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.
So when a motorist says, ‘If you take away space it’d be congestion, it’d be chaos,’ that’s a selfish way of looking at the question?
I think we’ve proven that that’s not the case. I mean, we’ve put down 360 miles of on-street bike lanes in the last six years. We’ve put down six new [bus rapid transit] routes in the last six years. And we’ve seen traffic volumes decrease by 6.3 per cent. What you’re seeing is that people are choosing to use transportation modes that are convenient, that are fast, that are affordable.
... But you’re not going to be able to get people onto more sustainable forms of transportation if you don’t provide high-quality options. We’re not going to wish people onto buses unless they are high quality and they move quickly and they’re attractive. We’re not going to get people biking on the roads if they don’t feel safe doing so. We’re not going to get people walking unless they feel like they are being cared for and our streets are designed to accommodate them and protect them.
Imagine you’re a consultant. What would you tell Torontonians?
I make it my business not to tell other cities what to do. I do think that there are approaches that we’ve done here in New York. Looking at streets as a valuable resource that can be used [in] different ways and [for] different purposes, I think, is important and can be re-purposed to prioritize sustainable mobility. I think that’s a strong approach that could pay some big dividends.
Obviously New York is unique in North America for its density and its age. How applicable are the lessons here to less dense cities? Newer cities?
Well, I head NACTO, the National Association of City Transportation Officials. They’ve all come together with the notion that it’s time for a different approach, that the federal approach 50 years ago of designing our streets in cities as if they should accommodate an interstate network of cars ...
Sort of the Robert Moses approach ...
The Robert Moses approach. It works if you’re driving from, you know, Kansas to Oklahoma. But at this point it doesn’t work in metropolitan areas. ... NACTO is designing a new playbook for 21st-century streets to say to a traffic engineer, ‘This is how it works, here’s the standards.’ There’s a huge appetite for these different approaches – improving the safety of cities, improving the economic performance of streets, providing different options for people to get around. ...
For the first time you’ve got people moving back into cities. I think it’s a really interesting demographic change. You’ve got young families that want to stay here because they understand that it’s a more interesting environment to be in. Not spending all your time in the car, driving from point A to point B, you know, shuttling people around. And similarly, older people coming back to the city. Not having to drive, particularly as you get older, is really key. Not having to drive is a big benefit. And so, old and young, you’re seeing people converging on the city because of the inherent advantages that cities offer.
Certainly, the suburban population around Toronto is in a very tight spot as they get too old to drive. We don’t have the transit built out at this point. And ... you can’t do that in a few years.
One of the success stories in New York City over the last six years has been our Select Bus Service program, which is a version of bus rapid transit. And we’ve been able to show that with some dedication and ingenuity, a little bit of chutzpah, you can design streets to accommodate buses. Painting the lanes, using technology to enforce them better – you don’t need to have a completely dedicated median. We have bus cameras that take pictures of cars that are in the bus lane and they’re ticketed. Very effective. Keeps cars out without having to have a particular divider, which can be difficult to do in a lot of major cities. This is a very affordable way to provide very fast, almost instant, mobility to connect neighbourhoods that need those kinds of trunk lines but are not going to have a subway coming any time soon. And so, in those outer boroughs in Toronto, those outer districts and neighbourhoods, there are different ways to set up the network so that it really is as effective as it can possibly be.