A crowded Times Square plaza. Photo by Flickr user Payton Chung.
A crowded Times Square plaza. Credit: Flickr / Payton Chung

You may have never heard of Janette Sadik-Khan, but in some circles she is considered a rock star. At least, that is what Austin mayor Steve Adler called her last week during his introduction of the former New York City Transportation Commissioner at a lecture titled, “Shifting Gears: A Roadmap to Safer Streets and Smarter Cities.”

Sadik-Khan served under New York City’s then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg from 2007 to 2013, and is most known for transforming the bustling Times Square into a pedestrian plaza. Additionally, she helped add nearly 400 miles of bicycle lanes to city streets and 60 plazas across the city including Flatiron Plaza, named for the iconic triangular building at the intersection of Broadway; Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street; and the controversial Prospect Park West bike lane project, the first fully separated bicycle route of its kind in the United States. She joked about the project, referring to a Brooklyn newspaper that called it, “the most contested piece of land outside of the Gaza Strip.”

Janette Sadik-Khan
Janette Sadik-Khan

The New York City Department of Transportation oversees about 6,000 miles of roads, close to 13,000 signalized intersections, 800 bridges, and the nation’s largest ferry operation. To put those numbers in context, San Antonio maintains about 4,000 miles of roads but with six times fewer people than New York.

During her Thursday evening address, there was a broad excitement in the room about the changes that have occurred in New York during the last eight years. Yet, Sadik-Khan was clear in saying that New York’s renaissance did not happen because New Yorkers have protected bike lanes and pedestrian plazas in their DNA. “It’s pretty hard to change the status quo,” she said, “especially since we have so much infrastructure to maintain.”

Mayor Bloomberg “Shattered the Status Quo”

What I think is most astounding about the changes in New York is that Mayor Bloomberg took the political risk of challenging conventional wisdom during a reelection campaign. Because of his administration’s “political courage” to ensure that New York would be a city for people, rather than for cars, the quality of life for New Yorkers and visitors has improved dramatically.

Michael Bloomberg
Michael Bloomberg

This is not to say that Bloomberg and Sadik-Khan were unequivocally praised for their efforts to add plazas and protected bike lanes throughout the city. On the contrary, many accused them of stealing the so-called rights of drivers, pushing an anti-car agenda, and of course the perennial worry that retailers would lose business. Today, polls show that an overwhelming majority of New Yorkers support reclaiming portions of its roadways for pedestrians as well as the addition of new bike infrastructure, not to mention most retailers have reported dramatic increases in business after the improvements were added. In fact, the city’s plaza conversion program is so popular that they no longer have to seek support from the public to install them. Instead, neighborhood groups are asking the City to bring the plazas to them.

Concerning the bad press she and Mayor Bloomberg received about these programs, Sadik-Khan said, “Good projects will outlast bad headlines … you really just have to stick to your guns.”

The Proof of Success

Sadik-Khan said that municipalities often spend far more time planning than actually implementing. She learned during her tenure with the City that the best way to discover what works and what doesn’t is by doing – not planning. “The proof of success isn’t in a computer model, but in how it works in the real world,” she said.

In the Times Square example, Sadik-Khan and her staff blocked Broadway to cars to see what would happen, knowing they could always re-open the street to traffic if needed. As they stood there and realized people were hesitant to walk into the streets, they literally went to a hardware store and bought inexpensive beach chairs, spreading them throughout the street. Instantly the space was activated, and the temporary pilot project morphed into a permanent part of the Manhattan landmark.

Because of the physical transformation, Times Square has also undergone an economic transformation: it is now one of the top 10 retail destinations in the world. According to the Times Square Alliance website, more than 300,000 pedestrians pass through the “Bowtie” every day. Without that ability to challenge the status quo, Sadik-Khan noted, “we would still be talking about many of the projects that we actually have in the streets today.”

Advice for San Antonio

Despite all the media attention – both positive and negative – that the Bloomberg administration received for its efforts, the Department of Transportation’s ultimate goal was to improve safety for New Yorkers and visitors. And in this they have been tremendously successful: injuries to all users, including motorists, have decreased by 50% in some locations since the addition of protected bike lanes in New York. In fact, by 2010, traffic fatalities fell 30% in New York (the lowest death rate since it began keeping records), thanks to its targeted interventions.

Evaluating the improvements Sadik-Khan and her team made, the advice she gave to other cities is straightforward: “If you want a safer city, build more bike lanes.”

A safer city is exactly what New York City and San Antonio each hope to become as we move forward in pursuit of Vision Zero, an initiative aimed at achieving zero traffic deaths on all our roadways. Traffic fatalities are nearly three times higher per capita in San Antonio than they are in New York City. This means that we have a lot more work to do in achieving the goal of zero deaths on our roads.

“The opportunities are hidden in plain sight on your streets,” Sadik-Khan said. “Let’s make it happen. Let’s get to work.”

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Vision Zero: Making San Antonio’s Streets Safe

Chris Lazaro grew up in the Washington, D.C. area and, after a four-year career in kitchen & bath design, moved to Texas in 2008 for a volunteer opportunity through AmeriCorps*VISTA. It was during...