In many ways, Janette Sadik-Khan was a classic Michael Bloomberg appointee: curt with detractors, low on time for explanations, friendly with multinational corporations, and unafraid to invoke how they do things in European countries. But unlike, for instance, the former mayor's disastrous choice of education chancellor, Cathie Black, whose only education experience was teaching sales reps to sling display ads as a magazine executive, Sadik-Khan knew what she was doing.
She had spent decades working in the city and federal transportation departments and at an engineering firms. Her Department of Transportation also ran differently from Bloomberg's Education Department, which embraced charter schools and closed struggling district schools rather than committing resources to rehabbing them, and failed to plan for the massive residential growth brought on by Bloomberg's rezoning in areas such as DUMBO and Downtown Brooklyn. Conversely, Sadik-Khan poured money into repaving highways and overhauling bridges—projects that took up the vast majority of the Transportation Department capital budget—simultaneous to initiating the street-redesign spree that garnered nearly all the headlines.
Sadik-Khan is still firmly ensconced in Bloomberg's remaking-the-world-in-his-image machine, now as a transportation consultant to municipalities worldwide at the firm Bloomberg Associates. With her new book Street Fight, co-authored by former DOT spokesman Seth Solomonow, she reflects on her eventful six years in office, and how the city has moved on from a vocal bike backlash. At the height of the reaction, then-Public Advocate Bill de Blasio called himself an "incrementalist" on road safety. Now the main transportation goal of de Blasio's City Hall is reducing traffic deaths to zero by 2024. Sadik-Khan gives the city's massive infrastructure needs a token chapter in her book, but even as she complains that the press focused too much on conflict over her road-safety-oriented overhauls, she spends most of the page-count discussing exactly that.
The book is defensive amid the celebration of the former commissioner's radical program. She relives each of the major battles over redesigns, recounting community board meetings, scathing editorials, and a Council hearing on bike lanes that was "a cross-examination," while taking care to inform us that the traffic data prove she was right.
Today, the NIMBY element hasn't faded entirely: the New York Post's Steve Cuozzo is still out there bemoaning the "suburban" nature of plazas, a fundamentally urban creation, and "confusing bike lanes." But after years of living with the former commissioner's hundreds of miles of new bike lanes, seven new bus-rapid transit lines, and acres of pedestrian space reclaimed from drivers, New Yorkers are affirming her notion that a redesigned street is its own best proof of concept. The rate of warm-weather bike ridership doubled under Sadik-Khan, polls show around two thirds of New Yorkers support street-safety infrastructure, and the city just had another safest year on record in terms of traffic fatalities.
We chatted with Sadik-Khan in advance of the book's release about what she learned having a New York Post reporter for a mom, why people should care about infrastructure, and the ghost of the Bedford Avenue bike lane.
The Bronx's Webster Avenue was one of five bus rapid transit routes created by Sadik-Khan's DOT in partnership with the MTA, providing dedicated on-street lanes and on-street payment to speed bus travel times. (Taylor Reiss Gouge/DOT)
How is working in the private sector—how does it compare to the very eventful time that the book covers? Well my career has been about 50-50 in the public and private sector, and I think that that background was actually very, very helpful in working through the changes that we made in the New York City DOT. The public jobs are obviously public, and private jobs are private, and so there is a different level of scrutiny when you are in front of 8.4 million New Yorkers and changing the streets that they feel passionate about every day.
How does working for Michael Bloomberg specifically compare between the public and the private sector? Well, Michael Bloomberg thrives on a private-sector metabolism and he is motivated by public-sector passions, and to make the world a better place, and to improve people's lives every day. So it's actually the perfect marriage of somebody that understands the private sector approach to getting things done, and having that married to an understanding of how change can happen in a city and what it takes to get that done. I think he's a very unusual mayor that way, and frankly we would not have gotten the change done on the streets of New York that we did without the vision and courage and political leadership of Michael Bloomberg.
