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A Playbook on the Politics of Better Streets

In conversation with former New York City transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan.

As transportation commissioner, Sadik-Khan oversaw the redesign of Times Square. (alexpro9500 / Shutterstock.com)

During her tenure as New York City’s transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan oversaw the addition of 400 miles of new bike lanes, helped implement the nation’s largest bike-sharing system, converted 60 plazas into spaces where people could sit and relax, and repurposed 180 acres of asphalt for pedestrian and bike use. None of it was easy—she faced opposition, harsh criticism, and even legal backlash along the way.

In her new book Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution—written with her longtime colleague and chief media strategist Seth Solomonow—Sadik-Khan tells the story of how she made it happen, offering a roadmap for making cities and neighborhoods safer, more sustainable, and more connected. And she argues this can be done without spending huge sums of money. By emphasizing fast, easy-to-implement, “do-it-yourself” solutions, Sadik-Khan makes the case that being smart and creative—not having access to a hefty budget—matters most.

Sadik-Khan recently spoke with CityLab about the key lessons she learned during her time in city government, as well as her thoughts on the future of cities.

On the back cover of your book, Mike Bloomberg describes you as “the child that Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs never had.” That’s interesting because a lot of modern urbanists—and surely many of our readers—adore Jane Jacobs and equally despise Robert Moses. Tell us what you learned from both Moses and Jacobs, and what urbanists should take away from the two of them.

I didn’t know how to take it the first time I saw myself referred to that way in print! But I began to see it as a compliment. Our cities have fallen between the cracks between Moses and Jacobs. There’s more to urban planning than building roads, bridges, and megaprojects. On the other side, just saying no to big ideas isn’t enough either. There needs to be a transformative street agenda for city residents to say yes to. Changing course from car-based to people-based cities in this century will require leadership and decisive action. But instead of building new highways and interchanges, we need to reclaim our streets and rebuild them to a human scale, and with an inclusive public process focused on building projects, not smothering them.

In the book, you write about your early dream of becoming a lawyer and working toward social justice. You write that you aspired to be more like Clarence Darrow than Jane Jacobs. What led you from the law to transportation planning, and how did your early concern for social justice influence your urban planning and transportation work?

Streets are where life and history happen, and that places transportation at the cultural, social, and political center of cities. As I considered my first government position under then-Mayor David Dinkins, I talked with my mother and told her that I wanted to do something that touched people’s lives every day. She paused and then said I had two choices: transportation or sanitation. She was joking, but she was right. Physical mobility is directly related to social mobility, and creating streets that are safe, navigable, and accessible for everyone—no matter their age, income, or physical ability—is one of a city’s most important, yet most overlooked, responsibilities.

Many people still see bicycles as a nuisance in cities and cycling as mainly something people do for recreation. You made bikes a crucial part of New York’s transportation infrastructure. What do other cities and mayors need to know about the role of biking and cycling infrastructure in their city’s economies?

Biking is transportation. Walking is transportation. Buses are transportation. Where bikes are perceived as a nuisance it’s often just a symptom of outdated street designs, which ultimately serve no one well. All these modes can play well together if they’re not forced to fight over the scraps of road left over after room is carved out for cars. Reclaiming road space for bikes, pedestrians, and buses isn’t a mere amenity, it’s an infrastructure and economic investment whose effects are felt far beyond the lane. So if you want better streets for everyone, you can start by building a bike lane.

Most people take streets for granted. You argue that they are a critical part of the underlying “operating code” of a city and a key factor in generating “social wealth.” Tell us more about that.

Streets are the front yards for city dwellers and the quality of a street and the variety of its uses relate directly to its livability for everybody. There is something fundamentally ennobling about a street design that elevates its people—even and especially those on foot. Jane Jacobs said it best: Sidewalk contacts are the small change from which a city's wealth of public life may grow. Investing in safe, diverse, and walkable streets is an investment in communities, and helps make neighborhoods worth living in.

You write that reviving New York’s non-vehicular transportation network was “absurdly cheap compared with the billions of dollars American cities have spent annually building new streetcar and light rail lines and rehabilitating or replacing aging roads and bridges.” That seems beyond counter-intuitive. How did you achieve it? What can urban leaders in other cities take away from this?

Better streets for walking, biking, and buses are some of the fastest, yet also some of the least costly, transformation strategies. In my six years commissioner, we invested $6 billion just to keep our network in a state of good repair. All of the plazas and bike lanes we built cost less than one percent of that, though they generated 99 percent of the headlines. Cities must invest in their roads, but there’s so much that can be done for the price of the paint, concrete, signs, and material already in the city’s warehouses.

