Once You Inspire Them, There Is No Going Back

Often called a revolutionary in the tabloids during her six-year stint as the commissioner of New York City’s Department of Transportation, Janette Sadik-Khan is more likely to be regarded as a hero by bicyclists and safe street advocates. No one has done more in less time to rewrite the future of New York’s streets. Reclaim caught up with Janette Sadik-Khan to talk about Times Square, the new administration and what she’s been doing since.

What are you up to now that you’ve left city government?

After leaving I joined Mike Bloomberg’s consulting firm, Bloomberg Associates. We’re working with mayors around the world to help improve the quality of life of their cities. We’ve helped Mayor Mancera transform streetscapes in Mexico City, where we kickstarted a pedestrian safety initiative and got a plaza program off the ground. We helped L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti to find their rock-star DOT Director Seleta Reynolds and put out the agency’s first-ever strategic plan, and we continue to work with them on everything from Bus Rapid Transit to bike share. Now we’re working with the mayors of Rio and Rome and Oakland.

No two cities are exactly alike, and of course you can’t just import solutions off the shelf, but it’s really interesting just how similar the issues facing these different places actually are. They’re all trying to reclaim space for people on foot and bike, improve access to transit, slow down cars to save lives, and they’re all trying to involve the public in their cities in these solutions. By tackling smart, targeted projects, we’re helping our partners win some quick victories and use that to build momentum to keep them moving forward long after we’re gone.

And I’m also thrilled to report that my upcoming book, Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution, is coming out in March, which will give readers far beyond New York a real-world introduction to how to change streets for safety and sustainable transportation. Of course it tells New York’s story, but it’s bigger than that, highlighting what’s working — and not working — in cities around the world.

You’re famous for modernizing New York’s transportation network. Is there a bike lane or plaza project that you’re particularly proud of?

That’s sort of like picking from among your children. But I have to say the 9th Avenue lane, the first parking-protected bike lane in the U.S., tops the list. There was a 60 percent decrease in injuries for all street users, and retail sales went up 49 percent. Now you’ll see them on hundreds of streets in some 50 cities coast to coast, but it all started in New York. And of course there’s the Prospect Park West lane, which grabbed a lot of headlines for all the wrong reasons but was ultimately one of the most successful projects we ever did. Ridership doubled and there were 74 percent fewer drivers speeding with zero impact on travel times for drivers. Today you’ll see families biking to school or the farmers’ market. Given all the controversy, you might think it conjures some bad memories, but for me, it’s one of the best projects we’ve done.

As for the plaza program, we created or got the ball rolling on more than 60 in New York City. And that’s not just in places like Times Square, Herald Square and Madison Square — three favorites naturally — but in dozens of diverse neighborhoods across the boroughs like Corona, Queens; Brownsville, Brooklyn; and Belmont in the Bronx. We also launched the Neighborhood Plaza Partnership program to help neighborhoods throughout the city. These are public plazas for the people and by the people, managed and maintained by local partners, making these spaces as diverse as the city itself. They’re community hubs in places that lacked somewhere for people to gather. They’re open space in neighborhoods that are far from any parkland. And they’re economic boons for a lot of once-struggling commercial strips. If that doesn’t make you proud, you’re in the wrong business.

“It’s crucial to keep showing people how much more is possible on their streets. Once you inspire them, there’s no going back.”

If you had another six years on the job, what would you do?

It’s amazing how quickly that time went by. When you’re working to save lives and remake a city of 8.4 million people and more than 6,000 miles of streets, there’s never enough time to get to every street you’d like to. Some projects just ended up taking longer than we liked, but it’s great to see Polly Trottenberg and her team at DOT get the extension of the 125th Street bus lanes and the Pulaski Bridge bike lane over the goal line, to name a few. And we wouldn’t have had any trouble sketching out another six years of similar makeovers of streets across the city.

But there are some big-ticket items I would love to tackle too. How do we fund the MTA’s capital program and get the city, state and private sectors working together to support the city’s lifeline? Can we put all the pieces in place to move Madison Square Garden, undo the sins of the 1960s, and finally build the Penn Station New York City deserves? While we got the ball rolling on the Sheridan Expressway, bringing street-level crossings to neighborhoods in the Bronx and connecting them to much-needed open space on the river, I would have loved to see that project through. And it’s high time we build a new rail tunnel under the Hudson and unblock a bottleneck on the entire nation’s transit network. A 10 billion dollar commitment from New York and New Jersey is a great start, but it is just a start. Even six years wouldn’t be long enough to tackle all three, but you have to start somewhere.

Have you met with DOT Commissioner Trottenberg? Did you offer any advice about the job?

