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New York’s transformative transport commissioner comes to town

This is a guest post Christina Bellis from Frocks on Bikes

It’s not often you hear “transportation bureaucrat” and “celebrity” in one phrase, but Janette Sadik-Khan has shaken up one of the world’s most famous cities – and most famously dense – and started it flowing again.

Her approach is profoundly common-sense but – unsurprisingly – it’s quite uncommon. It’s a “have a go, see what happens”.  The Department of Transportation (DoT) does things to New York’s transport-scape that are “radical”, and does them as temporary trials – with paint, cones, orange-painted drums, cheap furniture. There is a lot of communication, monitoring and assessment, and the promise that if it doesn’t work it’s abandoned.

New York is a tough gig. Like many other cities we can name, it’s been car-centric for decades and marginalised other transport modes – to the point where it’s “radical” to argue that their contribution (and share of city space) should be greater.

On becoming Commissioner of Transportation in 2007, Sadik-Khan promptly began doing profoundly “radical” things with a strong mandate from the Mayor of New York.  These initiatives are freeing up New York’s famously car-congested streets, hitherto hostile to pedestrians, bikes and buses alike.  It’s been controversial, but to many people’s astonishment the addition of bike lanes, bike hire, pedestrian space and bus priority has not only made the city dramatically more liveable, it’s made all New York’s traffic more mobile.  “You have to design your streets for everyone. The cities that have safe streets, that are easy to get around, are the ones that will grow and thrive in the 21st century”, says Sadik-Khan.  It’s something that New Zealand’s traffic engineers seem to hear, but not actually understand – meaning our urban and transportation design tends to languish in a 1950s paradigm that’s gradually choking our cities while gobbling scarce resources. One of the main reasons: the social and political barriers that see forward-thinking design branded “anti-car”, “greenie” or “utopian”.

We could learn a lot from the way New York has started to push back the car-focused hegemony.  Under Sadik-Khan the DoT is quickly and cheaply piloting new things, boldly and on the right scale – e.g. a trial pedestrian area in the places people actually want to go, rather than a space that’s chosen because it’s not in high demand for parking.  But they’re trialled in a way that people clearly understand to be temporary.  The materials are cheap and look transient – orange barrels, cones, paint, cheap furniture, astro-turf.  There’s lots of communication with the public and neighbours. And the city’s transport system is being re-designed with people’s mobility and the city’s liveability at heart – not vehicles’ mobility.

The result? Success on three fronts:

  1. Because the pilots are chosen and executed well, they’re genuine trials of a decent example of the initiatives. Where they’re good, people actually use ‘em.  The trials are heavily monitored, and the ones that work go to the next stage of implementation. (Those that don’t are quickly and openly rejected, without city officials nervous of losing face for having committed lots of money and reputation to it.)
  2. Good design, plus clearly temporary materials and lots of communication, prevents the fear that “They’ve already decided” which all too often results from even innocuous initiatives in New Zealand. Without the public fearing that “They’ve already decided”, there’s less angst at the outset from those who’re opposed in principle. The pilot initiatives have a chance to demonstrate their merits with the “undecided majority”, and if they’re heavily used, the evidence speaks for itself and makes the tradeoffs more compelling.
  3. There’s no “mode vs mode” approach – it’s about getting people around New York in a way that makes the city work better for people.  It’s recognising the ways the different modes contribute, and reconciling them on the ground – buses, bikes, taxis, private cars, pedestrians, commercial traffic – so they each contribute fully to the city’s transport ecosystem.

So, there are some clever people in New York’s DoT and a bold innovator at its head.  But New Zealand transportation engineers and local authorities are bright people, and no less intelligent than their New York counterparts. And our small budgets compared to New York’s are even more reason to start thinking intelligently about our transportation – and intelligently about how we trial, select, design and implement things.  We might be surprised how quickly the “radical” can become acceptable, preferred and mainstream.

23 comments to New York’s transformative transport commissioner comes to town

  • Fred

    We need to adopt the “trial” approach in Auckland. Trial closing Queen St on Fridays. Trial doing the Victoria St linear park on a temporary basis. Trial a narrowed Quay St.

    We’re not going to have the money to do flash permanent versions of everything straight away but it doesn’t matter. Let’s do trial versions.

  • George D

    I certainly hope she has some actual impact on AT and Council (unlike Gehl, who was ignored). She’s needed.

