As commissioner of New York City’s Department of Transportation, Janette-Sadik Khan ruffled feathers by pushing for pedestrian plazas, protected space for bicycles and dedicated lanes for buses. But she’s been lionized as well for these measures, and for insisting that the future of the city can’t simply mean more and more cars.
The star urbanist, born in California and educated there and in New York, was appointed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and will join the urban-affairs consulting group he has set up to advise other cities around the world after he leaves office Jan. 1.
Ms. Sadik-Khan sat down with The Globe and Mail last month for a wide-ranging interview at the DOT offices, with a view of the East River and a digital clock in the room counting down the last days of Mr. Bloomberg’s tenure. While, as a sitting commissioner she would not give any specific advice to Toronto, she spoke of the importance to “experiment” in changing the urban landscape to be more accommodating to pedestrians, bikers and public transit. New Yorkers, she said, have come to embrace and demand more pedestrian-only spaces.
We’re in an era with some high-profile and powerful U.S. transportation commissioners. Why now?
I think there is a recognition that we have to look at new approaches to accommodating growth and economic development. We need to look at our infrastructure differently – and that means designing our streets so they’re better for people to walk, they’re better for people to bike, they’re better for people to get around by transit. ... People need choices for how they get around, and not everybody has a car. And, increasingly, we are competing in a global marketplace and so companies and people can move anywhere. So I really feel very strongly that it’s an economic development strategy to design our cities so that they work better for the people who live, work and play here.
Do you have to be a bit of a bulldozer, exert force of will and then hope the people catch up?
We have an unprecedented public outreach strategy. We tailor it to meet their needs and it’s approved. Clearly there’s been a change over the last six years, that said. Up until about six years ago there wasn’t a pedestrian plaza to really point to. The only experience people had were something that was in a drawing or an engineering mock-up. But the idea now of what a pedestrian plaza’s about is very much part of the normal vocabulary of a New Yorker. And that’s changed, and people will say ‘I would like that plaza.’
So you’ve got to prove it, you’ve got to show?
You’ve got to prove it and show it. ... When people see how it works, see how much better it is for their neighbourhoods, how much better it is for the bottom line of businesses, it all comes together. That’s why we have this huge backlog of demand for pedestrian plazas ...
Explain the importance of temporary measures, getting out there, putting it in place and letting people see it.
I think it’s important to experiment. ... Changing that use of the space overnight and showing what can be done, without a lot of money, has been transformative here in the city of New York. And using paint and using temporary materials also goes a long way to reduce the anxiety associated with these projects. Because, if it doesn’t work out, if it doesn’t work out on the parking or it doesn’t work out on the particular traffic pattern, you can put it back. I think the real issue has been that people were tired of waiting decades to see changes in their cities and were embracing of actually seeing something done.
In Toronto, and in a lot of cities, there’s a strong constituency that says there’s not enough space for cars. How do you answer the criticism that there simply won’t be enough road-space for vehicles if the other modes get something approximating their share?
I don’t understand that argument because what we’re trying to provide is high-quality, affordable transportation for everyone. And it’s not only for people who drive cars. Those cities that are going to continue to be big successes in the years to come are going to be those that invest in their transit infrastructure. We’re not going to accommodate the million more people that are moving to New York City over the next 20 years by triple-decking our road network. We’re not going to have a high quality of life if that’s the approach. From a sustainability perspective, from environmental-health perspective, from a pocketbook perspective, economic development perspective, there’s no better way to design your city than using a very strong transit-oriented footprint.