Polly has been a great friend for a long time, and she was instrumental in a lot of important projects here even before she came to New York from D.C. And she came into the job with a great head start when Mayor de Blasio committed the administration to Vision Zero, which gave DOT a lot of cover and allowed them to take on some really exciting projects, everywhere from Queens Boulevard to Clove Road on Staten Island. My advice would be to keep up the momentum. Administrations change, people are voted into and out of office, and community board members come and go, but it’s crucial to keep showing people how much more is possible on their streets. Once you inspire them, there’s no going back.

Mayor de Blasio recently said he was considering removing the public plazas from Times Square. How do you think that will play out?

I’m not going to comment on the administration and local issues.

I will say that it’s amazing that just seven years ago, the press and some of the political class couldn’t believe we’d close Times Square to traffic, and today you’re seeing editorials expressing disbelief that anyone would dream of reopening them to cars. This was a backlash, not against taking space from cars, which was the case in New York just a few years ago, but against the idea of taking space from people. The pushback came overwhelmingly from New Yorkers themselves, who passionately defended their streets, not from the leaders who fought the battle to build them. Even some of the harshest critics of the plaza in the media have now conceded that the plazas aren’t going anywhere. So I think this is evidence of a city and a political landscape fundamentally changed from the one that existed just six years ago, and the Times Square that now exists is a symbol of this new status quo. Nobody likes to be hounded by Elmos and topless Statues of Liberty. But cities around the world have found ways to manage their great public spaces to preserve a variety of uses, and so they don’t turn into free-for-alls for vendors. If New York can overcome the urban blight that plagued Times Square a generation ago, we can find a way to deal with a bunch of Muppets today and improve what is really one of the world’s greatest destinations.

Is New York on the right track to achieve Vision Zero?

I know Polly and her staff at DOT have spent a lot of time with the original architects of Vision Zero in Sweden, and I think they would be the first to tell you that this is as much about changing the culture as it is changing the streetscape. From the 25 mph bill to their compelling ad campaigns, I think they’ve been incredibly successful in doing just that. Almost no one in America had heard of the term before last January but now it’s universal.

But changes worth making take time. When we introduced our Pedestrian Safety Study and Action Plan back in 2010, we committed to cutting fatalities in half by 2030. The target wasn’t yet quite zero, but we knew we needed to start the conversation. Before that, street safety just wasn’t front-page news and most people in New York just weren’t familiar with the language of street design. Today they’re fluent — and could tell you the benefits of bulb outs, road diets and traffic calming. In just a few years, the city came to embrace this once foreign dialect. We weren’t quite Copenhagen but we were getting there. That’s a pretty strong foundation to build on, and if anyone can do it, it’s the men and women of NYC DOT.

We hear from a lot of activists that their community board is out of step with local popular opinion about safety issues. Where do you see room for improvement in the local political process?

Done right, community boards can be amazing agents of change. Just like we saw with the plaza program, no one is better equipped to say what is needed on their streets than the people that travel them daily. But there are obviously issues with certain community boards responding with knee-jerk resistance to anything that changes the status quo, letting a lot of life-saving projects wither in committee, or losing in votes that are swayed more by fear than facts.

People have floated a number of interesting ideas over the years, from term limits to eliminating age minimums, which all have benefits. In the meantime, though, it’s undeniable that safe streets projects are getting more popular, not less. A few years ago most community boards wouldn’t have even been able to debate things like road diets and protected bike lanes, but now they’re demanding them, sometimes at a pace faster than any DOT could hope to provide. As long as there are organizations like TransAlt out there to raise awareness, enlist the public, and keep these projects on the docket, we’ll head in the right direction.

“If New York can overcome the urban blight that plagued Times Square a generation ago, we can find a way to deal with a bunch of Muppets.”

Is there anything you’d like to say to TransAlt’s 150,000-person activist network?

First, I’d like to thank every one of you for all your support and ask you to take a bow for what you accomplished over the last several years. New York City has come this far because of your tireless work at countless community board meetings, in City Hall and out there on the streets. You helped roll out 400 miles of bike lanes, 60 plazas, the nation’s biggest bike share network, seven Select Bus Service routes, our first speed cameras and the safest streets since we started keeping records. You pointed out problems on our streets, defended our fixes when they came under fire, and when we didn’t see eye-to-eye, you weren’t afraid to tell it like it is.

In some ways, things have never been better for you. Partners like StreetsPAC are hard at work with candidates before the ballots are cast, you’ve got the most sustainable-streets supportive City Council in history swinging the gavel, and you have City Hall’s ear. But there are two words that I’d leave you with: Eternal Vigilance. I think the lesson from Times Square and elsewhere is that you can never back up or take the pressure off. Without you constantly pushing the rest of us to innovate and experiment, complacency can set in, people might take too much for granted, and momentum can shift. You keep New York City’s leaders honest. Your vigilance is required, and I feel confident knowing that Transportation Alternatives is on the watch.

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