Reflections on my conversation with Janette Sadik-Khan

On December 1st, I had the great honour of sitting on stage with Janette Sadik-Khan for a fireside chat about how we can reimagine and redesign our cities around people.

Janette served as the Transportation Commissioner of New York City from 2007 to 2013, as part of Mayor Bloomberg’s administration. She oversaw the addition of hundreds of kilometers of new bike lanes, hectares of public pedestrian plazas, and brought forward focused efforts to calm traffic. Janette shared with the audience her accomplishments at NYC DOT, some of the challenges and opposition she faced along the way, and explained how they overcame a century of car-centric planning in New York City. Fundamentally, Janette’s efforts have reshaped how North America thinks about transportation planning.

When we look at other cities, our inclination is to think that great city building is easy – that these masterful projects always had the support of politicians, community groups, and local businesses. As Torontonians, we tend to get a bit down on ourselves because we think everything is so difficult here. But it’s easy to take credit once the foundation is laid, the concrete is poured, and vibrant public spaces come to life. John F. Kennedy may have said it best, noting that “success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan.”

As Janette was speaking, I was struck that great city building was really hard for her, too. Her achievements required strategy and tenacity. There were failures that required she re-evaluate and readjust. There were funding gaps that necessitated new partnerships and collaborations  – all of the same kind of constraints that we struggle with here in the City of Toronto context –Janette and the NYC DOT struggled with, too. There was animosity and opposition, and inevitably not everyone was satisfied. But she also pointed out that when they demonstrated what could be done, when they quickly mobilized around action, residents clamoured for similar changes in their neighbourhoods. Not surprisingly, this is why her book is called Streetfight – because it is a fight. City building is often the battle of ideologies, and when you’re trying to change the status quo, there is always a significant demographic of the population that is fully committed to maintaining business-as-usual.

So my big takeaway is the fact that it’s not easy anywhere – there is complexity, negotiations, and learning that needs to be part of our city building process – but through experimentation and persistence, as well as using evidence and data to support city building outcomes, you can make real progress in a relatively short period of time.

While many of the projects implemented by the NYC DOT were not particularly new ideas, the speed of development and delivery was unprecedented. During Janette’s tenure, NYC DOT installed 400 new bike lanes, including 30 miles of protected bike lanes, as well as constructing the city’s first bus only-lanes. They helped launch Citi Bike, the nation’s largest bike-share program. They built 60 new pedestrian plazas across the city, famously shutting down Broadway through Times Square in 2009 to create a vast car-free space. Throughout all of these projects, they worked with local artists to create public art and improve street aesthetics, added new street furniture, bike racks, and wayfinding signage.

Changing Lanes December 1 2015 Part 1 ~ Keynote from Metcalf Foundation on Vimeo.

Changing Lanes December 1 2015 Part 2 ~ Fireside Chat from Metcalf Foundation on Vimeo.