits—has been a really key part of the strategy from day one.

“It was this proof of concept right in the street”

The European: What kinds of opposition did you face as you were introducing various infrastructure changes?
Sadik-Khan: Any time you change the status quo, the status quo pushes back. In New York, the streets had been unchanged for so long that most New Yorkers couldn’t even imagine them functioning any differently. We really had to re-make them from the ground up to show people what was possible. In a lot of areas, these streets have been frozen in time. Mayor Bloomberg set the tone very early with PlaNYC, and what we did with our projects showed the world it was possible. We worked quickly around the city to show a new approach, to transform our streets in close to real time with paint and planters, tables and chairs. That became a very real example, a tangible example, for New Yorkers to see how this road space could be reallocated.

The European: And that made a difference in terms of public reception?
Sadik-Khan: It piqued the imagination, and you started to see communities all across the city say, “I would like that in my neighborhood!” It wasn’t just this dry engineering drawing. It wasn’t just a computer model. It was this proof of concept right in the street that they could see, touch, and feel. And so instead of these plans—usually you go through a planning process, years of study—people could see it for themselves. That also had a huge impact on the polling numbers. In the last poll before Bloomberg left office, 73% said they supported bike share, 72% said they supported plazas, and 64% said they supported the bike lanes. So if this had been an election, it really would have been a landslide. I think it really does speak to that change, a real change in how New Yorkers view their streets, a sign that what had been controversial in the beginning was now business as usual.

“People were literally left by the side of the road”

The European: We recently ran a debate series called "Challenging Car Culture.” Do you think that America suffers from a “car culture”? Something people trying to plan in a more sustainable way need to overcome?
Sadik-Khan: Yes! I think car-centric streets have been standard operating procedure for the last 50 years. The car culture and the Detroit mindset were not inevitable. It was a business plan dreamed up by the auto industry, and it took hold at the beginning of the 20th century. Before that, city streets really did function as true public spaces for social interaction. They were essentially extensions of our living rooms, and they belonged to everyone. But then the auto industry spent untold sums of money convincing us that we had this love affair with the automobile—it was really more like an arranged marriage—and so we developed this kind of communal blind-spot that missed all of the many ways that streets could be used. For so long there was really only one way, and there were no choices at all. People were literally left by the side of the road. We got used to looking at the street and only seeing the cars.

The European: And we still see things that way now?
Sadik-Khan: Today, I think we’re finally seeing cities around the world wake up from this car-centric stupor. Because the fact is that accommodating more and more cars is an outdated strategy that doesn’t work. More high-speed roads just create more demand for asphalt and concrete. We’re not going to be double-decking our streets without doubling the congestion, the pollution, and the mobility problems and destroying the very street life that made cities into great destinations in the first place.

“It’s about providing options”

The European: Even with the attitude you’re describing, New York was always a city in which residents walked and used public transportation much more than in other parts of the United States. How do you think that cities which are more spread out, more suburban, can change their transportation landscapes?
Sadik-Khan: Well, I think that all types of cities are looking to reuse their road space more effectively and efficiently. It’s about providing options for how people get around. I also think that technology has really changed our lives and our transportation options. With a couple of clicks, anyone can Uber a ride, or grab a shared bike or car, and navigate in new ways. I think that there is a tremendous opportunity—whether you live in a dense area like New York City or you live in a more suburban community—to reimagine your streets and build in a new transportation DNA. For example, you’re seeing cities take a look at their zoning laws and land use as an opportunity to create a “City 2.0,” because you’re seeing that that is what the market wants. People and businesses want to be in walkable, sustainable communities. And in this global marketplace, people can move anywhere. These design changes are not just a nice thing to have. They’re part of a economic development strategy. Cities don’t exist in a vacuum; they’re constantly competing around the globe for people and commerce. For those that are looking to stand out from the crowd, this is mission critical, not optional.

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