In 2016, Janette Sadik-Khan published Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution, drawing lessons from her time as commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation under mayor Michael Bloomberg. Three years later, she presented an optimistic view of the battle for a more human-scale, walkable city at a lecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. “Before we got started, there wasn’t a public vocabulary for the kinds of changes New York—and many other cities—needed,” she says. “Today city residents worldwide are becoming fluent in the language of place-making and parking-protected bike lanes.”
Sadik-Khan’s modus operandi has always been to show, not tell. The interventions she presided over between 2007 and 2013 as transportation commissioner demonstrated the potential hidden in plain sight. “When your street stays the same for so long, it’s hard for people to look at it differently,” she explains. “Just because they’re built in concrete, asphalt, and steel doesn’t mean they are trapped in amber, forever unchanged.” Among her most notable achievements were closing Broadway to cars in Times Square, building nearly 400 miles of bike lanes, introducing seven rapid bus lines, launching the largest bike share program in North America, and creating more than 60 plazas around the city.
In the past, developers didn’t want to have protected bike lanes, bike stations, and plazas next to their developments, but now they advertise them and have seen property values soar as a result.
And the impact has gone beyond New York. “Since we transformed Times Square ten years ago, we’ve seen the same concept put into action in dozens of cities: Atlanta, Athens, Addis Ababa, Mexico City, Milan, Mumbai. Cities you wouldn’t expect, like Detroit—Motor City—recently rolled out 25 miles of protected bike lanes. Nobody has a patent on pavements. Don’t be shy about stealing solutions.”
In New York, Sadik-Khan says, she witnessed a mindset change among policymakers and private developers, as well as citizens. “In the past, developers didn’t want to have protected bike lanes, bike stations, and plazas next to their developments, but now they advertise them and have seen property values soar as a result.” This was partly because her team made their argument using hard data that had not been gathered before. “Previously we’ve only really used metrics like how fast traffic was moving and how many cars could get through an intersection.” A wider evidence base—that retail sales improved by 49% on Ninth Avenue when bikes lanes were introduced, for example—is crucial in countering anecdotal disinformation, she says.
The projects Sadik-Khan champions are targeted and relatively small-scale. “We still need to plan big, but we’d forgotten about the spaces trapped between the lines. It’s about reimagining one block at a time and that doesn’t have to cost billions of dollars—it’s something any city can do with materials they have on hand—paint, brushes, cones.” The other essential ingredient is people. “You need to reimagine the community involvement process as well. We asked communities to submit their own proposals, for example on where to put bike share stations, which was important for building trust.”
This community engagement appears to be missing as we enter the next era of cities: While investment is being made in driverless car technology, Sadik-Khan says, little is being done to prepare cities for its impact. “We’re just starting to undo mistakes made 100 years ago, razing neighborhoods and expanding highways to overhaul outer cities and make way for cars—we can’t afford to hand over the keys to our cities again.”
How to prevent this? Sadik-Khan says, “It starts with a question: What do we want the streets of the future to look like? It’s about making technology fit into our cities rather than designing them to accommodate new technologies.” It’s a battle that’s just begun but one we must all prepare for. After all, “Our streets are worth fighting for.”