Former DOT Head Janette Sadik-Khan looks back on bike lane, pedestrian plaza fights

Former DOT Head Janette Sadik-Khan looks back on bike lane, pedestrian plaza fights

Former DOT Head Janette Sadik-Khan looks back on bike lane, pedestrian plaza fights
March 22, 2016

So-called bicycle visionary Janette Sadik-Khan was New York City’s transportation commissioner for more than six years under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and is currently Bloomberg Associates’ transportation principal. Her new book, “Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution,” is out now. Sadik-Khan spoke with City & State’s Jeff Coltin about selling the streets, the new Times Square and her love of green paint. The following is an edited transcript. 

C&S: Unlike many city commissioners, a transportation chief’s projects are very visible and interactive. How did that affect how you approached your job?

JSK: Transportation touches people’s lives every day in a way that other operations don’t. People take our streets very seriously, and there’s a good reason why. When you think about it, the hardware on our streets very much affects how our streets operate. So changing the operating code of our city streets really has an effect on how people get around and how they feel about the city and the quality of life of their city. And that’s what the book is really all about.

C&S: You’ve been criticized for being more concerned with implementation than with selling your projects. Was that your way of dealing with the “Streetfight?” Just a fighting technique, essentially?

JSK: I think they go hand in hand. We were working hard to show what was possible on our streets. And that very much meant developing a showcase of projects so that people could see and touch and feel the changes that were possible. Today, I think there’s a new road order of people-focused street design. You’re seeing that all over from Los Angeles to Houston to designs in Seattle, San Francisco and Chicago. So I think that we work very hard to describe what these changes were about and also to measure the impact of these projects. Look beyond what happened curb-to-curb, but also look at the safety benefits of projects, the mobility benefits of projects, the impact on cash registers, sales receipts, the economics of these projects. And so that was, I think, the first time we looked at measuring what happened with these projects other than “did they make cars go faster” or how they affected traffic flows. I think it was both the implementation and the selling. And they went hand in glove.

C&S: A new addition to streets is self-driving cars. Do you think it’s the future of driving, or just a sideshow? And was that something you even had to consider when you were commissioner?

JSK: No, we don’t have autonomous vehicles on the streets yet. They’re certainly on the near-term horizon. We’ve been working with NACTO, the National Association of City Transportation Officials – which is a coalition of the largest cities in the United States and their transportation commissioners – to look at what this future with autonomous vehicles and transportation network companies, called TNCs, what that looks like. So while this might look like it’s a massive shift of the agencies’ agenda, a lot of the basics we’re handling at the Department of Transportation are going to become even more important. Like, how do you manage the curbside space? Which is some of the most contested land that cities have, as we look at implementing driverless cars. And taking a look at how do we price it? What if we no longer needed 50 to 85 percent of parking? Think of all of the additional housing or HOV lane or bike lane miles that you could put into place. And so I think the ultimate goal is to move people, and not fancy new cars. So all levels of government will need to step in to make sure the technology makes streets safer for people on foot and bicycle and the disabled and the elderly, rather than just maximizing efficiency for the cars.

C&S: Pedestrian deaths reached modern lows in your time as commissioner. How much is pedestrian safety a product of the streetscape versus a judicial or traffic enforcement measure?

JSK: Safety was at the heart of everything we did at the New York City Department of Transportation. It guided every single project. Right off the bat, we set a goal in our strategic plan to cut traffic fatalities 50 percent by 2030. And thanks to the reengineering that we’ve done on corridors and intersections – 113 corridors and 137 intersections – we actually moved forward with redesigning our streets so that they were safer for everyone and that went a long way to driving down fatalities to their lowest levels since the city kept records, which started 100 years ago.

C&S: A recent Post column by Steve Cuozzo criticized your redesign of Times Square, basically blaming you for tourists, costumed characters and desnudas. Was creating a better environment for tourists a consideration in forming that plan?

