The expectations for what people wanted out of their streets had basically been reduced to: moving cars... It really pitted a kind of Robert Moses approach against a Jane Jacobs approach. In the 21st century, we can get beyond that very polarizing dynamic and look at a way to invest in our infrastructure that is not just about megaprojects.
— Janette Sadik-Khan

Janette Sadik-Khan discusses her experience as Commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation, focusing on bottom-up action through smaller projects like plazas and bike access, instead of megaprojects that cost millions. She also discusses how you actually get things done in a city full of 8.5 million people, and the importance of data in persuading people to support new initiatives.

Ms. Sadik-Khan's new book is Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution and it's well worth a read.

Listen to the Podcast


+ Podcast Transcript

Chuck Marohn: Hi, everybody. This is Chuck Marohn. Welcome back to the Strong Towns Podcast. We are at CNU24 [Congress for a New Urbanism] here in the Detroit Opera House lobby. I have [with me the person] who I think is perhaps the star of this congress, or the person that more people are showing up to see than anyone else. I've got Janette Sadik‑Khan, the former Transportation Commissioner from New York City. Welcome to the podcast.

Janette Sadik‑Khan: Oh, well, it's great to be here. It just shows that everybody likes a street fight.

Chuck: They do. They do like a street fight. Your new book is “Street Fight.” I read it. I loved it. It is very readable, very approachable. I want to start with the very first sentence, and I want to ask you why you wanted to be the traffic commissioner of New York City.

Janette: As you know from that first sentence, I didn't want to be the traffic commissioner of New York City. I wanted to be the transportation commissioner for New York City. When I went to interview with Mayor Bloomberg, we were sitting around the table, as interviews always go, and that was one of the first questions he asked me. When I said I wanted to be transportation commissioner, not traffic commissioner, there was complete silence all around.

Chuck: I lost this job. [laughter]

Janette: Exactly. Like, “I got to meet the mayor. It wasn't a total loss.” I kept going and talking about what I wanted to do in terms of making the streets safer and making it more inviting for people on foot, on bike, and by bus. I talked about things like congestion pricing, which were not exactly conventional at the time. They weren’t that excited at the interview, which is why I thought I was never going to get the job. Actually, those ideas had been contained in the PlaNYC initiative that the mayor was on the cusp of unveiling. He didn’t want to spoil that announcement, so he didn’t evidence any enthusiasm. Fortunately, the story turns out well.

Chuck: You were the right person for the job.

Janette: It was really good timing. The mayor's vision for where the city needed to go and how we were going to accommodate the million more people that were expected to move to New York City by 2030 really had profound implications for all aspects of government but, particularly, how we used and organized our streets.

Chuck: You talk in that opening chapter about these dueling mindsets that sometimes paralyze our action. The one mindset being the megaproject. The other mindset being the rational, yet difficult to deal with, resistance of residents to almost anything. Those being two very polar opposite forces that make it hard to do stuff. Can you talk a little about how that as the starting point becomes the challenge for someone like you walking into a job like this?

Janette: Absolutely. There's a reason why our streets were in a kind of suspended animation for 50 years. The expectations for what people wanted out of their streets, could have on their streets, had basically reduced to moving cars and big infrastructure investments. It really, in a way, pitted a kind of Robert Moses approach against a Jane Jacobs approach. In the 21st century, we can get beyond that very polarizing dynamic and look at a way to invest in our infrastructure that’s not just about megaprojects. It doesn't need to take billions of dollars to get things done. There's potential hidden right now in our streets if we look at them a little differently. It doesn't take billions. It doesn't take decades. Moving beyond the Robert Moses megaproject, but also moving beyond the Jane Jacobs not‑in‑my‑backyard‑we‑can't‑do‑anything‑different‑with‑our‑streets resistance.

Chuck: Resistance to that.

Janette: Resistance to basically anything. That’s also been the problem in the sense that we didn’t create an agenda that communities could say yes to. That was a very big part of the program, was moving quickly, creating an agenda that people could say yes to, and moving with projects that people could see, touch, and feel. Then raise the expectations that they have for their streets. Suddenly, when we put out these very quick plaza programs, and bike programs, people could say, “Oh, I see what you're talking about. I want that in my backyard. I want that in my backyard.” That really dramatically changed the relationship that we had with communities.

