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Transforming NYC Streets: A Conversation with Janette Sadik-Khan

Since taking over as New York City's Commissioner of the Department of Transportation in mid-2007, Janette Sadik-Khan has taken on the challenge of making NYC streets more bike & pedestrian friendly while emphasizing livable streets and re-orienting them to accommodate all modes. She and her staff have done it quickly with innovative concepts, thinking outside the box and drawing on successful street designs from around the world to come up with a NYC model that is already changing the way our city feels.

In our exclusive Streetfilms interview, she talks with The Open Planning Project's Executive Director, Mark Gorton, about some of the highlights her department has achieved in a very short period of time including a physically-separated bike lane on Ninth Avenue, multiple pedestrian plazas (including Madison Square and Broadway Boulevard), new efforts to boost efficiency and speeds on some bus routes, and the city's phenomenally successful, Ciclovia-style closure "Summer Streets".

Mark Gorton: [0:01] Hi, I'm Mark Gorton. I'm delighted to be here today with Janette Sadik-Khan, who is the commissioner of the Department of Transportation in New York City. [0:09] I'll just start off with a disclaimer that I'm a big fan of your work and what's been going on at the Department of Transportation recently. A couple weeks ago, I had the chance to ride in Transportation Alternatives Century Ride all around New York City.

[0:23] And it was practically a tour of the different improvements that DOT has done. There is Broadway, I guess, you're calling it Broadway Boulevard, Madison Square, which is just a fantastic change in the street treatment. I mean, just bike lanes all over the city. I mean, just the scope and the scale of it is really amazing.

Janette Sadik-Khan: [0:42] All of these transformations that people are seeing on the streets of New York reflect the fact that for many years, we've looked at our streets as really utilitarian corridors that have been really designed to get traffic to go as fast as possible from point A to point B. We need to take a fresh look at our streets and our streetscape and how we use them. [1:04] The fact is that we're going to have a million more people in New York City by 2030. So we have to take a much different approach to our streets.

[1:13] So one of the projects that you referred to is the Madison Square project. So what we did is on 23rd Street... It used to be the longest pedestrian crossing in the city. It was the equivalent of two football fields to cross that intersection. So what we did is we reengineered the streetscape so that we've created about 45,000 square feet of space that we've turned back into really a public plaza, and it has really transformed that area.

[1:42] When you think about it, you've got all these iconic architecture all around you. So you got the Flatiron Building, which is spectacular, you can look up and see the Empire State Building. Now, you have a safe place to sit down, read the newspaper or drink a cup of coffee, catch up with a friend or catch up with your email, and enjoy the space.

[2:01] On Broadway Boulevard, where we've taken seven blocks from 42nd Street to 34th Street, and basically designed that so that we're improving the pedestrian experience and putting out tables and chairs umbrellas, all of which are being maintained by the business improvement districts.

[2:16] The businesses along the corridor are supportive because they understand all that additional foot traffic, all those people spending time enjoying these new created spaces means more business. So these are some of the projects that are starting to get into the public conscience about, wow, we can use our streets differently.

Mark: [2:36] Yeah. I mean, I had a meeting with a guy who said his office is on, I think, 40th Street in Broadway. And he said from the first morning that Broadway Boulevard was in there, all the tables and chairs were just filled all the time.
Janette: [2:48] It's amazing. I mean, this city doesn't really enough seats as it is. We put down just the orange cones. Even before we get to the epoxy or the tables or the chairs, people were out in them, just in between the cones, because that's how hungry people are for public space. [street sounds]
Mark: [3:04] See, we were talking a little bit about Madison Square before, but this is another place where you've gone and reclaimed pavement. I mean, where we're standing this was cars driving here not that long ago.
Janette: [3:14] Right. It used to be lanes and lanes of traffic. We've got the medians there again for safety, and we've got the planters there, 1, 000-pound planters which are great, also again, protecting pedestrians. It has created a great little vista in the heart of the meatpacking district.
Mark: [3:29] I know. It's amazing. I mean, look, there are just people enjoying space where they could never do that before. I mean, actual human life in the city.
Janette: [3:37] And you come here at 1:00 in the morning, and it's just as filled because New York City is a 24-hour-day city.
Mark: [3:45] I think one of the great things is it shows you enormous latent demand for just public space and sitting. So even thinking about providing seating as part of DOT's mission is a real transformation in the thinking.
Janette: [3:56] Well, exactly, and even how we approached sidewalks. Too much of the time, I think, pedestrians have been seen as sort of just guests in this space, and they're really used for other purposes. [4:08] And so really, putting a prime role for designing for people, designing for pedestrians, designing for cyclists, designing for buses, designing for better mobility, designing for more sustainable city, it's all part of the package.

