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Revolutionizing City Streets

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Revolutionizing City Streets

May 4, 2016
New York
Infrastructure and energy

In this episode of the 10 Blocks podcast, City Journal contributing editor Nicole Gelinas interviews Janette Sadik-Khan, former New York City Transportation Commissioner, about her new book, Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution.

Audio Transcript

Nicole: Hello, this is Nicole Gelinas of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. I’m here today with Janette Sadik-Khan, the Bloomberg transportation commissioner for New York City from 2007-2013, and now the author of the book Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution. Good afternoon, Janette, thanks for coming on this afternoon.

Janette: Hey, Nicole. Great to be talking with you.

Nicole: So, you write in your book that, and this was one of my favorite lines toward the end of the book, “I love the smell of asphalt, its acrid odor, its super heated shimmer and sticky texture.” You say that the tabloids were correct in saying that you are indeed a wacko, but before you grew to love the smell of asphalt, you write that you never planned on going into transportation at all. So maybe you can explain to our listeners how you came to see transportation as so important to the life of the city.

Janette: Well, I grew up in New York City so I grew up on the streets of New York, and I think you kind of fall in love with the city at that early age. I learned to ride a trike in the park, and had my first bus pass, which I felt like such an adult when I had my first bus pass. And then, you take a subway as a kid and you run to the front of the subway car and you peer down through the tunnels. It’s really exciting and it’s really fun. But I didn’t really think that much more about it as I was growing up until, actually I was coming off of Mayor Dinkins’ campaign for mayor and I had left legal practice. I was in litigation at a big firm, and I really was not happy with it. And I wanted to do something important--something that touched people’s lives everyday. I called my mom and I said, “Mom, I’m looking at where I want to go. I want to do something that touches people’s lives everyday.” And my mom said, “Well sweetie, you have two choices: transportation or sanitation.” And I fell in love with transportation working under Lou Riccio and there was a lot of experimentation at the time, glassphalt, asphalt, all that. You could see the incredible power of the field of transportation in terms of the economics of the city, the livability of the city, the sustainability of the city. I just got hooked, and I’ve really been hooked for the last 25 years.

Nicole: Yeah, I think a lot of us got hooked on transportation. I never really thought about this too much before until I started taking the subway everyday back in 1999 and just sort of said, “How can I try to make this better for people?” I haven’t gotten very far yet, but that’s how I got interested in it. And you write that even.. You worked for Dinkins, you worked for the federal government, you worked for a private company, then by the time you came back to the city you didn’t know the mayor. You hadn’t met the mayor so maybe you can tell us how you came to be the transportation commissioner.

Janette: Well I had actually worked at a firm called Parsons Brinkerhoff and one of the projects that I had worked on was to reanimate lower Manhattan after 9/11, and we worked on a public information campaign (lowermanhattan.info) to encourage people that it was a part of the city that was very much open for business. Lots of places to go, lots of great restaurants and things to see. And I got to know Dan Doctoroff through that process and so when Iris Weinshall left, I was called to come in for an interview. Of course I never met the mayor, Mayor Bloomberg, before. And so I came in and had a conversation with Dan about what my priorities were and then eventually had a conversation with the Mayor and his Deputy Mayor. I actually, after that interview--which I did not think went very well--I was sure that I was not going to get the job. I was quite sure it was going to go to Michael Horodniceanu who was in competition for the job. Because when the Mayor and I had that conversation, it was very much clear that after my going through bike lanes and bus lanes and plazas and safety, there was not a lot of positive reaction. I learned later that it was because they were putting the finishing touches on PlaNYC and they didn’t want it to leak but at the time I certainly didn’t have any positive indication that this was a good fit.

Nicole: And lucky for the city that it did, and you remade the streets rather than still wrestling with the East Side access for the MTA.