    • Make It Go

      She is sorely needed alright but the chances of JSK effectively being ignored after her visit here are still very high unfortunately, such is the continuing lack of vision and will at a senior level within AT and AC to do anything truly meaningful to move Auckland away from car-dependance.

  • Ari

    Why would we narrow quay st? Even long term plans show it as 2 lanes each way without any cycle lanes. If we used a 3 lane one-way system we could at least stick in a bi-directional cycle lane.

    I’m dissapointed I missed out Sadik-Khan’s mayoral conversations. The event was booked out before I could even register. Would have been interesting to have a look.

  • Ari

    Why would we narrow quay st? Even long term plans show it as 2 lanes each way without any cycle lanes. If we used a 3 lane one-way system we could at least stick in a bi-directional cycle lane.

    I’m dissapointed I missed out Sadik-Khan’s mayoral conversations. The event was booked out before I could even register. Would have been interesting to have a look.

  • Braw

    Great post Christina. I’m feeling pretty hopeful for the future TBH. Things are starting to (slowly) change within AT and council for the better. We’re starting to see some quick-wins coming through. I’d love to see more of the “try it and see” approach taken as on-the-whole we know what needs improved, the plans and strategies are in place but there just isn’t the money available to do them all at once. O’Connell St shared space, for example, is going to cost close to $5M and that’s just for one tiny block. Lets crack on, find the quick-wins, implement them albeit temporarily, reap the benefits and reprioritise funding to those projects that prove their worth.

    • Yeah fantastic post. Exactly right. And the City Centre is ready for the next level; it’s just humming with people. A total revolution from the bad years of late last century. Time for AT and AC to be bold and take the queue from JSK’s playbook-> radical cheap and temporary interventions.

      Why not get that Victoria St Linear Park in now with temporary barriers? There will never be a better time. And it can all be wound back when the time comes to build Aotea Station and the lower CRL.

      Come on Len and Ludo; time to play a big card.

  • Ari

    Patrick, L&L can push all they like, but they arent the ones that need convincing.
    I for one think we should be shutting down Queen St every weekend (between intersections). We could have done that years ago, but no one seems to be pushing it. I think it is a case of having to consult too many property owners. The question is, what do we do with the bus route through there?

    • Don’t shut it to Transit, so not pedestrianisation; a Transit Mall.

      There are no vehicle entrances on Queen St. Allow deliveries, taxis and buses on centre lanes. close each block between cross Sts. Traffic will flow much better on remaining open streets.

      AC and AT just have to get over themselevs, grow a pair, and do it.

      • George D

        Melbourne does this (though with electric trains, rather than buses). It works well. Buses will start to electrify in the next decade here and we’ll begin to see that impact.

  • Ari

    So allow the buses on Queen St but no other vehicles? But how do you enforce it if you have green arrows telling cars they can enter a street and a conflicting sign saying they cant?

    • Patrick R

      Eventually even the dimwit drivers in Auckland work out what a bus lane is. Like on Grafton Bridge; that outrage has died down hasn’t it?

    • Why would you have any arrows at all, green or otherwise? The buses just run up and down the street, the traffic goes across. You just need a B signal at each end and each intersection, no turn arrows, no greens.

    • Sailor Boy

      I really hope you aren’t employed in any problem solving role Ari.

  • Gus

    An interesting post to read, as a kiwi in NYC. I raise two pivotal differences between NYC and Auckland: 1) the majority of New Yorkers don’t use a car on a regular basis, 2) a huge number of New Yorkers have little or no access to private, outdoor spaces.

    Less than half of the households in New York City own a car, which is why this is possibly the first time I have ever seen New York referred to as “car-centric”. In Manhattan alone (population 1.6 million), only 23% of households own a car. The overall percentage is skewed massively upwards by two major areas with a lack of easy access to rapid transit: eastern Queens and Staten Island. 29% of commuters in New York City use a car, with the majority using public transit (55%) and the rest a combination of cycling, walking and ‘other’. NYC may have dealt with decades of “car-centric” transport funding, but it also operates the 7th biggest rapid transit system in the world (the New York City Subway, with most of its 24 lines operating 24/7). Freeways are few and far between in large parts of the city (especially Manhattan and Brooklyn), and the roads are in poor condition when compared to New Zealand. The backbone of and lifeblood of New York is the subway, not its roads. I would hazard a guess that a lot of the resistance toward NYC’s most obvious transformation, the pedestrianization of a swathe of Broadway bisecting Times Square through midtown Manhattan, came from the taxi and limo industry.

