In her 6 years as Transport Commissioner for New York City, Janette Sadik-Khan showed streets can be made more human and sustainable. And even after decades of neglect that transformation can be done quickly.
Sadik-Khan was the driving force behind closing Broadway to cars in Times Square, building nearly 400 miles of bike lanes, and creating more than 60 plazas citywide. She carved out hundreds of acres of space previously reserved for cars and returned it to people in one of the most sweeping revitalizations of the city’s streets in a half-century.
An example for the world
Janette Sadik-Khan’s work followed a plan by New York City which examined how the city was going to accommodate one million more people by 2030. A prospect that had profound implications for the city’s transportation and public spaces.
But this challenge is not unique to New York. Already half the world’s population live in urban environments. That percentage is forecast to continue to grow.
So how do we make the cities where we live more sustainable?
Janette Sadik-Khan saw the underutilised potential of the city’s streets. She reminded us that streets are some of the most valuable public space a city has. And showed that transforming an urban environment, even one as complex as New York City, is possible.
Her human-centred approach has a set a great example for other cities to follow.
“If you can change the street, you can change the world.” ~ Janette Sadik-Khan
The problem of the car
The streets of New York like most major cities in the world have been largely neglected, certainly for all our lifetime and probably going back to the 1950s. Since that post-war boom, more and more cars have populated city streets. Because it’s been a gradual shift we probably haven’t really noticed the big change over a number of decades.
Now we have major problems. The obvious one being terrible traffic congestion in cities around the world. But it’s not just traffic. Cars have also been a major contributor to air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions in cities.
“In the United States we spent the last century building our cities around the car, but we damaged our cities in the process and we’re really getting diminishing returns on that investment.” ~ Janette Sadik-Khan
For a long time, we thought if we just keep building roads we could fix our congestion problems, but things have got harder and harder. The more we have built roads, the more it has encouraged people to drive. Something the transport boffins call ‘induced demand’. And now we’re clogged and still building and not getting anywhere.
“You can’t build your way out of congestion. It’s like dealing with obesity by loosening your belt.” ~ Janette Sadik-Khan
Our cities need to think differently. That’s where a human-centred, sustainable approach to cities comes in.
The neglect of city streets
As cities have developed and got busier, no-one has really been paying much attention to the impact of the humble street and its role in city life.
“Our streets have been in this kind of suspended animation. They’re seen as there for all time. The result is that you’ve got dangerous, congested, economically under-performing streets. That strikes at the heart of the liveability and competitiveness of a city.” ~ Janette Sadik-Khan
The business case for sustainable streets
It’s often thought that sustainability and economics are at odds, but as JSK tells us, from a business point of view, ignoring the city’s most ubiquitous public space makes no sense.
“Our streets hadn’t changed in 60 years. I mean, if you didn’t change the way you did business or your major capital asset, you wouldn’t still be in business.” ~ Janette Sadik-Khan
Before working for the City, JSK was Vice President at large engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff. Sadik-Khan brought a business sensibility to her public role. She even described the NYC’s Department of Transport as the biggest real estate developer in the city because of the amount of land it controlled.
JSK showed that sustainable, more human-centred streets can be great for business. The pedestrian plazas that shut Broadway through Times Square sparked an economic recovery throughout the area. Lessening congestion and increasing foot traffic clearly improved the bottom line of businesses.
“It doesn’t take an economics degree to understand just how much pedestrian space can contribute to the bottom line of local businesses.” ~ Janette Sadik-Khan
See your street with fresh eyes
A key question JSK is challenging us to consider is: what are our streets for?
“Our streets for too long have just been looked at as a place to move cars as fast as possible, from point A to point B, or to just serve as parking lots. And these cars basically sit on the side of the road unused 98 percent of the time. That’s not a really good use of one of the most precious resources a city has: its streets.” ~ Janette Sadik-Khan
What she started to do in New York was to give streets back to other uses – like walking, cycling and public transit – shifting the balance back to people and sustainable transport modes.
Bikes as basic transportation
Sadik-Khan became a cycling champion in New York City. The New York Times even went beyond urban visionary and called her “bicycle visionary”.
She saw cycling as basic transportation, rather than alternative or fringe transport. And set about giving it the support it needed to be safe enough for more people to give a go to get from one place to another.
Early on in her tenure, she installed the first parking-protected bike lane in the US. And then rolled out cycling infrastructure across the city’s streets.
She also oversaw the launch of Citi Bike, the nation’s largest bike share system, which to date has been used more than 22 million times and at last count had 12,000 bikes.
Under her tenure, the number of people cycling in the city doubled.
“If you want to build a better city, you can start by building bike lanes.” ~ Janette Sadik-Khan
Inevitably Sadik-Khan often hit vocal opposition and media controversy, especially with the speed and nature of the changes.
“Car-mageddon!” the media predicted as she sought to shift public space from machines to people.
Her department was even sued over the placement of some bike lanes. Handing over car parking space to cyclists, in particular, was always going to be controversial.
This video by Vox explains ‘Why protected bike lanes are more valuable than parking spaces’.
Sadik-Khan knows the sensitivity around car parking better than anyone.
“Taking away a parking space is like taking away someone’s firstborn.”
Measuring the street (strength in numbers)
But the noisy opponents turned out to be in the minority. Sadik-Khan and the DoT and managed diffuse opposition with hard numbers. Their research showed the majority of New Yorkers supported the new plazas, bike share and bike lanes.