You mentioned in the book that your mom covered City Hall for the New York Post. Could you talk a little bit about when that was and what it was like having a mother in that line of work? Well the New York Post under Dorothy Schiff was very different from the New York Post under Rupert Murdoch, there's no question about that. She covered Ed Koch for the New York Post. She actually started doing real estate and then moved into covering City Hall.
She's always been interested in stories and had a deep love of the city, and I think both of those, she passed both of those onto me. When we would walk around the city, which we did all the time, she would constantly tell me to look up and pay attention and watch what was going on. She was very much into the quote-unquote ballet of the streets. And I learned a lot from walking around town with her.
Sadik-Khan is now consulting for poser cities such as Los Angeles, teaching them New York's famed bike-and-pedestrian-friendly ways. (Melani Smith-Meléndrez)
What did you learn from your mom as far as how the press works that influenced how you dealt with the press in your role as transportation commissioner? Were there any tricks that came in handy? Or things that you understood that other people didn't? Well, no I don't think there are tricks. I just think that it sort of demystified the process, and I understood it better having watched her as a reporter. I definitely learned that the press aren't your friends. That certainly was a piece that came through.
The press is a persistent theme in the book as far as giving a microphone to the bike backlash and possibly generating some controversy where there wouldn't have been as much otherwise. Do you think that you were treated unfairly during your time as transportation commissioner? No. I think that people take their streets personally. And they treat every parking space like it's their firstborn child.
I get it. When you talk about new ways to get around that aren't about driving, a lot of people really erupt. There are 8.4 million people in New York and sometimes I felt like there were 8.4 million traffic engineers. But you know, change is difficult, and people have a lot invested in the status quo.
The fact that people are so passionate about their streets is just evidence of how important they really are. I think that the notion of backlash is actually a sign that you're doing something right. When it comes to our streets, people that just maintain the status quo and install signs and signals, and fill potholes and paves, they have jobs for life, even if there is no change in congestion, and even if people continue to die on those streets. But those who try to change those streets are the ones taking a risk, and backlash is just a part of the job.
Is there advice that you have for reporters covering transportation issues? Are there things that you'd like to see explored more that were overlooked during your time? I don't know that I would frame it in terms of controversy. I think that's a lot of the least interesting things about these kinds of projects. But there are many issues that we really do need to confront. We need to figure out ways to finance our major transit investments, and our road investments, and our bridge investments. I mean, we really need to identify the funding sources to be able to get that done.
I think we really need to really focus on the future of this region, and that does mean investing in rail tunnels and that means expanding transportation options, and I think that's gonna be key. It's not as sexy as stories that pit personalities against one another. But I think that you have to give people choices, and I think everybody agrees that the status quo doesn't work. And we have to do something about it. That inevitably leads to changes on the street, and we shouldn't have act surprised when that finally happens.
Throughout the book there's a persistent certainty in what you're saying—at one point you refer to critics of road safety projects as “Cassandras.” Were you concerned at all as you were writing that this tone and those kinds of word choices might alienate people who are not yet sold on the ideas that you're presenting? No, this was not exactly a march to victory, which is what you see in the book. There was a lot that happened on the road to a more sustainable street. I do think that what we're talking about is the written and unwritten rules on the road, and we tend to take our streets for granted, but the way they are designed tells people how to use them. And in the book one of the things we do is show step by step how to do it.
The fact that streets that are designed for cars and tell people to drive everywhere is bad for business. There are many city streets that are over-built for cars. There's virtually cities trapped between the lanes. Streets that are designed from the view of somebody walking or biking, whether you're 8 or 80, is the key to making these cities work. It's not a particular tone, it's just the fact that the status quo is the problem that we're trying to solve. And many of the solutions have been hidden in plain sight for a long time.