Chuck: How difficult is it? Sometimes when people think of New York government, they think of this, “We got Mitch Silver sitting over here, the head of a massive bureaucracy in New York. Thousands of people, how do you get anything done? How do you get something done in a huge system?” I see people in much smaller bureaucracies who say, “Boy, we just can't get any traction.” You had a much larger system, not only of people working for you, but also businesses, and residences, and all the things that everybody has to deal with. You had it on mega scale. How does the approach that you champion in this book help you deal with those dynamics? Janette: We do have a city of 8.5 million people, 8.5 million very opinionated New Yorkers.

Chuck: [laughs] New Yorker have opinions, I see. This is new to me.

Janette: It did feel like, at different times, that there were 8.5 million traffic engineers because people had very strong opinions about their streets, which is wonderful. We had 4,500 people at the New York City Department of Transportation. One of the very first things that we did was create a strategic plan, outlining where the agency was going to go to deliver on the vision that Mayor Bloomberg outlined in PlaNYC. That long-range sustainability program had big implications for our streets. Looking at how we were going to move the big shift of a city agency in a new direction meant that we really needed to get everybody on board. All of those employees participated in the creation of this plan which outlined how we could build better bus options for people, better biking options for people, better pedestrian plaza, safer streets. We have the safest streets in a hundred years after Mike Bloomberg's administration. Again, setting the vision, and then actually using the data to follow up and look at what the impact of these projects were. We really went from streets that were governed by anecdote, like, “Oh, I like this. I don't like this.” You could go to a cab driver and say, “What do you think of this?” They’d be grrrrrrr [growls]. Not saying very complimentary things. And then we had the analysis. That actually went a long way to turn small business owners, who were some of our biggest opponents into some of our biggest supporters. That whole vision, collecting the data, and moving quickly to show what can be done, was key. You take a look at an agency, like Mitch Silvers at the New York City Parks Department. What he's done in a very short period of time with the Parks without Borders. Literally tearing down the walls, the fences of these parks showing how quickly you can move to integrate public spaces into the fabric of New York City is very inspiring to see. What municipal leaders, like Mitch, and what leaders across the country are now doing with this new operating code. Almost a new DNA for cities.

Chuck: You have a whole chapter about reading the street. When I went through that chapter, I thought, "This feels very much like early CNU." The Congress was a lot about going out. What's the width of the sidewalk that actually helps people get down it? Can you talk just a little bit about that approach, the need to go out and measure things? Why doing that can illuminate something different -- [more] than just the code book that we’re used to using?

Janette: It's interesting because people really don'’ t realize how much asphalt there is to play with. There’s literally cities trapped between the lanes. When you redo the math, we don't need 12-foot lanes. You can get away with 10-foot lanes. In some instances, nine foot lanes. When you re‑purpose all that asphalt, you can build in new mobility, like bus rapid transit lines, a cycling network, safer sidewalks, safer streets. Doing the math of the street is really important. Actually, friends of mine have said that it’s almost ruined their marriage because people read the book. They're like, “Oh, look at this. We could do this at this intersection and this at this intersection.”

Chuck: That sounds like my wife. “Will you stop talking about it?” “It doesn't take a new subway line. You don't have to have a new stadium. There are all sorts of opportunities that are hidden right in plain sight.”

Janette: Exactly. These very boring dinner partners. Really, this is all I want to do. People have not looked at, “It doesn't take a new subway line. You don't have to have a new stadium. There are all sorts of opportunities that are hidden right in plain sight.”

Chuck: If we contrast the Robert Moses Age and the mindset of, “We've got to build.” To be a successful commissioner, you have to have, under your tenure . . . we opened a new rail line somewhere [or] we did this big, huge multi‑million dollar project. Are we just in an era of America’s evolution where the big changes are going to be at the block level and require a different mindset going in?