Janette: Yeah, well it’s an incredible opportunity. Working for a mayor like Mike Bloomberg at the time that we were with the team that we had and the team of people at New York City DOT. It really was extraordinary having the framework of PlaNYC, the long range sustainability plan that the mayor put out with Dan Doctoroff, really allowed us the running room to develop the strategic plan and the different pillars of that plan that made the bike lanes possible, the bus lanes possible, the plazas possible, the bikes share possible. Because they were all connected to this larger vision and not a series of one-off projects, and I think also having somebody that knew transportation running the agency also helped. When I was there, I wasn’t scared to try things. And frankly said that I would take the hit for anything that went wrong and so I think that unleashed a lot of innovation in the agency. People certainly took me very seriously when I said I would take the hit. I didn’t realize just how serious a statement that would turn out to be, but it was incredible moments.

Nicole: And one of the biggest hits and the thing that made you famous around the world was the Times Square Plazas. When people say you closed Times Square, it’s really counterintuitive and that’s wrong. You really opened Times Square to the vast majority of people who get there not by car but by foot or on transit before they’re on foot. There’s sometimes this myth that you just sort of woke up one day and decided to close Times Square. Maybe you can talk about how this was a long process over two and a half years where you tried different things, made sure that they worked, before getting to this point. How were able to be reasonably confident that this would work and this would end up being a good thing for the city.

Janette: It’s a really good point. People think that people characterize this as this wand that I had and just sort of waved over the city and all of these things just kind of magically happened. That couldn’t be further from the truth. The truth is that Times Square has been a problem that’s been hidden in plain sight for many decades. People had tried lots of different things to try to fix it. Foot lanes here, change traffic signalization patterns there, and nothing worked. It didn’t work because the grid was basically broken. When we’ve got this North/South/East/West grid and Broadway cuts diagonally through it, we’ve got three traffic signals to get through instead of two. It doesn’t work for drivers. It certainly didn’t work for pedestrians. We saw much higher incidents of injuries and fatalities on that Broadway corridor through Times Square than we did on any of the adjacent avenues.

Nicole: And people walking in the streets and getting hit and that’s partly why..

Janette: Yeah, the street was completely out of balance. Ninety percent of the traffic in Times Square was on foot, and yet they only had ten percent of the space. Ninety percent of the space was for cars. When you’re talking about 350,000 people walking through that space everyday, that’s a lot of conflict. Times Square is one of the greatest stages in the world and it’s always been a place of change and transition. With exception, perhaps, of the street itself. Traffic may have gone in one direction or another and the cars may have had tailfins and there may have been streetcars, but basically the curbline and the streets themselves have stayed very much the same. In fact, when we rebuilt the street, we literally dug up the streetcar rails that were leftover from more than half a century ago that had just been repeatedly paved over. But when we changed it, we did it as an experiment as you said. Just try it, we’ll see, we’ll block it off, we’ll do it in temporary materials and if it works, we’ll keep it. And we’ll know if it’s working because we’ll measure it. We’ll measure what happens with traffic flow, we’ll measure what happens with safety, we’ll measure what happens with the economics. After six months, the data all showed that it was better mobility, better on safety, it was much better for business. A majority of New Yorkers really supported these changes, and so we’ve gone from 350,000 people walking through Times Square to 480,000 people walking through Times Square today. We’ve got better real estate and retail values, and I think it’s been a really great success story for public space and it’s certainly been picked up by cities around the world.

Nicole: And I think that point about how much the foot traffic has grown, it’s hard for people to understand if they’re not walking through everyday or at least once every few months, that the people just don’t fit unless you were to do something. And they certainly wouldn’t fit today. When the theatres get out at ten o’clock or when people are going to work at eight or nine in the morning, even with the plazas it is a difficult thing just to move all of these people through this space. Looking at trying to fit all of these people, with subway traffic in these Times Square stations having almost doubled over the past twenty years, and trying to fit them in with increasing bus traffic, increasing car traffic, it just was not going to work. This is a pragmatic solution to a pretty pedestrian problem if you will forgive the term. It’s just a mathematical and physics problem of how do you put the most people possible into this space. You don’t do it by having people go through one at a time in a car.