JSK: Everybody had tried to fix the transportation problem in Times Square for decades. People had tried different signal timing, different slip lanes, all sorts of different enhancements to try to address the chronic congestion and the safety problems there. And so we took a bigger look at the streetscape, and we realized there was an opportunity that was hidden in plain sight with the way Broadway actually functions on the Manhattan grid. You know, cutting it through on an angle. We realized that if we restored the grid, we could actually make traffic flow better, which is why we called it “Green Light for Midtown,” but we also looked at the other benefits that could come with that, accommodating the now 480,000 people that go through Times Square every day. Up until then, 90 percent of the real estate was for the cars despite the fact that the people made up 90 percent of the traffic. And so it was a balance problem. We really looked at rebalancing that network. We found that by closing Broadway to motor vehicles between 42nd and 47th Streets and opening the former roadbed to people we saw an immediate success. Injuries to motorists and pedestrians dropped 63 percent, pedestrian injuries dropped 35 percent, much fewer people walking in the roadbed, and it was a smash hit with New Yorkers: 74 percent agreed that Times Square improved dramatically. It’s now one of the top 10 retail locations on the planet. It’s now a true stage for people at the crossroads of the world, but more than just the street changed – people’s expectations for the street changed with them, as they found a new use for the space.

C&S: You got a lot of attention for the changes your office made for bikers and pedestrians. What are you most proud of doing for drivers?

JSK: Under Mayor Bloomberg’s leadership, we created the Sustainable Streets strategic plan, which very much drew from PlaNYC, which was this long-range sustainability plan, 137 different initiatives that affected all levels of government and all aspects of government operations. And safety was a big part of what we focused on. When you think about it, 30,000 people dying on the streets every year is a public health crisis, and yet it hasn’t received the same sort of attention that it needs. So we really were focusing on changing the design of our streets from places to drive into places where people want to be. That’s not anti-car. We actually devoted 99 percent of our budget to State of Good Repair work on 6,000 miles of streets in New York City and the 788 bridges. So that’s a significant down payment on better infrastructure for drivers to get around. And again, these strategies are not anti-car; they’re really pro-choice in giving people options for getting around.

C&S: Transportation advocates always seem to be calling for a bigger budget for the DOT. It's currently around $900 million a year, making it one of the larger expenditures for the city. Did you ever have to move away from a big project because the funding wasn’t there?

JSK: I think that creativity was a hallmark of Mayor Bloomberg’s administration, so we worked very, very hard to identify additional funding sources for the projects that we moved forward with. For example, the Citi Bike program was the first new transportation system to open in the city in 60 years, and it was 100 percent paid for by sponsorship. Not a single dime of taxpayer money went to it. We also saw the extension of the 7 line under Mayor Bloomberg’s term where we were looking at setting up infrastructure districts so that we would pay for the system based on property value increases for real estate near the new subway line. Looking at different ways to finance our transportation infrastructure is critical and really important going forward as well. But a lot of the changes people talk about – whether it’s the bike lanes, the plazas, the slow zones – they were really inexpensive. In total, less than 1 percent of the New York City DOT budget.

C&S: What’s the first thing our next president should do to improve transportation countrywide?

JSK: I think we really need to focus on the state of good repair of our road and bridge network. We are spending something like 2 to 3 percent of our GDP on transportation and other countries are up at 7, 8, 9 percent of their GDP. It’s the economic foundation of this country, so we really have to do a better job of financing these critical projects. I think that we’re also seeing the federal government endorsing these street design guidelines, which I think is a positive sign, and moving forward with improvements in safety to reduce traffic fatalities. And I also think we really need to invest in our transit network for our country to thrive. We are not going to build our way out of congestion by double-decking our bridges and roads. We really need to invest in high-speed transit opportunities and infrastructure to be able to get where we need to go in the 21st century.

C&S: You built almost 400 miles of bike lanes in New York City, many of them marked by green paint on the asphalt. Have you ever been thanked by the green paint companies?

JSK: (Laughs) No. I should have thought about taking up stock in them though!

Jeff Coltin
is a staff reporter at City & State. He covers New York City Hall.