[street sounds]

Janette: [4:23] Well, here we are, at beautiful Gansevoort Plaza. And again, this is just showing what it is that we can do in very short order with temporary materials. Then we've striped the outside, which is our faux sidewalk, and put up these bollards, which are really important for safety, they're very heavy. So pedestrians are protected within the space. Again, just taking blocks from old bridge reconstruction projects and put them down...
Mark: [4:50] I mean, it is amazing how easy and inexpensive it is to make a public plaza.
Janette: [4:55] Yes, absolutely, and particularly, when you're working with the bones of this kind of a neighborhood, I mean, this is the old meatpacking district, and you take a look at this beautiful Belgian block. So we're really reclaiming the Belgian block and highlighting that.
Mark: [5:11] What about traffic calming?
Janette: [5:13] Well traffic calming is one way that we're bringing, I think, transformative change to the streets here, and you can see it. I mean, this used to be kind of like a roadway racecourse here. Now, you've got trucks that are obeying the stop signs and taxis that are doing the same, and people really reclaiming the space back.
Mark: [5:31] So it really does point out just how drivers take psychic cues from the way the roads are designed.
Janette: [5:37] Exactly.
Mark: [5:37] And that if you design them...
Janette: [5:40] For people...
Mark: [5:40] ...with people in mind, they might actually obey the laws more.
Janette: [5:43] Yeah. So that's very much what we're seeing. Again, it's a bit of a tipping point. It's a cultural change. So, it takes a little while for traffic to understand that the rules of the road have changed and, in this case, that feet are driving the traffic pattern here.
Mark: [6:00] Most people don't really get what you're doing on 34th Street. So, can you describe, I guess, what you're doing there and the motivation behind it?
Janette: [6:08] What we've done is we are giving priority treatment to buses on 34th Street. We have painted a very attractive terra cotta type of lane. In fact, this looks like the lane that we've painted on 34th Street. And we've created a dedicated lane that will have soft barriers on it to demarque the lane visually, physically. [6:32] We've got the largest bus fleet in North America and the honor of the slowest bus speeds in North America. At this point in time, you can walk across 34th Street, from river to river, faster than you can take a bus. So, in terms of improving mobility and getting people to where they need to go - out of their cars and onto public transportation - we need to make that system work better.

[6:54] So since our roads are really the rails for the bus system, we're trying to reengineer our roads to better account for the mobility of buses. So, we've done that on Fordham Road, we did a similar treatment. The buses get to the green light first. They get the priority in the queue. We've got off-board fare collection so you can pay before the bus comes and then get on the bus because waiting times are about a third of the delay with buses right now.

[7:21] We've got iconic buses so that people understand that here's a different looking bus that has different priority in the system that there's enforcement to keep cars out of it. Even on 34th Street what we're doing is we're using cameras to enforce against taxis that are a lot of a problem in Midtown and to keep them out of the lane. So if they get in the lane, then they're going to get a ticket.

Mark: [7:43] We continue our walking tour of street transformation. So why don't you talk a little bit about what you've done here?
Janette: [7:51] Well this is one of our most exciting projects. What we've done is we've created a completely protected bike lane for bikers by flipping the parking lane with what's traditionally the bike lane. You can see we've got the bike lane, and then we've got a painted median, and then we've got the parking lane. So everybody's safe. [8:12] You can see we've got great plantings in the middle. So we've created a really attractive corridor. Then, on the other side of the street, we've also changed the parking regulations, the delivery regulations, so we've provided additional delivery windows for businesses.
Mark: [8:27] Is this a complete street?
Janette: [8:29] This is the epitome of a complete street. This is a safer corridor. This is a greener corridor. This makes it possible for all the users to use this street in a safe manner. This is really the ideal for what it is that we're trying to get done on the streets of New York, all 6,000 miles of streets.
Mark: [8:47] So this summer, and I guess for three weekends, you closed down Park Avenue between 72nd basically all the way to the Brooklyn Bridge. I thought it was a huge success. Everyone out there was just having a fantastic time. What was DOT's experience with Summer Streets?
Janette: [9:04] Summer Streets was a complete and unabashed home run, transformative. To see people out on the streets walking and biking and hanging out was amazing. We also programmed the streets, which I think was a nice, very important component to it. So we had fencing on the streets. We had cha-cha. We had samba classes. We rolled out tennis courts. [9:27] I never knew that there was a big statue of Cornelius Vanderbilt, the founder of the New York Central Railroad, at the 42nd Street viaduct. I've never seen it before. You looked up and you saw these incredible, iconic buildings. Just to see that, to stop and not worry about getting hit by somebody or something was really, I think, incredible. And kids, in particular, were just going crazy running around.

[9:54] So that's, I think, the experience people had and that we had and we got a lot of coverage around the world. I think it's a great way for cities to experiment.

