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Taking It to the Streets

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books and culture

Taking It to the Streets

Janette Sadik-Khan explains how to annoy a few people and save lots of lives. May 4, 2016
New York
Infrastructure and energy

Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution, by Janette Sadik-Khan and Seth Solomonow (Viking, 368 pp., $28)

Even many politically aware New Yorkers probably can’t name anyone who has served as a mayoral commissioner in the past decade, except for police chiefs—and Janette Sadik-Khan. In her new book, Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution, written with Seth Solomonow, the Bloomberg-era transportation chief writes that she worked to “overcome the myth that New York was an ungovernable city” when it came to its chaotic, often deadly, streets. Her success helped save hundreds of lives and, along the way, the woman who put beach chairs in Times Square improved the city’s quality of life.

To succeed, Sadik-Khan needed an expert grasp of how government works and a mayor who would support her when she put that knowledge into practice changing a city not quite ready to be changed. She got the government expertise after deciding, as a young litigator, that she didn’t like lawyering and wanted to do something public-spirited. She joined the David Dinkins mayoral campaign. When Dinkins won, Sadik-Khan joined his team to work in transportation, but the timing wasn’t right. “New Yorkers were desperately hanging on, trying to survive,” she writes; they weren’t worried about their streets.

Nevertheless, as an advisor to the mayor, and, later, in high-level jobs at the federal transportation department and at a global engineering company, she mastered the bureaucracies that govern how and where we drive, ride, and walk. She developed an aversion to “megaproject monomania”—that is, you don’t have to build a multi-billion-dollar project like a bridge or a tunnel to cement your legacy. Small things—and cheap things—can make a big difference, too.

Sadik-Khan got a second chance to help New Yorkers by giving them better streets. In 2007, Mayor Bloomberg interviewed her for the transportation-commissioner job. She had never met the mayor, and she started off by bluntly correcting his facts: he mistakenly called her desired post “traffic commissioner.” Sadik-Khan was upfront that she would be a political headache, telling Bloomberg that she intended, among other things, to “make bike riding a real, safe transportation on New York’s mean streets.” She got the job.

Over the next six and a half years, 1 percent of Sadik-Khan’s repair-and-construction budget got 100 percent of the political and media attention. She used her post to start correcting a historic mistake: how, in the twentieth century, New York allowed cars and trucks to define its public space. “Postwar New York was built for a future that forgot its dense and lively urban origins,” she writes. Four decades after Jane Jacobs left the West Village, near where Sadik-Khan grew up, the neighborhood’s main roads had become “sewers for traffic . . . broken and blighted.” And dangerous, too: in 2006, 324 New Yorkers died in traffic incidents on the city’s streets.

Sadik-Khan’s department rigorously studied these problems and how to fix them. How did people die in traffic? They weren’t hit by a Chinese-food delivery man on a bicycle, or even, usually, by a taxi, but by private drivers going too fast without paying attention. Pedestrians died not so much because they tried to beat the light or darted out into traffic, but more often in crosswalks. They were disproportionately elderly or children, too slow to jump out of the way or too short for drivers to see them.

Why did drivers speed, careless of the risk? New York’s highway-style roads encouraged them to do so. So Sadik-Khan put the roads on a diet. The city narrowed lane sizes and added bike lanes, bus lanes, and pedestrian “islands.” Besides giving walkers and cyclists more safe space on the streets, smaller driving lanes forced drivers to pay attention. Serious crashes with injuries consistently fell by double digits wherever the city changed its street design.

Most people either liked these ideas or didn’t care much about them, but a vocal minority protested. Sadik-Khan calls this resistance street NIMBY-ism. “The street might be dangerous, it might be inefficient, oppressive, and counterproductive,” she writes, “but . . . New Yorkers were so used to their streets that they had no idea they could be changed.” She marshaled facts to convince people that bicyclists wouldn’t kill them and that slower car speeds wouldn’t put stores out of business. But she often had to ignore the naysayers. If the city had waited for unanimity, nothing would have changed—and annual traffic deaths wouldn’t have fallen to 230 last year.