Janette: Transit is the future of this country. We need to invest in rapid transit wherever we can. It is certainly what makes New York City strong. You can imagine what the city would be like without a rapid transit system. I believe strongly in that kind of infrastructure investment. We're in an era also of constrained resources. We shouldn’t wait around for the money that we need at the federal government, at the state government in order to make some changes that we can do right here, right now. This story is not just about a big city story. The book goes through the constant interventions that cities of any kind of size can use. When you think about New York City -- Staten Island not so different from Detroit, Michigan. You have to look opportunistically. You have to also tailor the strategies to meet the local needs. Detroit, here, under Mayor Duggan is really investing in transit, not only the downtown area but looking at, “How can we create a more mobile society, 20‑minute neighborhood? How do we create fast traffic transit lines on that radial network to make it work better here?” There are lots of different kinds of lessons. The major infrastructure investments can be managed [are] some of the smaller interventions and really unlock the potential of cities. Half the world lives in cities today and 80 percent are expected to be there by 2050. The kinds of interventions we make now are incredibly important for the future of the planet.

Chuck: You have a chapter called “Follow the Footsteps” and I love it. It was probably my favorite chapter. When engineers come in, we have codebooks and manuals. They seem to have been written in stone back in Moses’ time.

Janette: They were. [laughs]

Chuck: They were, right, and [then] handed, bequeathed to us. We are not to question them. There is obviously a lot of stuff that comes with this. How much are you calling on people to be humble to go out and actually follow the footsteps? Can you talk us a little bit about what you mean by “Follow the Footsteps?” Why that's an important design tool that maybe is not in the toolbox of most engineers?

Janette: It's funny. It was a very important part of what we did. You can actually see the future of your city by looking at the trampled grass and where people are crossing. Those are all signs of where people have fallen through the cracks. We actually did that in all across the city, and [we] literally looked where the problem areas were and then followed the people, then [we] re‑did our street designs to accommodate where they wanted to go. We did that in places like between 51st and 59th Street, between 6th and 7th Avenue where people would cross mid‑block instead of walking all the way to the intersection. We created six‑and‑half Avenue and nine blocks of this interconnected alleyway, which was great. We did this in Staten Island on bus‑stops, we did it in Bronx and Queens, and [we] literally just followed the people. You can see the outline of the city you need to build in looking at the trampled grass and at the crossings that are right there today. Part of it is also looking at where the problems are. We did the largest traffic study in the United States, 7000 crashes, looked at where the problems were. That became our Rosetta Stone for investment, and so the who, the what, the why, the when, the where of these traffic crashes really guided all of our infrastructure improvement projects. Again, that was following the footsteps, following the problem and then fixing what had been huge issue that have been... Chuck: Can you tell the story of Times Square? It is one that I know others know but it would be good for our listeners to hear from you ‑‑ the brief story of Times Square.

Janette: A lot of people have been to Times Square.

Chuck: Iconic place.

Janette: Iconic place across throughout the world. It was really more known as a Big Traffic Jam. It was very, very crowded. In Times Square, we had 350,000 people that walked through Times Square every day, they were 90 percent of the traffic but they only had 10 percent of the space. What would happen is people would jump into the street to try to get around the people that were actually walking. Four people abreast and looking up at the wonderful things, the billboards in Times Square. The New Yorkers who were so crazy, wanted to get by [them] really quickly. [Locals] would go insane when we would see people walking like this [gazing up]. We would go into the streets. It was very dangerous. Times Square was under‑performing economically as a retail [center] . . .

Chuck: Which is crazy to think of.

Janette: Right. There it really was this tangle of traffic. When you think about it, Manhattan is on a grid, North‑South‑ East‑West, and Broadway is the only street that cuts diagonally through that grid. It does great things. It creates these different pauses but it also creates these hotspots of congestion. People have tried for years to fix it, slip lanes, signal changes, all the lights.

Chuck: All the traffic tracks.

Janette: All the conventional tracks. I went to Mayor Bloomberg with this idea, “How about if we close Broadway from 42nd [laughs] to 47th Street.”

Chuck: [laughs] Are you insane?