Mark: [10:04] It's great to see New York in this leadership position now. It's where the city should be, innovating, showing other places how it can be done. It's really satisfying to see other cities starting to do the same stuff we've been doing here. And you get enormous credit for that.
Janette: [10:19] Well, and Mayor Bloomberg who's really set the table nicely in terms of we're going to change the way that we do business in this city and we understand the imperative of sustainability. So, as far as my 30 second commercial goes: [10:29] We've put this strategy together and this very attractive strategic plan called "Sustainable Streets" and it has all of these different themes. Not only does it go through the vision of what we're trying to accomplish and the policies that underpin that vision and the projects, but then also goes through a series of benchmarks so that the public can hold us accountable. So it's a really great roadmap and really translates Mayor Bloomberg's PlaNYC in the transportation context.


Clarence Eckerson, Jr. has been making fantastical transportation media in NYC since the late 1990s. He's never had a driver's license and never will.

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  • http://www.myspace.com/mrcolombia Diego Garces

    I was in NYC last week around Broadway by the Juan Valdez and i must say the feeling of having your like own space to sit in like the middle of the street was truly a great experience. I felt included, protected and i spent more time sitting there because i was not bother by the traffic or cars. It was really nice to see the bicyclist really take advantage as well. Hopefully Summer Streets starts in May and ends in September!! EVERY SUNDAY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • TransitGuy

    Wow. Just to say it in case it gets lost in the shuffle- NYC DOT is simply an amazing agency. Lots of us out here in the rest of America would carve out our spleens to get to work with people this progressive.

    I know that having a group like Transportation Alternatives and the Streetsblog/Streetfilms empire is an important part of the recipe for success.

    Anyway, don't let up, but understand how much you are truly pushing the envelope in NYC. Pat yourselves on the back.

  • Sober Biker

    From the middle of the country where I am just hoping my state will vote Obama this year all I can say is "Wow!" Oh, TransitGuy already said that.

  • Dan

    Great video to summarize a lot of the progressive changes to the NYC streets. What's great is know that there is plenty of other projects already that weren't shown and even more planned.

    Other cities certainly are looking to NYC!

  • http://www.livablestreets.com/people/grenavitar Fritz

    What NYC DOC is doing is great and that they are overcoming some of the resistance is great too. But, there is still lots more work to do.

    I am living in Bordeaux now which from 1950s onwards dismantled its tram systems and made itself car centric--that was until 2003 when the mayor (Alain Juppé) inaugurated the tram which now has just shy of 100 stops with new stops being opened each year (and four more just this week!). The riverfront transformed from a large road to a large quay with shops and tons of open space with a one lane road in each direction, a separated bike path and a tram in each direction. The riverfront is now a major artery for bike traffic and is safe and beautiful. Every day you see thousands of people walking all along it. Bordeaux has problems, many of its separated bike lanes suddenly ending forcing you into the streets. This is especially true where the tram line takes the space forcing bikers onto the rails. But it is an amazing success story overall, despite its need for improvement. The biggest thing is the culture. A great many of the streets are multi-use and cars are used to riding with bikes and don't try to pass them so when you are riding together on the same street there is less to fear.

    I mention this because while NYC has progress it is barely the tip of the iceberg. There are very limited separated bike paths. No tram... the BRT is a start but it needs enforcement as we have seen from the pictures. So, while the progress is great we need to keep the pressure on so I can see a city at least as bike and transit friendly as Bordeaux when I come back.

  • momos

    It's incredible what JSK has accomplished in such a short time. NYC is so vast, with such inertia. This compilation of what's been done really puts things in perspective. Go JSK!!

  • Darlene

    I've heard Mrs. Sadik Khan speak twice at Railvolution. She is wonderful!

  • Lars

    Greatness!

  • http://www.parisar.org,www.pttf.net Sujit Patwardhan

    Janette Sadik-Khan and her achievement as New York city's Commissioner of Transportation is truly inspiring even for non New Yorkers.

    We wish her and her team even greater success in the years to come and feel sure what is happening to New York will encourage other cities to recognize sooner than later that is the quality of street life and not the massive highways and flyovers built for cars that gives personality to a city.

    Jane Jacobs' spirit lives on.

  • http://www.livablestreets.com/people/dupuy Alex Dupuy

    I too have been amazed by what JSK and the new DOT have been able to accomplish so quickly - it goes far beyond anything I could have dreamed. I just worry about the inevitable(?) backlash. Even in Chelsea, where the amazing 9th Avenue bike track that is featured in this video was installed, there are lots of people (many of whom probably don't even own cars) who are against it.