Sadik-Khan needed Bloomberg’s backing to resist the “bikelash”: a few New Yorkers’ terrified response to the idea of people biking in the street safely. Despite frivolous lawsuits and complaints usually not grounded in facts, “the battle was won by the projects and by New Yorkers themselves,” she writes, as people took to “riding bikes as basic transportation and not as a political statement.” The bike lanes she installed helped increase cycling fourfold over a decade. Launching in 2013, Citi Bike saw nearly a million rides in its first seven weeks, as judges threw out five lawsuits against the bike-share program. The program suffered some early technical glitches in part because far more people than expected wanted to ride. Citi Bike stations, too, sent a message to drivers, Sadik-Khan believed, that “bikes and the people who ride them are important.” More cyclists on the street make the street safer for pedestrians, too, as cyclists force drivers to be more careful.

Sadik-Khan needed Bloomberg’s backing most of all at the Crossroads of the World. Like many of her projects, the 2009 Times Square makeover seemed counterintuitive at first: just as more bicyclists can make a street safer for pedestrians by slowing traffic, closing an avenue to traffic can make traffic move more smoothly. Because Broadway cuts diagonally across Manhattan, it intersects at its busiest points with both numbered avenues and streets. Drivers wait longer at red lights at these three-way crossings, causing traffic to back up. By closing Broadway near Times Square to traffic, the city would open it to the pedestrians who make up 90 percent of the area’s workers, residents, and visitors.

Sadik-Khan’s critics didn’t immerse themselves in diagrams explaining green-light time versus red-light time or in Times Square’s dangerous conflicts between frustrated drivers and walkers. They just branded Sadik-Khan a zealot. Bloomberg himself was initially skeptical. His political advisers argued that trying out the Times Square plan just months before his final reelection bid that fall was indeed crazy. But Bloomberg, to his credit, said that he didn’t want politics to govern a policy decision.

That summer, as Sadik-Khan explains, the city decided to “just do it”—plunking orange construction barrels down to stop cars and plopping down the beach chairs. “Within minutes of the closure there wasn’t a free beach seat in the house.” With more room for pedestrians, injuries fell by 63 percent. Traffic sped up by 7 percent, according to GPS data from millions of cab rides.

Today, Bryant Park-style metal chairs and tables have replaced the beach furniture. Sitting out for half an hour last week, an observer could see that all the tables and chairs were full. Yes, most of these people were tourists—and they have just as much right to enjoy the city as New Yorkers do.

As for the street vendors who have garnered so much attention in recent years: Elmo was there last week, too, looking a bit lost. A few hawkers stood on the perimeter, selling tickets for tour buses or comedy-club shows, just as they do at the southern entrances to Central Park. But the most persistently aggressive vendors—people raising money for sketchy homeless charities or giving out “free” CDs for coerced donations—stood on the sidewalks, not in the finished areas of the plazas, as they have for years. The CD hustlers target tourists by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, too, and souvenir hawkers as well as 9/11 truthers annoy World Trade Center workers and visitors downtown. Crowds attract scammers. The solution is not to get rid of crowds.

Last year, NYPD commissioner Bill Bratton proposed letting traffic back through Times Square to protect New Yorkers from the crooks lurking among the street entrepreneurs. Sadik-Khan wondered if she would need to respond, but “the rebukes from New Yorkers came fast,” and she “realized that we didn’t have to do a single thing.”

Sadik-Khan is gracious to her adversaries, though she can’t resist a crack about Anthony Weiner, who promised to rip out the bike lanes when he became mayor. This pledge, she says, was “half-cocked.” She praises her predecessor, Iris Weinshall, for handing over a well-functioning transportation department—even though Weinshall helped sue Sadik-Khan’s department for putting a bike lane in her neighborhood. New York is still New York, after all.

Photo by Sean Pavone/iStock

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Revolutionizing City Streets

Nicole Gelinas May 4, 2016 New York, Infrastructure and energy

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