Janette: [laughs] That was pretty much his reaction, particularly since I was suggesting that we do this in an election year when he was up for re‑election. We would restore the grid by doing it that way, because Broadway then would be restored with North‑South, East‑West. We would do it as pilot program. I said, “We will test it. We’ll see if it works. We’ll measure it. If it works, we keep it. If it doesn't work, we’ll put it back the way it was.” It’s a really strong message for other cities, to try it. You can’t argue that your streets are perfect so you can’t try anything. Again trying, measuring, experimenting, that was really a big part of also Mike Bloomberg's DNA. He is all about trying. He is sort of innovation as usual instead of business as usual. We went around the table, the same table where I interviewed the first time for the job, went around and asked all the Deputy Mayors what they think about this idea. Let's just say, not everybody thought that was such a great idea at that time. [laughter]

Janette: He turned to me and he said, “I don't ask my commissioners to do the right thing according to the political calendar. I ask my commissioners to do the right thing, period.” He shook my hand just like this and he said, “Let's do it.”

Chuck: Let's do it.

Janette: We did it. We did it over a Memorial Day. We closed it and put up all the barrels, two and half acres of new public space, and we measured it over six months. I will never forget the night before. When we put the barrels up, we suddenly looked out. There was this expanse of asphalt. We realized we didn’t have anything nearby. What are we going to do? That’s terrible. We went to a discount hardware store and bought beach chairs... Chuck: You put some chairs on the side of the front. That's awesome.

Janette: $10.99 beach chairs...

Chuck: Incredible.

Janette: Yeah, and we put those beach chairs out...

Chuck: This is New York City and here's beach...

Janette: And here's the beach chair. Beach chairs were king. We put them out, and that next morning, everybody was out on the beach chairs. The media was all about the beach chairs. They didn't talk about the fact that we closed Time Square to cars, they talked about the beach chairs, “Did you like the beach chairs? The color of the beach chairs?” In your hometown, when you are looking on those big projects, you just got to go buy some beach chairs, throw them all out, that will be the story that people cover. It was a huge home run, much better for safety, motorist injuries down 63 percent, pedestrian injuries down 35 percent. Economic blockbuster, became one of the top ten retail locations on the planet, and traffic moved better than it even did before.

Chuck: Isn't that crazy?

Janette: We did that because we measured. We had GPS devices in all 13,000 yellow cabs. We collected 1.1 million records, and we were able to show actually that we can make this grid work better, and you can organize your streets better. It just really underscores that it's not a zero‑sum game between people, and buses, and bike lanes, and cars. It's just about better balancing your streets. They can be used for more than just moving cars.

Chuck: I want to challenge you a little bit...

Janette: Oh, good.

Chuck: . . . because it's a beautiful story, I'm in love with it. But I know that there are people who are listening, who are going to say, “OK, this is New York City, it’s like, one of the most unique places in North America. My city is not New York.” In fact, I can tell you I’ve been to places and I’ve talked about Times Square as something . . . as an inspiration point for people, and they’ll say, “Yeah, but we're not New York.” What would you say to people around the country in much smaller cities who say, “OK, these are great lessons for New York, but how is this a lesson for me? How does this translate to my town?”

Janette: First of all, I love the idea that people say, “We're not New York.” Because when I was commissioner, people would say to me, New Yorkers, “Well, we're not Amsterdam. We're not Copenhagen, so we can't do these kinds of changes,” and now it’s like, “We’re not New York,” which I think is a success.

Chuck: It’s awesome. You’re the yardstick by which we are measuring now.

Janette: Right. That’s changed, but the piece that is really interesting is that you’ve got cities all over the country that are looking at the Times Square model, not as Times Square ‑‑ we don't have 350,000 people, we're now 450,000 going through Times Square ‑‑ we're much smaller. The idea though is experimenting and trying things, and really, you can paint the city you want to see and see how it works. I was in Ottawa recently and they're looking at taking the cars out of ByWard market. Not a Times Square, but a Times Square-like treatment. Again, inviting people back to their streets, creating better streets, is much better for business. When we did the Times Square piece, we saw that retail sales soared. That also happened with our bus rapid transit lines. That also happened with our protected bike lanes, where we saw retail sales go up 50 percent. The essence of it is that cars don’t shop, people do The essence of it is that cars don’t shop, people do, so how do we create an invitation to bring people back to their streets. It doesn’t matter what size your city is. Doesn't matter the shape. New York City is a very big city, it’s not all about midtown Manhattan. We have communities not unlike yours, not unlike communities all across the country. Take a look at Staten Island, take a look at outer Queens, Brooklyn. Very different communities of all different sizes. Again, you can take these lessons, these innovations. Try it, experiment. If you see something that works in another city that you think might work on your streets, try it. It doesn’t have to take a lot of money. All of the projects that we did, all of the plaza and bike projects that we did in New York City, [all cost] less than one half of one percent of our capital budget. You can literally just change your streets with paints, and planters, and stones from old projects. That’s the important piece...