    While I wouldn't categorize the reactions expressed on this local board: http://chelsea.clickyourblock.com/bb/showthread.php?t=1293 as typical or anything like representative, I worry sometimes that the forward-looking people at the DOT may be outstripping the grass roots in their attempts to move change so quickly.

    While there hasn't been pressure to remove the lanes, coverage in (otherwise fairly progressive) local papers tends to focus on the perceived downsides (e.g. http://chelseanow.com/cn_56/ninthave.html) and Community Board 4's vote against the conversion of the 8th Avenue buffered bike lane to a configuration like that on 9th Avenue was disheartening. Apparently the project is going ahead anyhow, which is probably a good thing - I suspect that once it is in place the advantages will become more obvious, but again I worry about the wisdom of pushing these changes so quickly.

  • Paola

    Well, gosh and golly gee, it's awfully sweet we have so many bike lanes in New York. Too bad they're largely useless since Mayor Bloomberg doesn't have the balls to tell the police chief that NYPD needs to make ticketing double parkers a priority, and oh, yeah, maybe the cops could refrain from parking in the bike lanes when they go to get their donuts, or beat up Obama supporters or whatever. All you JSK sycophants at Open Planning Project need to wake up and do a little piece on the relationship between DOT and NYPD, and how NYPD is undermining improvements to bike infrastructure and also efforts to improve bus service.

  • let the sunshine in

    Gee golly gosh. I thought the streets of NYC were sugarcoated and JSK was our Sugarplum Fairy Queen. Damn, Paola...have you ever seen other Streetfilms or read Streetsblog? A positive piece such as this one doesn't mean the people behind it or those who watch it don't know the there is still much room for improvement. Streetsblog often has posts about the very issues you mentioned regarding NYPD enforcement and violations.

  • http://rearviewrider.wordpress.com Ingrid Peterson

    Just getting to this video from Damien's tip from LA Streetsblog.

    WOW. This is an inspirational view of street transformation indeed!

    Could we please have someone as awesome as Janette Sadik-Khan working at LADOT?
    Los Angeles needs to experiment like this.

    Thanks again for this wonderful piece!

  • Chris H

    This is great work and long overdue - but I get a little jaded when I hear expressions like "showing leadership for other cities" etc...

    In reality, this is more of a "catch-up" phase for NYC on contemporary design and sustainable transport practice. There are many other cities around the world already at another level in terms of performance and measurable outcomes on transport sustainability, and those are the places that are showing the leadership for NYC to be willing to try "new" ideas (that are actually many decades old).

    Good luck though.

    Chris Hale
    UQ - Centre for Transport Strategy
    c.hale2@uq.edu.au

  • Scott

    Right on, Paola. JSK's improvements and ideas are wonderful but chronically undermined by lack of/inconsistent enforcement. The examples are too many to list here... The bike lane on Park Row coming off the Brooklyn Bridge is basically used as a parking lot for vehicles with City plates... NYC bicyclists can't seem to figure out that bike lanes are one way... Pedestrians need to stay out of bike lanes and cyclists need to stay off of sidewalks... Imagine how great our transportation system could be if NYPD actually enforced the new rules put in place by NYCDOT. The one example in the video of keeping the bus lane on 34th st. clear is an exception.

  • Don

    Great plans. Nice gams!

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  • http://makesmesick!yeahisaidit... paddy ford

    trying to turn ny into europe.people don't mind some changes but the arrogance and total disrespect you have for real native new yorkers trying to work and drive in the city is disgusting !! keep catering to the rich ! you and your boss make me sick ... oh, by the way, i'm not alone on this.. as much money as bloomberg has,it must kill him when he's alone to realize he'll never be a real new yorker,the 2 of you deserve eachother..not worthy of caps.have a nice day !! go back 2 boston you're creeps ..ed koch was the man ....n native.

  • http://gianniwise.wordpress.com Gianni Wise

    Paddy not sure if I follow your argument there. I don't think owning a bike or walking or jumping on a bus requires wealth. Sure often centres of cities as they become more popular make owning and renting less affordable but I don't think but giving back a city to people is the real problem here. NY has had (from what I've been told) huge gridlocks of highly polluting traffic - and this initiative can only be an effective solution. 
    Well done. This process has begun starting in Sydney (Australia) which is exciting for us. 

  • Mark Leach

    Ha! Trying to turn NYC into Europe! Tell me where in Europe has managed to do this? You guys are leading the way - I only hope we in Europe have the common sense to follow.

  • Brenden

    God bless this woman. We need more people like her.

  • WE NEED YOU!

    Can you come to Minneapolis?  Please?

  • Bruce Swanson

    Undoing Moses one step at a time. Jane won.

  • Blueskies0002

    This is wonderful ! We need more people in government , who think "out of the box ", like Ms. Sadik-Khan . Congrats , and hope that other big cities follow the NYC example.

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