Janette: Exactly, that map of the street is really important. And I think the balance was flipped, that ninety/ten balance (ninety percent of the space dedicated to the cars that were only ten percent of the throughput) so fixing the math… It was one of those places that, sort of, nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded. And out of the 480,000 people there, it’s not just tourists but workers, and residents. The piece that you talked about in terms of being better for businesses is a really important concept that people find difficult to get their head around. But the bottom line is that cars don’t shop, people do. We need to change how we design our streets from places to drive into places where people want to be. And that, I think, was something that we showed in Streetfight and in the six years at New York City.

Nicole: Yep. And I walked through earlier this afternoon. I went out and took a walk and all of the red tables and chairs were full, people stopping and looking to figure out where they’re going to go next, having snack, talking to their families. And yes, I would venture to say that most of these people are tourists but a big part of our economy now is tourism. This creates jobs for people who may not even speak English to people who make six figures managing a big hotel. And tourists have just as much of a right to our public space as anybody else and so that they are using this space makes it a successful space. Yes, Elmo was there but he wasn’t bothering anyone and as you note in the book, New York’s Police Department can figure out how to deal with the Muppets and they are in fact doing that with the same techniques that they used thirty years ago on the subway. You go after behavior, not people. A person is allowed to stand there in a costume, he is not allowed to aggressively harass anybody. But we certainly, we’ve learned enough about policing in the city over the past 30 years. We don’t need cars to police the space. We can do it through both policing and other behavioral cues.

Janette: Exactly. Certainly with great public space comes great cottage industries. I don’t like the Hello Kitties any more than the next person. But this is one extreme of an exciting and energetic and unpredictable city, which is what we love about it. I think the legislation can help get a handle on the time, place, and manner that these characters get their Elmos on and express themselves while leaving visitors and residents and workers free to enjoy the space. Times Square today is an issue of public space management and not a problem of traffic safety and congestion and economic underperformance, which was the case for many, many years.

Nicole: Yep, and you go to the Eiffel Tower, you see people selling little statues of the Eiffel Tower, trying to sell people all kinds of different products and services. You see people trying to sell tour bus tickets at the entrances to Central Park. Anywhere where there is a critical mass of people, other people are going to want to sell them stuff, or in more extreme circumstances, try to take their money. So that is not a traffic issue, it’s more a density management issue. Your other big and true claim to changing the face of the city is the CitiBike program. New York launches CitiBike over three years ago or nearly three years ago in 2013. The biggest problem with the bike-share now is that there are not enough bikes. The stations are empty, we can easily do 40,000 rides or more on a nice day. You talk a little bit about not only starting up CitiBike and having people skeptical that New Yorkers are going to get on these bikes and go to meetings and go to work and go do grocery shopping. But also just what you call the bike-lash in general: this idea that nobody is going to ride a bike in New York City. No one’s going to be in these bike lanes and maybe you can talk a little bit about how you dealt with that issue, and putting in the lanes and starting up the program. And how it’s turned out, really, after three years of CitiBike and really a decade of protected bike lanes.

Janette: People said these changes would never work. Some people said nobody’s going to ride in a bike lane. Some people said too many people are going to ride in the bike lanes. People said there was going to be blood on the streets, triple number of fatalities. None of these dire predictions came true. They said our streets were too congested, too dangerous. It was going to block emergency vehicles, it was going to kill business. Our streets were never safer, never better for the economy. There was no increase in traffic congestion, and on many streets we found that fewer but better designed lanes were better for traffic and that better streets meant better business. Now it was a fight. Each one of the acres we reclaimed from cars in New York City was a fight. Changing city streets for people on foot or on bike or on transit, you will generate a fight. Part of navigating that fight is a key part of the process and it’s not just having a new design vocabulary for the street but literally a new vocabulary to describe these changes. It really does take political courage to try something for the first time and the strategy is to win the buy-in of the public. Mayor Bloomberg was fully behind these changes and fully behind the program, but all of these changes require changing the status quo and that was really the problem that we were trying to solve. We had a real problem with traffic fatalities and injuries and before there seemed to be this kind of “oh well, that’s just part of life in the big city.” That’s not acceptable, and so changing that and changing our streets so that they can serve lots of different people in lots of different ways was at the heart of that strategy. CitiBike changed the street not just with the cyclists but with stations, which were a visible invitation for people. Now I think there is a new generation of New Yorkers that won’t know a city without them.

