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NYC’s Sadik-Khan Charted Path for Major Street Changes There, Nationwide

Janette Sadik-Khan asks how many people have visited Times Square since it changed and became a pedestrian plaza.
r Janette chwaadik-Khan asks how many people have visited Times Square since it became a pedestrian plaza. Photo: Tricia Scully/MPC
Janette Sadik-Khan asks how many people have visited Times Square since it changed and became a pedestrian plaza.

One of the country's most successful city transportation commissioners spoke on Tuesday night at the Metropolitan Planning Council about her experience working in New York City for seven years. Janette Sadik-Khan was hired by former mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2007 to implement the radical – for NYC and for that time in the United States – sustainable transportation initiatives outlined in the city's comprehensive livability plan called PlaNYC.

Sadik-Khan traveled to Chicago promote her book "Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution" with co-author Seth Solomonow.

The NYCDOT, with Sadik-Khan at the helm, made bold changes that resulted in fierce backlash, but also positive outcomes like increased bike ridership, the lowest recorded number of traffic crashes in New York's history, and higher retail sales on streets with new pedestrian spaces. Her tenure inspired dozens of other big and medium-sized city mayors across the nation, and even around the world, to start their own "streetfights."

Sadik-Khan's book follows the publication of two other high-profile books – at least in the transportation planning world. Last year, former Chicago and Washington, D.C., transportation commissioner Gabe Klein authored "Startup City." Former commissioner of the NYC traffic department, and president of his eponymous transportation planning firm, Sam Schwartz recently published "Street Smart."

Inspiration for other cities

Like the other authors, Sadik-Khan started the presentation talking about streets as the foundation of a city's commerce and sociality. Sadik-Khan said, "Streets are what make a city great, but also what make a city not great." She showed a photo of a wide road in NYC and said "this [traffic congestion] shows exactly what we've come to expect" of our streets. "You see a street like this and it seems like people gave up."

On Wednesday morning I had coffee with her co-author Seth Solomonow, press secretary during her time as commissioner, to discuss some details on the differences between how things have played out in New York City and Chicago. First of all, I wondered how Sadik-Khan got so many brand-new projects implemented in such a short time, and what motivated her.

There's little doubt that what Sadik-Khan started in the country's biggest city in 2007 inspired major changes in transportation departments in the United States. Solomonow said it was a combination of being given the green light by the mayor, "PlaNYC" as a foundation, her policy strategist Jon Orcutt, Danish architect Jan Gehl who was hired as a consultant, and a "good bike team" in the DOT. He added that the previous commissioner, Iris Weinshall, actually helped by getting the DOT to become better at the basics, like maintaining bridges.

Weinshall later helped organize a protest of bike lanes Sadik-Khan installed on a street named Prospect Park West, running along the park, starting her biggest streetfight.

But most of all, he said, she and her team of deputy commissioners all thought that they had two and half years – the remainder of Bloomberg's second term – to get everything done. "We had to floor it because the clock was ticking," Solomonow said, nothing that some administration offices had countdown clocks. Bloomberg was later re-elected for a third and final term.

That time crunch should sound familiar. Gabe Klein was the Chicago transportation commissioner for two and a half years, but not because of a mayoral term constraint. Nevertheless, Klein ramped up CDOT's efforts to accomplish more in that time than the previous four commissioners combined under former Mayor Richard M. Daley.

Many of the projects Klein led began construction after he left to work in the startup industry, and they dot the city. There are Loop Link bus lanes downtown, the launch and two expansions of Divvy bike-share, protected bike lanes in many neighborhoods, the first-ever Pedestrian Plan, and the Chicago Riverwalk, to name a few. The speed and breadth of projects has diminished since then.

Sadik-Khan said that she felt she almost didn't get the job. Bloomberg asked her in the interview, "Why do you want to be traffic commissioner?" She replied that she wanted to be the transportation commissioner. She thought that response stopped her chance of being hired.

In the book she describes it like this, "Six years into his administration and two years into his second term, it wasn't clear to me that day who or what he was looking for in a commissioner. His question wasn't a test. By the time I sat in front of him, there was no transportation leg to his legacy's table, no initiative, goal, or accomplishment on the scale of his other achievements that addressed the fundamental issues of congestion, danger, mobility, and economic stagnation on New York's streets."

After being hired, she took stock of her new department. She told the crowd gathered at the MPC auditorium – their largest audience ever, according to vice president Peter Skosey – she started "with the streets you got, with the budget you go, and show people what's possible."

Chicago's former commissioner Klein made similar moves. Under his leadership the department produced a two-year "Action Agenda." Klein called it an "internal plan" to "give people a sense of what we do." It set the tone for how the department would be changing under Mayor Emanuel's first term, with a new focus on performance measures, and changing "business as usual" to include better bike infrastructure, pedestrian safety, and eliminating all traffic fatalities by 2022 – now called Vision Zero. CDOT is operating without a strategic plan currently.

Changing the "crossroads of the world"

Internationally, Sadik-Khan is now known as the person who closed Broadway to vehicles through Times Square in 2009 and added beach chairs in newly created pedestrian plazas. The news media predicted that traffic would become worse. The opposite happened. Because of the department's intense focus on collecting data, they were able to show that taxi travel times in the area decreased.

The beach chairs were popular, too. Sadik-Khan said that people immediately showed up, saying it was "like Star Trek, 'fwoop', you're there." Eventually, Sadik-Khan's NYCDOT built or planned 60 plazas in all five boroughs.

When current mayor Bill de Blasio's police chief Bill Bratton proposed removing the pedestrian plazas Sadik-Khan created in Times Square to reduce the amount of space that could be used by buskers, the news media came out to defend the square and oppose the plan.

The concept hasn't taken off here. Called "Make Way for People" in Chicago, a major difference is that their creation was paid for by the city of New York but here CDOT is depending on business organizations and sponsors to build them. So far the Chicago Loop Alliance, a special service area for the business district on State Street and Wabash Avenue has been the longest term supporter, and upgraded an old plaza called The Gateway in the middle of State between Wacker Drive and Lake Street. They are also hosting pop-up style parties in Loop alleys for the third year.

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