Data also showed important improvements in safety. The hundreds of intersection and street redesigns that Sadik-Khan ushered in contributed to record-low traffic fatalities in the city. Even as the numbers of people cycling doubled, the number of serious injuries for cyclists fell. After the protected bike lane was installed on 9th avenue, injuries to all road users decreased by 47%.
“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.” ~ Janette Sadik-Khan
Temporary changes and testing
Before putting shovels in the ground, Sadik-Khan cleverly made changes temporarily – re-allocating space using paint, stones and planters. Even buying deck chairs from a hardware store and placing them in plazas. This allowed her to make changes fast.
“You can paint the city you want to see.” ~ Janette Sadik-Khan
Then the DoT could observe and measure and see what was working, what wasn’t and tweak things. The other advantage was to get people to see the changes and get used to them.
“When you adapt the street, people adopt it. It’s almost like it’s always been there. You go to some of these plazas now and people have forgotten the way it used to be.” ~ Janette Sadik-Khan
Another way that JSK managed to show people the potential of the street was by instigating ‘Summer Streets’ in New York.
This was an idea borrowed from ‘Ciclovia’ in Bogota, Columbia where streets were closed for a day to cars and opened to people.
In 2008 seven miles of New York’s central streets were closed off to cars for three Saturdays in a row – allowing for people to walk, cycle, playing, and dance in the street. Hundreds of thousands of people attended ‘Summer Streets’.
Cities learning from each other
JSK wasn’t afraid to learn from other cities. At the beginning of her tenure she took her chief traffic engineer to Copenhagen to see how the Danes did bike infrastructure.
She’s now advising other cities on street change as a consultant for Bloomberg Associates. And says cities should be sharing best practices.
“There’s no patent on pavements. If you see something good elsewhere, copy it.” ~ Janette Sadik-Khan
New York, New York
There’s no doubt Sadik-Khan had a hard time of it bringing in these changes. All 180 acres of space reclaimed from cars she says was a hard-fought battle.
What she did in her 6 years showed though that our streets are not set in stone. That any city can reimagine its streets and make them more sustainable. And in so doing not only help the environment but improve the quality of life of the people who live, work and visit there.
“If you can remake it here, you can remake it anywhere.” ~ Janette Sadik-Khan
(This 5-minute video by Streetfilms shows some of the changes that happened in New York.)
- Served as New York City’s Transportation Commissioner from 2007 to 2013 under Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
- Presided over the significant changes to NYC’s streets and public spaces in 60 years, including the conversion of road space into bike lanes and into pedestrian plazas, notably along Broadway at Times Square.
- Oversaw the building of nearly 400 miles of bike lanes (120 of them protected) as well as more than 60 pedestrian plazas in New York City.
- Over her six years in office, approximately 180 acres of former New York City road space for motor vehicles was converted to use by bicycles and pedestrians.
- Under her tenure, the number of people biking doubled in the city.
- Authored a book on her experience – ‘Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution’
- Chairperson for the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), a coalition of the transportation departments of 40 large US cities.
- Awarded Jane Jacobs (Rockefeller Foundation) Medal for New Ideas and Activism in 2011
She now advises cities around the world on sustainable streets – working for Bloomberg Associates, a philanthropic consultancy established by former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The cities she’s advised have included Rio de Janeiro, Los Angeles, Mexico City and Detroit. Her message is that big changes need not take a long time or a big budget.
Sadik-Khan also Chairs the National Association of Transportation Officials in the US. NACTO champions people-focused street design standards that have been adopted in 45 cities across North America.
In this 14 minute TED talk ‘New York’s streets – not so mean any more’, JSK makes the case for sustainable streets and demonstrates how it can be done quickly and cheaply. She also tells how, despite some initial resistance, it can ultimately be popular.
In this 10-minute video, JSK talks about sustainable streets with Streetsblog founder Mark Gorton:
Janette Sadik-Khan’s book ‘Streetfight’ provides a guide on how to make streets more sustainable. It breaks down the street into its component parts and provides step-by-step advice on how to add protected bike paths, improve crosswalk space, and provide visual cues to reduce speeding.
It also pulls back the curtain on the battles she had to win to make her approach work.
Find Janette Sadik-Khan’s ‘Streetfight: Handbook for An Urban Revolution’.
Janette Sadik-Khan has had a lot to say about city streets. We’ve compiled some great words of wisdom for you. Read our best Janette Sadik-Khan quotes. (Once you’ve absorbed Janette’s pitch you’ll see your street in ways you’d never imagined.)
More about Janette on her website – www.jsadikkhan.com
You can follow Janette Sadik-Khan on Twitter.
On her website, JSK provides design manuals for sustainable streets.
NYC Department of Transport has a guide to The Economic Benefits of Sustainable Streets.
You can find more videos about her time as Transport Commissioner via Streetfilms ‘Janette Sadik-Khan Greatest Hits’.
And you can see the changes in streets via these before and after photos from New York City’s Department of Transport.
What you can do
Changing streets is hard. As JSK says they are stuck in suspended animation and often overlooked by bureaucrats and politicians. But you can help push change a few ways:
- Vote for political candidates who understand the importance of sustainable streets and support making them greener and more human-centred.
- Write to other candidates and ask them to support sustainable streets.
- Show politicians the sustainable streets going on in other parts of the world.
- Support cycling advocacy groups.
- Do it yourself. Support &/or launch your own tactical urbanism – like Better Block. (For more DIY ideas, have a look in a tactical urbanism guide.)
Let us know what you think of JSK and her ideas in the comments. If we’ve missed something important about her, let us know too.