Buses are not exactly a sexy topic, but you devote an entire chapter to why buses matter to successful, productive cities. Describe the role of buses in urban planning.

Sadik-Khan and Jay Z announce the closure of Park Avenue to vehicles for three Saturdays back in 2008. (Bebeto Matthews/AP)

I’m bringing sexy buses back! A lot of people think that transformative transportation has to be large-scale and expensive in order to be taken seriously. We should still invest in rail and subways, but buses can alter the balance of transportation power in a matter of months, not in the years of study and construction required by rail. We launched one rapid bus route a year for seven years in New York across all five boroughs and in a fraction of the time and cost it takes to build a single subway station. Around the world, 33 million people take bus rapid transit in 200 cities on every continent. We have seen the future of urban mass transit, and it’s a bus.

Early on in the book you mention the need for “congestion pricing”—essentially charging drivers to drive on streets and highways. The Bloomberg administration was never able to achieve congestion pricing. How did this early setback shape your subsequent efforts? And how important ultimately is making sure that drivers pay the full costs of using roads?

By making it cheaper and more convenient to drive to downtowns with abundant and inexpensive parking for cars, many American cities have turned their urban cores into places almost impossible to reach without one. By charging motorists for the true cost of their trip and investing the revenue in more and better transit options, cities can level the playing field and provide better choices for getting around. Congestion pricing ultimately foundered politically, but the debate created a new discussion over our transportation network that has only escalated to this day. I remain convinced that it’s not a matter of if but when congestion pricing will be achieved in New York.

You devote an entire chapter to “measuring the street,” or collecting economic data to explain how city transportation is operating. You argue that “if you’re not measuring, then you’re not managing.” Why is that exactly?

If transportation were any other field, 33,000 annual deaths would be a national public health crisis and people would lose their jobs. But transportation data is so poorly evolved that there are few metrics to determine a street’s success or failure beyond how many cars and crashes there are on a particular street. Yet there’s so much more to a street than how many cars it can process, from the economic opportunities it offers, to what choices people have for getting around. Learning how to measure the street is a new frontier in their design and function.

Data is also critical to winning public buy-in. We heard concerns that plazas, bike share, and bike lanes would cause gridlock, traffic danger, and put local stores out of business. But data showed that these changes made streets safer and tax receipt analysis found that retail sales improved dramatically where we installed projects. GPS data from millions of taxi trips confirmed that traffic moved as well or better following street interventions. Data can help move transportation from anecdote to analysis—and to street designs determined by effectiveness instead of the influence of constituencies opposed to them.

The musician David Byrne, an avid cyclist, praises your achievements in making New York City better and safer for cyclists and residents. But he has also been outspoken about the city becoming too expensive—specifically referencing high housing costs, which price out artists, musicians, and other creatives like him. Some people have argued that your efforts, and those of the Bloomberg administration, have contributed to these higher housing prices and the ongoing gentrification of the city. How do you react to that?

mike/Flickr

I think it’s an important point that the city and their streets belong to everyone. David Byrne was a huge supporter and friend throughout my time in office and even joined me to announce a program to fund the creation and maintenance of public space in under-resourced neighborhoods in all five boroughs, tapping into the local talent, character, and ambition already there. When you design a street for its most vulnerable users, everybody benefits, and we gave all communities the keys to the kingdom so they could create and enjoy the same world-class streets as any neighborhood.

In your closing line, you echo Frank Sinatra when writing about New York City, saying, “If you can remake it here, you can remake it anywhere.” What are you up to now in your new role with Bloomberg Associates, working with cities around the world? How might smaller cities with fewer resources than New York succeed at becoming safer, less congested, and more sustainable?

In Mexico City, I’ve worked with Mayor Mancera to redesign the city’s notoriously hostile streets for walking. We’ve worked with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and his transportation manager Seleta Reynolds to create great streets for walking and biking. I’m struck by how these and other cities face many of the same challenges we faced. When we were making a lot of changes in New York, people told us it was impossible, that it would never work, that we were New York, and not Amsterdam or Copenhagen. We fought for every project, every square foot of space on the street. Now, when we travel to other cities, we hear people say that the street can’t change because, “We’re not New York.” It’s a streetfight everywhere, but I think the victory of this fight in New York has implications everywhere and shows how, if you can change the street, you can change the world.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Top image: alexpro9500 / Shutterstock.com

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