I appreciate the framing that Jane Jacobs ideas are so omnipresent that they're employed by people fighting to preserve Robert Moses features of the street. One big political conversation that's happening right now is Mayor De Blasio's affordable housing plan, which rests on density and transit-oriented development making the city a more habitable place. As somebody who's lived in the West Village, which Jacobs held as a paragon of neighborhood function, can you understand emotionally what people in the neighborhood might oppose about coming and knocking down 3-story buildings and building 50-story towers, for example? I think a lot of people use Jane Jacobs' logic or cite Jane Jacobs' projects and they say no to anything in the name of preservation. But cities change, people change, demand changes, demographics change, technology changes, and we have to change our streets too. They have to constantly evolve and we have to make more efficient use of our assets today, whether they're streets or they're buildings. And so, I think getting beyond “no to new ideas” is critical. You can't wait to make all these changes, for all his progress, Moses was remarkable in his vision on implementation, but that needs to be married with an urban vision a la Jane Jacobs, that leads to a more sustainable, liveable, affordable, economically competitive place to be.
Street benches rolled out under Sadik-Khan were designed to make it hard to lie down. (DOT)
In the book you say that “doing nothing is one of the animating forces of the city,” and also that public policy discussions need to include all communities, not just rich ones. One thing that occurred to me is that one of the biggest users of public space outside of lunch time and weekends are homeless people, and they're also a group of street users that tend to get business owners and home owners upset and calling for removing street plazas and benches and that sort of thing. I was wondering—you addressed this somewhat in the book in reference to Times Square—what role do you see for street design in managing behavior? Do you see dealing with quality of life issues as fully a social service-police issue, or what role do you think street designers have to play? Wow, that's like a book that you just—“How do you deal with the homeless, how do you deal with street design, how do you deal with...”
Um, the pieces need to fit together, because when you're dealing with public space, you're dealing with every public issue. You're dealing with homelessness, you're dealing with seating, you're dealing with crowding, you're dealing with danger, you're dealing with congestion, you're dealing with all of it. You can't look at them as silo-ed pieces. The public pieces need to fit together to make public spaces work.
Pearl Street in DUMBO, Brooklyn, before and after the installation of a pedestrian plaza in 2007. Sadik-Khan insists the image on the right is a photo, not a rendering. (Ryan Russo/DOT)
An example that's coming to mind is, there's a plaza in Clinton Hill that store owners complain has drug dealing is going on and people urinating and sleeping. Do you see the need for the DOT to go back in and rethink those spaces, or what is the solution to those kinds of complaints? I think that having eyes on the street is the best cure. I have seen very little urinating going on in most plazas. I think there are solutions to Hello Kitty in Times Square soliciting tips, too. You don't need to rip out these spaces because there are issues that need to be dealt with. And I think that monitoring and working and the like are really easy ways to work on those issues and work with the communities that are highlighting where additional attention is needed.
I also think that you get a lot of buy-ins from small businesses when you take a look at the economics that happen with public spaces that we've created. You know the plaza in DUMBO, 172 percent increase in retail sales when it opened, you know the success story of Times Square, you know the success story of Union Square, we can go through all of them. The bottom line is that better spaces are better for business. Good streets are self-enforcing, and good neighbors make great streets.
The tabloid-driven outrage over topless panhandlers in Times Square's plaza reclaimed from cars prompted police Commissioner Bill Bratton to say he'd like to "dig the damn thing up." (Jen Chung/Gothamist)
Why do you think people are so emphatic about New York not being Copenhagen? [laughter] Well you know I think the funny thing that it's gotten to now is that people are saying “We're not New York.” When there are stories about transportation controversies in other cities today, people say, “We're not New York,” which is a victory.
A few years ago a lot of people said, “You can't do bike lanes or plazas in New York. We're not Amsterdam and we're not Copenhagen.” I think that highlights what a big sea change it's been and how far we've come.
The book was the first acknowledgment I've seen from somebody in DOT that the Bedford Avenue bike lane was ripped out explicitly because of the concerns of leaders of the Hasidic community in Williamsburg. I was wondering, did the DOT intentionally leave the shoulder wide so that cyclists would continue to use the vestige of the lane? Well, you know, of course not. [hearty laughter]
Okay, I'm not sure what to read into that laughter.
