Catching up with Janette Sadik-Khan
Words: Lori Potter
Photo: Courtesy of Janette Sadik-Khan
Originally published in Issue #41
With a title like “Street Fight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution,” the new book by Janette Sadik-Khan is an unabashed challenge to the primacy of the automobile on our city streets.
As New York City’s transportation commissioner under Mayor Michael Bloomberg from 2007 to 2013, Sadik-Khan was the mastermind and lightning rod behind reclaiming Times Square for pedestrians, starting the city’s bike share program, Citi Bike, and repurposing 180 acres of the city’s streets for bike lanes and other non-automobile uses.
I caught up with her in March as she launched a book tour for “Street Fight,” which she wrote from her new platform as the leader of Bloomberg Associates transportation group.
LET’S START WITH WHAT YOU ARE DOING NOW— WHAT IS THE BLOOMBERG ASSOCIATES BUSINESS MODEL?
We provide expert consulting services, for free, to newly elected mayors who are hungry for change in their cities in the worlds of transportation policy, digital technology, sustainability, the cultural world and other key areas. My job is to apply the lessons we learned on the streets of New York City to other ambitious urban hubs around the world.
WHY WORK WITH NEWLY ELECTED MAYORS?
The mayors will need time to implement the new policy, so starting at the beginning of a mayoral term provides that.
WHAT CITIES ARE YOU WORKING IN CURRENTLY?
Los Angeles, Oakland, Detroit, Mexico City, Rome, Rio de Janeiro and Athens.
WHICH CITIES ARE WINNING THE URBAN STREET FIGHT?
New York and Vancouver have accomplished a lot, and London and Auckland are doing a great job. As we saw in New York, changing the streets can happen fast. In many cases, all it takes is some paint. If you watch how people are already using the streets, the ways to change them become clear quickly. A new bike lane, a pedestrian plaza on a marooned patch of concrete, add a bike sharing program and an app like StreetBikes and you have given people real new choices.
WHAT CITIES ARE PRIME CANDIDATES FOR THIS KIND OF POLICY RENOVATION?
All cities, really—there’s no place that wouldn’t benefit by making the changes necessary to give people real choices in how to get around.
CLEARLY, THEN, THERE ARE MORE PLACES THAT NEED TRANSPORTATION INNOVATION THAN YOU CAN COVER, SO HOW DO YOU WINNOW OUT THE APPLICANTS?
We meet and have conversations with the mayor. We see if there is a good match of a city’s needs with the skills we bring. We provide experience, information and advice, and the city supplies the resources.
TELL US ABOUT THE OPPOSITION YOU FACED IN NEW YORK CITY, AND HOW YOU DEALT WITH IT.
It’s not a war on cars—it’s the status quo that’s the problem. It comes down to choice, and people are looking for change in the ways they get around. Fewer young people are bothering to get a driver’s license or own cars. They want transit, cycling and car share programs. But we can’t wish people onto bikes or busses, we need to make those options more viable and safer. We implement people-focused design standards in place of car-focused design standards. That’s the work we do.
DOES YOUR WORK INCLUDE ANY SPECIAL MEASURES TO ADDRESS THE DISPARITY IN THE NUMBER OF WOMEN CYCLISTS VERSUS MEN?
The problem is that our streets were designed like the Wild West for cars. Our work involves slowing traffic down with narrower lanes, curb extensions, protected bike lanes, street seating areas and other simple design measures that can be achieved with a pail of paint and some repurposed concrete. These measures make the streets safer and better for everyone.
YOU’VE MADE IT LOOK EASY, BUT SURELY THERE HAVE BEEN SOME PERSONAL CHALLENGES ALONG THE WAY.
The title of the book isn’t “Street Fight” for nothing! Every inch of the 180 acres we reclaimed from cars in New York City was a fight. Like everyone else, I learned by doing. The lesson learned is to hang in there, stay steady, do good work. Remember that the people are ahead of the media and the politicians when it comes to making our streets safer.
WHAT ELSE WOULD YOU LIKE TO TELL BICYCLE TIMES READERS?
It is important to understand that the tragedy of traffic fatalities is avoidable. We have to continue to work together to change the status quo on the streets. This is a battle we can and must win. Cyclists have allies they can cultivate in the battle to create real choices for transportation: seniors, the religious community, small business, and the religious community, to name a few.
IF YOU COULD CLONE YOURSELF, WHAT ELSE WOULD YOU BE DOING?
I’d be doing the same job, just working in more cities around the world.