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:
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.