Chuck: This is something everyone can do?

Janette: Everyone can do, and we started with the street that we had and the budget that we had. There wasn’t an extraordinarily new slush fund of money that we brought to do this, and that’s, I think, the lesson for so many different cities now. Take those traditional materials, use them in different ways and experiment. And what we found at the end of the Bloomberg administration is that these changes were really popular. 73 percent support for bike share, 72 percent support for plazas, 64 percent support for bike lanes...

Chuck: Which is crazy because it was literally a street fight...

Janette: It literally was. Now we actually have a new status quo on the streets of New York, and now people’s expectations have changed. We have community after community demanding these kinds of changes.

Chuck: I love watching Broadway expand, right? The people are so far ahead of the press and the politicians when it comes to what they want to see on their streets.

Janette: Yeah. The next administration is building on those changes. The bike share system is expanding, bike plans are expanding, the plazas are expanding. Part of it is that these programs are so popular. The people are so far ahead of the press and the politicians when it comes to what they want to see on their streets.

Chuck: Yeah. I have one more question for you, but we've got quite a crowd that has gathered here now. If there’s one or two respectful questions ‑‑ she's tough, she can handle whatever, but I’m not. I’m a Minnesotan, and I demand that everybody be nice and respectful. If there’s one or two respectful questions, you can come back up here and I'll give you a chance to answer those. [First] I’ve got one more question for you. There are a lot of people who see you now as a hero, in a sense. I'm sure you don't, maybe, appreciate that, there’s a lot of people who are working in their jobs as a planner, as an engineer, as a government official serving the public, wanting to make change and they're looking at the success that you had saying, “How do I do this? It seems so overwhelming to me. Where do I start?” I know part of it is that you had great leadership that had your back, but beyond that -- maybe there isn’t a beyond that, but I'm going to ask you -- if there is a “beyond that,” what would be your advice to the person working in Omaha, who reads your book and is inspired, or the person in Tallahassee who wants to do this. How would you tell that person to get started?

Janette: Having a strategy for what you're trying to accomplish is really key, so that you’re not just doing these kinds one‑off projects that don't relate to a larger vision of where you’re trying to go. That's really important. The other thing is to experiment and to try things. One of the things that we found is that people . . . we've spent decades going through planning studies that take forever and computer models that people can't really relate to. To be able to show the change in real time, on your streets, is really important. Changing the use of that street is key. Again, the experimentation is a very important part of it. The thing that’s great about these kinds of strategies is [that], for most cities, a capital construction program takes five years, start to finish. That’s beyond a mayoral term, but we are seeing the innovation that’s flowering on the streets of this county at the mayoral level.

Chuck: Mayors are pushing the agenda.

Janette: Mayors are pushing the agenda, and so, when you can come up with projects that can happen within the four‑year‑term of a mayor, that is very sexy. Working on showing the city what you want to see, literally, outlining the city that you want to see. Doing it quickly doesn’t cost a lot of money, and you can reduce the anxiety of change by saying that you’re going to measure it and see if it works, look at the impact, and if it works you keep it, if not you put it back. It’s a really great approach.

Chuck: Low stakes. Lower the stakes for people.

Janette: Lower the stakes. The guidelines have actually changed for cities. We saw a lot of leaders not wanting to try some of those things because they weren’t authorized in the MUTCD, the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, or the AASHTO [American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials] “Green Book.” Now the National Association of City Transportation Officials has created the new urban street design guide, which actually outlines what you can do on your street. It’s been endorsed by the US Department of Transportation, so planners and leaders no longer need to worry about liability concerns, or that they won't get federal funding by following the new operating code that you're seeing so many cities adopt.

