by Bill Millard
With a hearty salute to her staff (by name), a 200-page barrage of triumphal data assembled in one last publication, a lively conversation among current and outgoing City Council members about the momentum of her achievements, and at least some members of the audience implicitly recalling the wistful hook from an old single by Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs – “Stay (Just a Little Bit Longer)” – Janette Sadik-Khan sang her final aria to a Center for Architecture crowd as Transportation Commissioner.
Few city officials since Robert Moses have had such a transformative effect on the design and use of public space. In the six years since her appointment, New York’s built environment has acquired new pedestrian plazas, bus rapid transit (BRT) lines, bicycle lanes, traffic-calming structures, Neighborhood Slow Zones, Safe Streets for Seniors, Safe Routes to School, the Summer Streets ciclovia events, the Citibike system, and a whole new underlying philosophy of public space that marshals detailed data analysis, rebalances the right-of-way among transport modes, and ranks pedestrians’ interests first. Encompassing Jan Gehlian design principles known under the rubrics of Complete Streets, Livable Streets, and Sustainable Streets, this approach is not unique to New York, but is well-suited to our density and our habits. Setting the changes in perspective by first asking the audience and panelists to recall their earliest perceptions of these initiatives, Sadik-Khan ran through the highlights of her years in office, including many nuts-and-bolts upgrades less widely publicized than the plazas and lanes, and identified areas where the need for continued progress is most urgent. It was a declaration of victories and thanks to supporters, delivered with both humility and justified pride.
As few in this audience were unaware, she has also been a 100-tesla magnet for flak from defenders of the autos-first status quo. The factions that define any reduction in King Car’s dominance of street space as an incursion on their personal freedom persist in the political landscape and have a powerful megaphone in some segments of the media. Panelists noted that local struggles over parking remain particularly gnarly, even as people who initially opposed certain changes come to appreciate them once implemented (Brooklyn City Council Member Brad Lander recalled how one community board in his colleague Daniel Dromm’s district in Queens, having initially resisted a pedestrian plaza, later selected that same plaza as its own site for an outdoor meeting). The imminent transition to Bill de Blasio’s mayoralty will bring the usual changes in personnel, and Sadik-Khan expects to depart; still, the measured gains since her 2007 appointment and the 2008 Sustainable Streets strategic plan, particularly those directly associated with safety improvements, imply that many if not all of her transformations deserve to be irreversible.
The Sustainable Streets: 2013 and Beyond report, freshly released to this audience, contains myriad figures fleshing out the benefits of the new philosophy: a 1,000 New Yorkers still alive who would have been killed if traffic-fatality rates had stayed at the levels seen a decade ago; $6 billion invested in capital projects across all modes; 59 new public plazas created from vehicular lanes; a 34% drop in deaths since 2005 at intersections with major engineering changes; a 73% drop in serious-injury risk among cyclists since 2000; an astonishing 98% favorable rating from riders of Fordham Road’s Select Bus Service; a tripling in Times Square retail rents since 2008 (the greatest change for any retail area tracked by REBNY/Real Estate Board of New York); over 5,700 bioswales and 200 stormwater greenstreets installed to minimize combined sewer overflows; over 2 million potholes repaired; and so on. Amid all these metrics, Sadik-Khan noted, one number stands out: 180, the total number of acres of road space transformed for safe human-scale uses. It is the equivalent of 138 U.S. football fields, or 23 fields a year. In all these realms, DOT’s analyses have supported a new sense of the Miesian principle “less is more”: as Sadik-Khan summarized, “more plazas, more walking, more biking equals fewer traffic injuries and deaths.”
As the panelists acknowledged, preservation of these gains and further progress toward safety, balance, and livability are matters of political will. Prompted by New York‘s Justin Davidson to consider imminent change or consistency in the city’s priorities, councilmembers Lander and Dromm recounted the often-rocky processes of plaza creation at various sites, and Lander noted that a clearer sense of community participation in future project planning would be a positive step in building local support. He hailed the advocacy community (particularly Transportation Alternatives, Streetsblog, and StreetsPAC) for its vital work publicizing relevant issues and helping to realign the political center of gravity, and he called attention to Mayor-elect de Blasio’s support for “Vision Zero” in street safety – a goal that will require long-overdue seriousness on the part of the Police Department in enforcing laws on automotive violence. Manhattan’s longtime councilmember and new Borough President Gail Brewer, describing herself as the Commissioner’s “body armor” in Council debates over recent years, emphasized the need for constituents to develop an ownership stake in street-space changes and the importance of data transparency in strengthening community boards’ hand, a point seconded by Dromm regarding public awareness of basic pertinent facts (in a discussion of BRT, he recalled being “new to some of these issues [and being] educated… that 66% of people in my district do not own cars”). Many citizens’ divided identity in relation to transport modes – frequently a pedestrian, other times a motorist, increasingly often a cyclist, but in many cases antagonistically unfamiliar with anything new – makes consensus formation difficult and noisy. Still, as Dromm and Brewer particularly emphasized, there has been a substantial culture shift, one that Dromm compared to the decade-old battles over tobacco. What was once a novelty is now a norm. Officials do respond to public expression, Lander observed, citing as evidence de Blasio’s shift from once opposing the Prospect Park West bike lane to earning StreetsPAC’s first-ever mayoral endorsement.
Sadik-Khan’s peroration stressed the connection between constructive changes and democratic processes – a linkage that the anti-JSK name-callers might be surprised to realize she takes so seriously. “Now, the future is in your hands,” she concluded. “It’s going to take everybody in this room…. I thank all of you for one incredible ride.”
Bill Millard is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in Oculus, Icon, The Architect’s Newspaper, and other publications.
Event: The Path Forward: Sustainable Streets 2013 and Beyond
Speakers: Janette Sadik-Khan, Commissioner, NYC Department of Transportation; Justin Davidson, New York magazine (moderator); Gail Brewer, Manhattan Borough President-elect; Brad Lander, Brooklyn City Council member\; Daniel Dromm, Queens City Council member
Organizers: NYC Department of Transportation
Location: Center for Architecture, 11.21. 13