Janette Sadik-Khan and the Remaking of New York’s Streets

In 2007, Janette Sadik-Khan was appointed transportation commissioner of New York City, a position she held until 2013. In that time she was Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s point person on improving public transportation and making city streets safer. Under her watch, she led a very public battle to add 400 miles of bike lanes and establish more than 60 pedestrian plazas in the city, most notably — and controversially — closing five blocks of Broadway to cars in Times Square. Sadik-Khan has co-written a new book called “Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution,” co-authored by Seth Solomonow, her former press secretary. Read an excerpt here.

Sadik-Khan is now advising a host of cities including Los Angeles as a principal with Bloomberg Associates. She spoke with DnA’s Frances Anderton.

DnA: In a blurb on the back cover of your book, Bloomberg refers to you as “the child that Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs never had.” What do you think of that?

JSK: Well I have to say, I had a very strange perception in my head when I first heard that, a very bad vision of what that combination would look like. But once I thought about it, I actually thought it was a really interesting comparison, because Robert Moses was famous for a very big vision, moving very quickly and getting a lot of things done. There were a lot of dire consequences that went along with that in terms of razing entire neighborhoods. But he had a big vision and he moved quickly. Jane Jacobs, one of my heroes, incredible urbanist, and talked about that we needed to design our streets, really at a human level. And really look at people. And the exchange of people on the streets is one of the pieces that builds wealth, the wealth of public life in a city and I very much hew to that orientation.

But what we’ve seen in too many cities is that people actually use Jane Jacobs logic to fight Jane Jacobs ideals. It’s interesting because in the name of preservation they stop everything from happening. And so it’s really important that we can actually develop an agenda that people can say yes to. And we need to move quickly. I think that one of the appeals of the work that we did in New York City to other cities is that we were able to move very quickly without a lot of money to show the potential of getting things done. New Yorkers were tired of waiting years and years to see anything happen on their streets, and in fact I think they’d given up hope. So we literally painted the city that we wanted to see, to show what was possible. Because people’s expectations needed to change. They had zero expectation for their streets and now I think there’s an entirely new design vocabulary that New Yorkers have. They talk about traffic calming, they talk about bike share, they talk about bulb outs and sidewalk extensions and so their expectations for the streets of New York have changed. There’s a new status quo on the streets of New York and I think that’s really exciting and that’s what mayors around the world are actually looking to do.

Janette Sadik-Kahn
Janette Sadik-Khan, courtesy of Olugbenro Photography

DnA: So what wound up happening is, you went in proposing sort of Jane Jacobs level changes like bike lanes. Those were then interpreted as Robert Moses level impositions. Is that correct?

JSK: Well I think there was a big part of just no, people just saying no to any kind of project whatsoever. And as you know our cities cannot be frozen in time. Cities are dynamic, they have to change and so we need to actually bring projects that will help our cities grow in strong vital ways. We need to bring in affordable housing, you know, we need to bring in different mixed uses in our building stock. We need to make it easier for people to get around without having to drive. And so these are the strategies that I think bring a new type of urbanism to the streets. And again, moving quickly, in the sort of Robert Moses model, but with the Jane Jacobs sensibility.

DnA: You’re really fascinating on the topic of design manuals. Tell us the manual that was in place when you began and subsequently what has started to replace it.

JSK: That’s such a great way to put it. Nobody’s ever said that to me about design manuals. But they are key. They are literally the keys to the kingdom. And so the design manuals from the 1950s that have governed our streets for those fifty years, The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, the MUTCD, it’s a 500-page long document that’s basically like the Ten Commandments for our streets and tells you the size of the font on signs, the width of our lanes, and it’s really been used to turn so many of the streets, you’ve got 2.5 million roads in the United States, and they basically morphed from streets into highways because of this guidance.

And so we realized we needed new rules of the road, and we created a new urban street design guide, one of a library of guides that we’ve provided to mayors and local leaders, community activists and practitioners. So that they can actually innovate on their streets and try new things. Simple things like bike lanes, protected bike lanes, simple things like plazas were not in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices or in any of the AASHTO guidance, the Association of American State Transportation Officials – sorry for the gobbledygook! But the point was that these kinds of innovations weren’t allowed and this new guidance which we had adopted by US DOT under Secretary Ray LaHood gave these cities a permission slip to innovate. And it completely changed the rules of the road. And so you’re seeing bike lanes proliferate all over the country, you’re seeing pedestrian plazas proliferate all over the country, you’re seeing sidewalk extensions, you’re seeing a real human, people based design strategy emerging out of this old road order.

DnA: And yet, you got massive pushback on innovations that seem perfectly human friendly like bike lanes, but they became a massive lightning rod in New York.

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JSK: Yes. Well as I learned, when you push the status quo, the status quo pushes back hard. And every one of the 180 acres that we repurposed from cars and made available for people on foot and on bike was a street fight. Every single inch. And I get it, you know, transportation’s local. Everybody has a very strong opinion. There are 8.4 million New Yorkers and I feel like there are 8.4 million traffic engineers in New York. Because everybody is passionate about their streets. But the fact was is that people really didn’t have an idea of how differently we could actually use this asphalt. But we were able to show that it worked, and used a lot of data to measure the impact of these changes.