    I live in Clinton Hill, a neighborhood in north/central Brooklyn lacking any real parks (though the majority of the area is brownstones, with many having at least a small garden). Two local and one express subway line run through different parts of Clinton Hill. In recent years, NYCDOT converted a small section of road (https://goo.gl/maps/ceEGz) a block from where I live to a pedestrian plaza using the methods noted in the post above. I personally have no doubt that as the area gentrifies further over the coming years the space will really thrive, but check out this crazy video put together by a group of locals who banded together to try and have the rather small and pointless section of roadway reinstated: http://fultonareacomingtogether.wordpress.com/2011/12/01/plaza-the-fight-for-putnam-plaza-short-film-complete/

    It baffles me how, in an area with low car ownership and lack of public spaces, a group of people can be so vehemently opposed to the improvement of a bland and uninviting stretch of road by way of pedestrianization. I wonder if New Zealanders’ generally stronger connection with nature and the outdoors leads to a lower skepticism of these sorts of things.

    • When he was in Auckland, Paul Steel White (of Transportation Alternatives) talked about that disconnect and the fact that motorists (most of whom come from outlying suburbs) had so much space dedicated to them in NY.

      He pointed out that 25% of NY is streets and the streets represent 80% of the open space in the city. Yet pretty much all of that is turned over to cars – either moving (which may have some value) or parked (which has no value).

      “I wonder if New Zealanders’ generally stronger connection with nature and the outdoors leads to a lower skepticism of these sorts of things.” – Wow you are really looking back on NZ with rose tinted glasses if you think NZers are more strongly connected with nature. Try suggesting to the average Aucklander that they get out of their car to walk 500m or cycle 2kms on their tree lined green streets to the local bus, train or ferry station and they will look at you like you are insane. No way, the cocoon of their car crawling along at 10km/h is the place to be – damn the fresh air. If they are really adventurous they may drive 500m to the ferry (really, I see it every day).

      The opposition to removing even a tiny amount of space from cars (even just a few car parks) is overwhelming. Auckland Transport and Auckland Council are terrified of the backlash from retauilers and motorists over even the most innocuous of transit or cycling initiatives.

      Be thankful of the changes you are seeing in NY, they dwarf anything happneing here.

      • Gus

        I am thankful for the changes happening in NYC. But I am more thankful that as it is now, I can get to almost any corner of the city 24 hours a day on a $2.50 MetroCard swipe. This is already an incredible easy city to live in without a car, and I in fact have just one friend that owns one.

        Regarding what I said about New Zealanders, I understand your point but I stand by mine. I’m involved with a non-profit here that is building cycle lanes and open spaces in Brooklyn and recently I was told that a group of high school kids taken on an educational trip to a small wooded area along the built-up Brooklyn waterfront were too scared to get off the bus and walk into a dense stand of trees. Once they were coaxed outside, none of them could identify any of the insects they studied and were all horrified at the prospect of holding, for example, a caterpillar. These are city kids. They don’t know the beach, they don’t know trees or countryside or back yards. All they ever see is a hell of a lot of concrete and the inside of an air-conditioned apartment. In summer, the city heats up well into the late 30s and early 40s, and in winter it hovers near the negative teens. It can be an incredibly brutal landscape. By contrast, kiwis enjoy more pleasant weather much of the year, and have much easier access to the beach, parks, the countryside, or even a back yard of any sort.

        • Sure Gus, in that way I agree with you absolutely. Young NZ kids at least are aware of the natural world. Unfortunately they are more and more only seeing their neighbourhood from the window of the SUV. Not much adventure or exploring in their lives.

          Your story reminds me of a Kiwi in London who took his daughter to Hyde Park and told her to take her shoes off. She came back after 5 mins and said “I dont like it, the grass feels funny”. He was just about on the next plane back home!

  • mfwic

    My impression of New York was how rude the people were to each other. They seem to be prepared to have shouting matches in the street. Men unloading a truck vs someone trying to drive past ended up shouting at each other and no one unloading, bus driver versus passenger, random people in the middle of the night. I assumed it was too many people in close proximity.

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