At that time Transportation Alternatives was sort of a counter-force criticizing you even though they backed you guys in many respects. On that issue, they were saying “There's no redundancy in networks in our view and the Bedford lane should stay.” Now a lot of those same people who were friends of yours in many cases are focusing their criticism on Polly Trottenberg, who they have obviously a lot in common with. One of the recurring criticisms that I've is that the DOT is too deferential to community boards, and that's at the cost of creating gaps in the bike network and not putting in slow zones in certain areas. Do you think that the DOT needs to be more forceful, or that there's a point at which the DOT should just treat all road redesigns in the same way that they treat stop signs, etc? Going back to the earlier point, I would say that you can't win every battle, but we certainly did the best we could with this situation. And I'm not going to get into criticizing DOT. I'm very close with Polly, so that's a nonstarter for me.
One thing that stands out about Ms. Trottenberg's tenure so far is Vision Zero. You say that one of your goals was to get traffic deaths down to 135 by 2035, and the new goal is to get down to 0 by 2024. Do you see that as sort of more of an aspirational, almost religious kind of idea or do you think that 0 is achievable? I think it's really great to see mayors and political leaders strive for these goals. The fact that we have 33,000 deaths on streets in our country every year is, I think, almost criminal, the fact that we haven't done something about it. So everything that we can do to move the needle to address this is important, whether it is through extrication, design, enforcement, campaigns—we need to use every single tool in our toolbox to address this. And you're seeing leaders understand that if you use the data and identify dangerous spots in your city, those two pieces married together can go a long way to driving down the preventable injuries and fatalities on our streets.
So I'm very much in support of the work on Vision Zero and taking a data-driven approach to the streets of not only this city but cities across the U.S. and around the world. It's a matter of life and death and we can do something about it.
I understand not wanting to answer a hypothetical. Is there an example of a place, a major city that has reached 0 traffic deaths? Not that I know of, but I think you see in the Netherlands there's a lot of really interesting design that's happening where they removed all of the street signs and stop signs from the city and basically used the design of the street itself to guide behavior. And I think you're gonna see people moving more towards that approach, again, changing our streets to support the life that is along the way and not working at all against it.
Another one of your major achievements was bringing in Citi Bike, and I know that you explained the need to privately fund it because it would be a very difficult sell after the recession, to spend tens of millions of dollars on a bike share program. But in the long-term, you mentioned the problems with Alta and Citibank's commitment is only good for so long. Do you see a way to move away from private funding and make it a fully public service? I think you can do it any number of ways. I just think that we thought this is a really good option because we've studied what had worked in London with Barclays, and we took that model and married it to some of the quick installation models that we saw in other cities, and made it work on the streets of New York. I think that other cities will make other decisions, it really depends on the mayor. And it really just depends on the financing.
I do think that there's an incredible opportunity to use sponsorship and that kind of access to be able to fund these new transportation systems around the country. I think you're gonna see that more and more with constrained municipal budgets. You're going to see mayors looking to install these new systems, not having to use their public funding to do it, but utilizing the private sector to be able to double down on that kind of investment.
The Prospect Park West bike path is still the subject of a lawsuit, but in terms of encouraging cycling and slowing speeding drivers, it's been a success. (Juilo Palleiro and Nick Carey/DOT)
I'm pretty aware of how you feel about the Prospect Park West bike path at this point, but I'm just wondering if you have spoken to [former transportation commissioner and bike path foe] Iris Weinshall at any point in the last several years or gotten any more insight into what is driving that opposition to this day. Nope.
Fair enough. And an actual closing question: beyond promoting your book and continuing in your current role, do you have thoughts for the future? Do you have a dream job beyond this job? Well, I think this is a pretty dreamy job. Working to make cities safe around the world, and easier to get around, and using sustainable materials—it doesn't always apply to New York or one city. These are as universal a public service as clean water, and it's exciting to see, to be here at this turning point for cities. We're able to provide a different perspective and a new context, the perfect complement to local knowledge and experience that makes every city hum.
I think that working for Mayor Bloomberg is a dream job. It's hard to think of what's next...Wait, I need to redo that. Working for Mike Bloomberg!