I worked for a data driven mayor in Mike Bloomberg. As he said, trust in God, everyone else bring data. And so we brought lots and lots of data and we were able to show that our streets were never safer. After all of these changes our streets were the safest they’ve been in 100 years. They were much better for business. We saw retail sales soar along the corridors where we put bus lanes and bike lanes and pedestrian plazas. And traffic flowed well. And that I think was a surprise to some, but by the end of the Bloomberg administration, there was overwhelming support for these changes.

DnA: I’m hearing from you that safety was your primary driver and that you have achieved these far improved statistics regarding human life. But there’s an aesthetic critique that the roads are now a blizzard of paint. Did you sit down with your designers and discuss, is the street going to be pretty when it’s covered with all this paint?

JSK: That’s such a good point because we really put a lot of emphasis on the design of our streets. It really matters. You know, when you walk down a street, are you looking at a discombobulated design vocabulary where nothing looks like it relates to one another? So we actually created a design vocabulary that works. The newsstands work with the trash cans work with the public seating. And so it looks like somebody cared about the streets when they put down the street furniture that we put down in New York City. We also worked a lot with local artists and I think it’s a great opportunity for cities to partner with local arts organization and great artists and you certainly have a deep community here in Los Angeles.

And so when you think about all of the infrastructure that we’ve got. That’s a huge canvas for artists. And we were able to harness a lot of that talent and bring that to bear on some of the under-appreciated and unloved spaces in New York City. But you’re right. You know it’s very important to have people look up. And the design clutter that you see on signage was horrible. We actually took down 100,000 signs in New York City, because you know, why do you have to have six signs when one will do? You sort of think a crazy person was in charge. So a lot of emphasis was put on the design of the streets itself and less on the signage. And we’ve seen a lot of innovation happening in Europe where cities are actually taking down all of the signage and really relying on the design of the street itself as sending the proper signals to drivers and other users of the road.

DnA: The fundamental premise of your book is that it is not natural for the car to be the sole and dominant mode of transit and that streets work best when there are multiple modes of transit: car, bike, public transit and pedestrian. However, one of your greatest and most controversial successes is turning Times Square pedestrian — to the point that now when one goes to Time Square now there is a colossal sea of people that can even be a little frightening. Is it equally unnatural to have the solo mode of transit be people on foot?

It’s all about choice. It’s about having lots of options for getting around — not just the car, not just people on foot, not just people on bike or transit. We really need all of these options. And in New York City we have 350,000 people walking through Times Square every day, that’s the size of a small city. And yet 99 percent of the space in Times Square was for cars, while 90 percent of the traffic was on foot. So it was a matter of balance. And that part of New York City was really out of balance and it showed. We had much higher incidence of injuries and fatalities on Broadway in that part of Midtown Manhattan.

So it didn’t work from a safety perspective and we changed that. It didn’t work for retail because the bottom line is that cars don’t shop, people do. And so when you make it easy for people to pop in and out of the store on foot that’s much better for business. And the other piece that I think was a surprise to everyone was that we were actually make able to make the traffic flow just as well as it did before even though we closed Times Square to cars between 42nd and 47th Street. And that’s because Broadway cuts on the grid on a diagonal, and so it creates three intersections where there’s usually two and so that additional time spent at red light. We were actually able to restore and make the grid work exactly like it should. So it was a win, win, win. We did it as a temporary, pilot project because the mayor wanted to test it out. It was a Broadway hit and I guess the rest is history.

It’s all about choice. It’s pro choice. It’s about having lots of options for getting around, not just the car, not just people on foot, not just people on bike or transit. We really need all of these options. And in New York City we have 350,000 people walking through Times Square every day, that’s the size of a small city. And yet 99 percent of the space in Times Square was for cars. 90 percent of the traffic was on foot. So it was a matter of balance. And that part of New York City was really out of balance and it showed. We had much higher incidence of injuries and fatalities on Broadway in that part of Midtown Manhattan.

DnA: Currently there’s a nostalgia for New York in the 1970s. And New York at that time was full of drug dealers and high crime and incredibly grotty streets — just as you saw and wanted to change. Do you think this nostalgia for the 1970s is completely misplaced?

Well, I think that might be an out-of-town kind of thing. I don’t hear that among a lot of New Yorkers. But you know it’s really funny, when I was in the final days in office I got these letters from cyclists who were basically nostalgic for the days when they could just zoom down the streets without those pesky bike lanes (and they’d write), you know, why do you have to make them all so safe? It used to be much more adventurous on the streets of New York. It’s true. We used to be a lot more adventurous on the streets of New York, but I think very few people would say, let’s put it back to the way that it was.

DnA: We’re talking in our studio in Los Angeles, and in your new capacity as a staffer with Bloomberg Associates you’re now advising a host of cities, including L.A. What advice are you giving officials here?

JSK: Well, Mayor Garcetti said he had a very big vision that involved making Los Angeles move and making great streets for this great city. And so he’s really put a down payment on the Great Streets campaign that you’ve seen in downtown Los Angeles. You’re on the cusp of a huge transit renaissance. And I think it’s really exciting and so many cities are actually looking to Los Angeles for the way that you financed these transit extensions and for the political consensus that you built to get that implemented.

FA: Do you think it’s time for Los Angeles to get rid of its freeways?

JSK: I went to school in Los Angeles. I went to Occidental College. And so I know the role of roads and cars in this city. It’s not about getting rid of the cars. It’s just building in better choices. It’s just not only the car. It’s the car plus other ways to get around. And I think that the investment that’s being made now in the transit infrastructure will pay huge dividends for Angelenos in the years to come.