Streetfighting girl: inside the story of how cycling changed New York

As transport commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan faced down critics to transform New York with 400 miles of cycling routes, a motorcycle share strategy and the remodelling of Times Square. Any city can do it, she tells Peter Walker

Janette Sadik-Khan, who in alliance with her then-boss, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, arguably did as much to transform the citys streetscape as anyone in its recent history, recalls an early moment when she wondered whether people were ready for such rapid change.

It was August 2008 and the city was experimenting with a so-called summer streets programme, where almost seven miles of central streets were closed off to vehicles for three Saturday mornings in a row. The notion was not new Bogot introduced its equivalent, the Ciclovi, in the 1970 s but it was entirely untested in New York.

I remember, hours and hours before it opened, being out on the streets with my team and looking around, thinking, What if no one shows up? What if this is a disaster ?, said Sadik-Khan, who was Bloombergs transport commissioner from 2007 until he left office in 2013.

I remember being truly alleviated when I insured people walking and biking, and kids out there playing. It turned out New Yorkers knew exactly what to do with their streets. We had 300,000 people coming to play, and cha cha, and take basketball lessons.

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Brooklyns Prospect Park cycle lane once described as the most controversial slab of cement outside the Gaza Strip. Photo: Alamy

Sadik-Khan remains best known for the rapid rollout of around 400 miles of cycling routes during her six-and-a-half years in charge of the$ 2bn( 1.4 bn) annual budget of New York Citys Department of Transportation, and the later opening of the Citi Bike cycle share strategy.

But in parallel she also oversaw a series of new rapid bus roads and the carving out of dozens of pedestrianised plazas from space previously reserved for autoes, including the initially controversial remodelling of Times Square.

Sadik-Khan now advises other cities how to follow suit via the ex-mayors self-styled philanthropic consultancy, Bloomberg Associates. She has also condensed her vision into a volume, Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution.

She describes the approach as re-writing the operating code of the street. It is a perhaps uncomfortable philosophy for those working, like previous generations of New Yorkers, used to being able to drive and park their automobiles more or less where they choose.

Urban transport is, Sadik-Khan argues, amid a Copernican revolution in which streets are remodelled around human beings, whether walking, cycling or on buses, rather than alone inside a speeding metal box.

In the United States we expended the last century building are cities around the car, but we damaged our cities in the process and were really get diminishing returns on that investment, she said.

If city residents dont have a selection but to drive everywhere then our cities dont stand a chance of surviving in this century. So we really do need to provide new selections for people to get around. We need to face the fact that the route our streets are designed has, in the past, attained the decision for its residents.

The intention under Bloomberg, she says, was kind of flipping the script in how our streets were designed and who are they designed for.

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A girl enjoys her morning coffee in the middle of Broadway in Times Square after it was closed to autoes. Photo: Seth Wenig/ AP

Such a revolution was, unavoidably , not without controversy. All sorts of local hall groups combated plans for separated cycle lanes, most famously over one eventually constructed outside Brooklyns Prospect Park, a route once was regarded as the most controversial slab of cement outside the Gaza Strip.

A good deal of the obloquy focused personally on Sadik-Kahn, even though her strategy received from Bloombergs PlaNYC, his 2007 vision for making an expanding city more green and liveable. But she came to exemplify his shifting on cycling issues, which had ensure little focus under his first transport commissioner, Iris Weinshall.

Some critics labelled Sadik-Khan brusque and uncompromising; others wondered whether such labels tend to stick more easily to the relatively rare women in positions of power.

Its fair to say that I grew a second scalp over the course of six-and-a-half years, she said. Theres 8.4 million people in New York and I sometimes felt there were 8.4 million traffic engineers.

People take their streets very personally. They treat every parking space like it was their first-born child. So its a fight. All 180 acres of streets that we devoted back to people on foot and people on motorcycles and transit entail a hard-fought battle. I get it transportation is local. People are passionate about their street, and when “were talking about” new ways to get out which arent about driving a lot of people actually erupt.

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Bike lane on Brooklyn Bridge. Photograph: imageBROKE/ Rex/ Shutterstock

These days, she says with some justified gratification, polls show the changes are generally popular with New Yorkers. Other statistics are impressive, too.

Sadik-Khans old department produces a simple and illustrative graph plotting the changing danger of injury when cycling in New York against the number of cyclists doing it. From 2007 onwards the two lines diverge at steep slants. Even as cyclist numbers have more than doubled, the number of serious injuries has actually fallen.

Fittingly, as the employee of a billionaire entrepreneur, she sees such changes as not so much socially just as economically vital: Transportation is not an ideology, its not a left or right thing. Its about taking a look at the capital asset we have and using it in the most effective way possible.

For so long the way we measured transportation, the style we measured our streets, had been about the flow of traffic, how fast was traffic going, which dismisses all the other styles a street is used.

Our streets have been in this kind if suspended animation. Theyre seen as there for all time. The result is that youve got dangerous, congested, economically under-performing streets. That strikes at the heart of the liveability and competitiveness of a city.

In her new role Sadik-Khan has advised cities including Rio de Janeiro, Los Angeles, Mexico City and Detroit. One of her key messages, she says, is that radical changes need not inevitably take a long time or a big budget, or even a mayor like Bloomberg.

Theres no question having a strong leader does help in establishing that vision, and supporting change when the status quo blowback begins, she said. But in New York we basically rewrote the operating code of the street , not with mega-projects and billions of dollars, but by accommodating the space that was already there.

Thats a really important lesson in many, many cities: you dont have to have the most visionary mayor, you dont have to have a billion-dollar budget, you dont have to have years and years of modelling. Only by accommodating the space thats there you can make a huge difference.

A lot of cities are wary of trying things, as theyre afraid they might not work. But theres a lot you can do with paint, and planters and stones from old bridge projects. We shut Broadway from Times Square in a few months utilizing only the materials we had in the transportation departments arsenal.

You can change a street on a trial basis using materials that are easily adjusted or can be removed if it doesnt work out. Its available and it can be done.

An example of this was the part-pedestrianisation of Times Square from 2009, achieved through the simple measure of blocking off Broadway with orange barrel-bollards. Even here, she recalls, there was space for last-minute improvisation.

When “were in” closing Times Square, and we were rolling out the orange barrels, we looked out at this two football fields-worth of asphalt and suppose, Oh my God, thats a lot of space, and theres nothing there. And thats what led to the beach chairs.

The near-4 00 folding chairs, bought from a local hardware shop for about $11 each when more permanent street furniture failed to arrive on time, depicted the fundamental adaptability of New Yorkers, Sadik-Khan said.

Again, the inspiration came out of necessity. But putting out those $11 beach chair on Times Square was an interesting moment. People came out, and all people talked about was those shall be the chairman of the colouring, the design. Not that wed closed Times Square to cars.

It was the same experience in so many of our projects: when you accommodate the street, people adopt it. Its almost like its always been there. You go to some of these plazas now and people have forgotten the route it used to be.

Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution by Janette Sadik-Khan was published this week

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