It was probably last year when I got from my mum a set of four books about modern approaches to urban design. I read them slowly because the subject matter is a serious one. It touches us every day. Since most of us live in cities, the design mistakes haunt us, making our life difficult and often dangerous. But then books like Happy City and Streetfight try to show us that not only change is possible, but it is also within reach.
Janette Sadik-Khan was a commissioner of the NYC Department of Transportation from 2007 to 2013. During her career she often asked herself a single question, that was the defining force behind the transformation of the New York streets: Who are the streets for? We rarely consciously ask ourselves this question. It is generally assumed streets are for cars. We build them wider and wider to prevent traffic jams. We do everything possible to keep pedestrians off of them, supposedly for their own safety. The role of the street is to facilitate fast and problem-free transfer for cars. And that most certainly is the role of a highway. But what about the street in the city?
Drawing from the work of Jane Jacobs, Sadik-Khan proposes that the city streets are for people. What a revolutionary thought! By that she doesn’t mean to banish the cars, drivers are people too. But “people” extends the right to use the street on equal footing also to pedestrians and cyclists. According to Jane Jacobs, street life is precisely what makes city a city. All the relations and encounters the street enables or thwarts make the city worth living in.
Sadik-Khan took that idea and started looking at New York. The city was suffocating with cars, public transport had gaps that forced people to use their cars. Crossing the street and cycling qualified as extreme sports. All that meant people generally didn’t want to spend their time on the streets, perceiving them as roaring canyons of danger and desperation.
With her team, they started to think about how to change it. Because she firmly believed New York could be a better place to live and the streets were vital to make it happen. Before she started in DOT Sadik-Khan had years of experience in the field of transportation. She also had the trust and support of Michael Bloomberg, but she could not rely solely on that, he was adamant every single change has to be measurable. Data will prove whether the decisions were right or wrong. If data was not available upfront then he’d allow a one-year experiment, if a measurable improvement did not materialize, it would be scrapped. This approach fostered the discipline required for systemic change.
But you can have the best intentions, all the data in the world in your favor, and you will still meet resistance. As Sadik-Khan mentions many times in the book: if you threaten the status quo, the status quo fights back. Hard. And she was challenging the status quo all the time, with all the changes her team introduced. From taking over parking spaces and empty road space for pedestrian-friendly squares, making pedestrian crossing narrower, forcing cars to slow down, creating a network of express buses with their own bus lanes, to creating a network of cycle paths and a public bicycle rental system. Each and every one of those changes was a battle.
The closing of part of Broadway leading to Times Square to car traffic was perceived as an attack on basic American rights. Still, her team persevered, course-corrected when required, but would stick to their guns of the evidence was borne by data.
Another interesting aspect was her approach to reaching compromise with various interested parties. While every single solution was consulted with local community, she didn’t spend a lot of time on endless negotiations. He just accepted that if she tried to win everyone over before stating the projects, they would never come to fruition. Instead, after a series of consultations and amendments based on feedback received, she proceeded with implementation, even if not everyone was on board. She preferred to let the change defend itself in practice, rather than wasting endless hours on theorizing. It may come across as a brutal approach, but it can also work if the authorities remain open to pivoting if the experiment is not successful.
With time the change becomes the new status quo. As was proven when Bill de Blasio had New Yorkers up in arms when he proposed reopening the stretch of Broadway to Times Square for car traffic again. The status quo always fights back, but it can also be changed.
It was fascinating, if a bit one-sided account, of transforming the city using relatively modest means and a nimble approach.
Ten years ago I could not function without a car. But since moving to London I really cannot imagine owning one, while living in the city. It’s just slower and more expensive than public transport. Andi f I wanted to go for a weekend trip, companies like Zipcar have my back. I started to mentally shift from the driver’s perception of the city street to a more balanced view. Just keep the cyclists away from me! 😉
Do you live in New York? Were the changes as good as Sadik-Khan describes?