Nicole: And they do make the street safer for everybody because having the bikers in the bike lane, it forces the drivers of the cars and trucks to look for the bicyclists and then it makes them look that extra time for pedestrians as well. Slower, calmer traffic has helped elderly walkers, children, anyone who is put in danger by a speeding car or truck.

Janette: Exactly. The combination of slowing down the traffic, making pedestrians and cyclists more visible, and the refuge islands that anchored our projects led to the record low fatalities that was seen across the board. It’s amazing, people have taken 25 million rides and there have been no fatalities.

Nicole: And it also, if someone says “well I never use the bike, I take the subway,” the subways are reaching a point where we can’t fit another person on these crowded trains. On the 4,5,6 line, on the L train, on the 7 train, and so every person who is on a bike, it may be a person who used to take the subway. They are helping to ease the marginal demand for the subway was well. It costs billions of dollars to increase capacity on the subway, but we can ease a little bit of that need for capacity by getting tens of thousands, and hopefully hundreds of thousands of people when it’s five boroughs city-wide, off the subways and on to the bikes.

Janette: Absolutely, and it’s critical in terms of the capacity issue that you mentioned and it’s true. We are at an overload now and the funding for the MTA’s capital program is still yet to be identified. It’s kind of fairy dust at this point. So, having these really cost effective strategies roll out to deal with that capacity improves mobility. It’s not just the CitiBike program, it’s the select bus service program. By prioritizing the street space for buses and making them move much more quickly and in much more attractive vehicles that make it easy to get on and off the bus and give those buses a green light and enforce it with cameras, that’s been a homerun. And again, it didn’t take a lot of time, didn’t take millions of dollars to do. We can make these kinds of changes now, here on the streets that provide the kind of mobility and affordable transportation that this city so desperately needs.

Nicole: Right, and as you say in the book, these were not multi-billion dollar projects. This was one percent of the budget that you have to fix up bridges and repair potholes and do everything else that needs to be done in the city. This is cement islands and paint and the Times Square project is a bigger project but it is going all the way down to below those old streetcar tracks and fixing all kinds of infrastructure that should hopefully see us through another few decades once it is complete. You end the book by saying “if you can remake it here, you can remake it anywhere.” And as you say last year when some people in the de Blasio administration said we should take out these pedestrian plazas, you note that you were a little bit worried that you might have to have a strategy to respond to this, but New Yorkers really did it for you. People writing in New York Magazine and people saying on Twitter and on Facebook, we want some changes to Times Square, but we certainly don’t want the car and truck traffic and the crashes and the injuries and the exhaust back and this is the way it is, but we don’t want that change at this point.

Janette: No, it’s true. I think there is a new status quo in New York. As you mentioned, two years after we left office, when the new Mayor suggested he might remove the plazas at Times Square there was this huge backlash. The plazas were controversial just a few years ago but today, no New Yorker wants to get rid of them. And there are still people that are opposed to any proposal and there are people opposed to doing nothing, but I think most people have moved on and learned to love the changes and the new status quo.

Nicole: Yeah, well, I’m still opposed to the Barclays stadium but it’s there so I guess we all have something that we don’t like sometimes for an irrational reason but as you note in the book, vast majorities of New Yorkers are perfectly happy with the bike lanes and pedestrian plazas and I’m sure a good number of them don’t care and don’t think about it. But they are still safer because of these changes as they cross the street. And again, I’ve been talking with Janette Sadik-Khan who served New York as the Transportation Commissioner from 2007-2013 and her book is called Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution. I do urge people to go out and read it. There’s lots more interesting stuff there, including just the nuts and bolts of how you get anything in government done. Thank you, Janette, for taking the time to talk to me this afternoon.

Janette: Thanks, Nicole.

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Photo: GibsonPictures/iStock

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