Chuck: Right. [To the audience:] Did any of you have questions? Go ahead, step up here. I’m assuming you don't mind. Go ahead.

Audience member: Hi, Janette. Thank you for all the work you've done and sharing that with us in your book. I’m from Cincinnati, Ohio. We’re not Manhattan, and we have a mayor who is not leading a progressive agenda in any kind of way in transportation. He would like to continue re‑engineering the city in the mold of the suburbs. We have a DOT that is not really responsive when we come to them and say, “We'd like to turn the street into a two way street. We’d like to put this street on a road diet.” What would you say is a good way to engage those people who might be resistant and bring them around, and try and help change their minds? Can we bring them information, is that the best way? Is it to show them examples that work? What can we do to help that?

Janette: That's a really great question.

Chuck: It is a good question.

Janette: The Street Fight is not just about ‑‑ here's what you do if you’re in midtown Manhattan, it’s really about what cities of all sizes can do to make their streets better. A large part of the success in New York also happened thanks to the work of the advocacy groups in the city -- a lot of people who come together for a very long time, that were passionate about their streets and wanted to see them work differently, so I think working with advocates is a really important way to push this new agenda. The other piece is, I do think, it’s a really good point about bringing people to the city to see what the possibilities are that you’ve got right there, and the National Association of City Transportation Officials, NACTO, has affiliate membership. Working with the NACTO team to do a charette in Cincinnati and actually highlight some of the potentials that are [there], and play around with that, do a visualization about, “Here's where it is, here’s what it could be,” really can build excitement around the business community. Local stakeholders then can help push that envelope at the municipal level.

Chuck: Go ahead, come on up, step up here. One more question, if you don't mind.

Audience member: Hi, there. Peter from Vancouver, British Colombia.

Janette: Great city, Peter.

Audience member: Vancouver has taken a very aggressive and, in my mind, exciting approach to bike lanes. They're just putting them in. They’re meeting with some resistance at that stage, but the resistance is slowly evolving. Do you see Vancouver as having done a pretty dynamic and pretty sudden hit? Is that an unusual pace of bike lane construction from what you’ve seen?

Janette: It's a terrific implementation plan that they are moving forward with. People in Vancouver, the leadership understands that they need to build a more mobility options, and that a good city starts with building good bike lanes, and so you're seeing that all over the city. Building more on the transit side is going to be challenge for Vancouver, and we saw what just happened on that ballot referendum, but I think that you're seeing... Vancouver is almost the green dragon of sustainability, and it’s really exciting to see it continue to lead the way in Canada, and also globally, about what the investment strategy is to ensure that Vancouver continues to grow and thrive in the decades to come.

Chuck: I've got to say, I had some chills when I imagined Mayor Michael Bloomberg whispering in your ear, "Don’t eff it up.” [laughter] Talk just a little bit about that as a final thought, because you didn’t eff it up. You did a great job.

Janette: No, no, but it was so funny, because you’re very excited, it’s the press conference, you’re being announced, you’ve got that press...

Chuck: You feel like this exalted time, like, “Hey, affirmation for me.”

Janette: [So] I'm there. You know when I outline [in the book], I spoke at the press conference, I thought I did a good job, we’re all excited about it. Then I stepped down from the podium in this blue room, this ornate -- almost like the Detroit Opera House -- beautiful room, and the mayor turns to me, and he whispers and he says, “Don't [eff] it up.”

Chuck: Right. [laughs]

Janette: I thought, “Oh, my God! Don’t [eff] it up?” I was very embarrassed and I didn’t talk to anybody about it. B ut then I found out, about six months later, when I actually confessed to somebody that he said, “Don't [eff] it up” to me, that actually, he said that to everyone. He said that to all the commissioners, which made me feel a little bit better, but I think he was certainly critical to the success that we saw in New York City. That kind of leadership and vision ‑ it's wonderful to see, particularly at a time where you’re not seeing that a lot at the federal and state level. I think mayors and cities are really the future of the planet.

Chuck: Thank you. Janette Sadik‑Khan. The book is Street Fight. A round of applause, please. [applause]

Chuck: We all are so happy that you are here at CNU. Thanks for being on the podcast

Janette: Thank you.