Janette Sadik-Khan has a radical idea. Stop building cities for cars and instead design them for people. New York City's former transportation commissioner, Sadik-Khan wrote what she hopes is the handbook for an urban revolution. It's called "Streetfight." And it's chock full of practical ideas for making city streets more livable and safe.
The Ride: When LA announced its mobility plan last year, people were so mad. Why do people get so angry about transforming streets when it’s about making them more safe and more efficient?
Sadik-Khan: People are very used to the status quo. And for decades we’ve looked at our streets as conveyances for cars — to move cars as fast as possible from Point A to Point B. We really don’t have any other expectations for our streets that they can be used to make it easier to walk or bike or make our buses go faster. So when you push that status quo, it pushes back pretty hard. It’s almost like all of us were inserted with some car-focused DNA when we were born. When you change that, it can raise some hackles.
The Ride: How were you able to be successful with your strategies?
Sadik-Khan: We really started with a vision under Mayor Bloomberg called PlaNYC, which was a long-range sustainability plan. Mayors don’t usually plan in long-term horizons. He recognized that if we were going to grow with the million more people expected in New York City by 2030, we had to fundamentally change how we organized our government, and that had fundamental implications for our streets. We needed to not double deck our bridges or streets but use that asphalt to better move those people affordably, efficiently, safely and improve the quality of life in our communities and business districts. So the strategic plan that NYC DOT developed was derived from that big vision, and it’s really important to set that vision of where you’re going to go. You’re not going to steer that big ship of the city if you don’t have a plan.
The Ride: What about the nitty gritty of dealing with actual people. Is it statistics, is it playing to somebody’s emotions? How do you get people to say, OK. Let's try it.
Sadik-Khan: One of the first things we did after setting out our plan was to create a showcase of projects to show New Yorkers what a plaza looked like, what a safe crossing looked like, what traffic calming looked like because they really didn’t have that vocabulary. So by moving quickly with some pilot projects to show people the world of the possible, that went a long way to getting buy in. Because New Yorkers were tired of waiting around. I think they had given up hope that their streets could ever change, so changing the use of the space is key. And you can do that very quickly with paint and planters and tables and chairs. That ability to see and touch and feel it and not look at a dry engineering drawing or computer model of the work made a huge difference and got a lot of buy in right up front.
The Ride: The 405 widening which happened last year here in L.A. and alleviated nothing, basically, and caused a lot of heartache for a lot of people for a long time sort of proves one of your major philosophies. You get what you build for. Can you explain that idea?
Sadik-Khan: It’s not that different from thinking you’re going to solve obesity by loosening your belt. The bottom line is that when you build more lanes, you get more traffic, and we’ve seen that in city after city, not just L.A. If you want streets that are better and safer for walking, you need to design them differently. If these road-widening projects worked, you would see traffic flowing terrifically, but you don’t. You see motorists stuck in a sea of brake lights. That induced demand, that notion that if you build another lane, it will ease congestion, all it does is attract more commuters and you find yourself stuck in the very traffic you were trying to solve.
The Ride: A lot of your ideas seem very counter intuitive, but they worked. One is narrowing lanes. How is it that when you make a street narrower you actually make it more safe?
Sadik-Khan: Our streets have been over built over the last 50 years. The guidance for our streets comes from the federal government. They set the size of the fonts on our street signs to the width of our lanes. There are virtual cities trapped between those lanes, and we can narrow those lanes and still make traffic flow well and repurpose that extra asphalt for better use. That’s how we were able to reclaim those extra inches of asphalt to create dedicated bus and bike lanes. To create safe crossings and make it easier for New Yorkers to get around. That’s the secret sauce for cities is the people and the quality of life there. It’s not about the car. The car doesn’t shop. People shop. And we really need to get back to people-focused design instead of car-focused design in our cities.
The Ride: That brings up the idea of density is destiny and that having more people in an area would improve traffic, right?
Sadik-Khan: It’s a huge principle. I always say that if you want to save the planet, you should move to New York or any big city because of the efficiency that’s associated with that. A lot of people think the leafy suburbs is the way to go, and what we found is that cities are so much more efficient. New York City has one-third of the carbon footprint of the average American, so when you organize your city in a much more effective way, you can improve the quality of life in the city and the environmental footprint of the city but also the economics of the city.
The Ride: L.A. is a different animal from New York City, though. We’re talking about 450 square miles criss crossed by streets and freeways. We have the most investment in public transit of any city in the country right now yet our ridership is down. If part of reducing traffic is giving people options, why isn’t it working?
Sadik-Khan: Every city is different. It’s not like you’re going to completely import the New York City model to Los Angeles, but there are lessons from the New York City experience that can apply to almost every city, and we go through that in "Streetfight" about how different strategies can work and how to get that done. In LA, the strategies here are not anti-car. They’re pro choice. You need to build in additional options for how people get around. So the transit expansion underway in LA is extraordinary and it’s the down payment on a much better city that’s more economically competitive, affordable and sustainable. It takes a while for that ridership to grow. And it’s important that the connections to and from those transit hubs are effective. It’s a great start to get the transit spine down, but you have to have the supporting eco structure that goes along with it.
The Ride: How do you pick the spots in a city as large as New York or LA to begin?
Sadik-Khan: First is with a lot of our early projects, we started in neighborhoods that were really hungry for it. That really wanted it. We wanted to go where the community was demanding change and the local businesses were supportive. The other piece we really focused on was safety. The 33,000 Americans that die on the streets of this country every year, that is a public health crisis. In any other field, if somebody was responsible for that, they would lose their job. We tend to shrug our shoulders and say that’s just a fact of life in the big city. People die. They get seriously injured. That’s just life. We did a huge study. We looked at 7,000 crashes and discovered who was causing them, why, what, where, how they happened and we used that analysis as a Rosetta stone to go in and make interventions on dangerous corridors and intersections. That made a huge difference. We were almost like forensic scientists, going in to investigate and make those changes. That data-driven approach is extremely important and it informed all the work we did. You're now seeing mayors across the country adopting vision zero to eliminate traffic fatalities and injuries. It’s a really important strategy because these are crashes that can be predicted and prevented, and we absolutely have to end this carnage and catastrophe that we see on our streets every day.
The Ride: Do you think entire cities need to be retrofit with these ideas or can you do this with pockets and connect them and get the same zero-fatality results?
Sadik-Khan: I think they go hand in hand. You need a complete overhaul in the sense that we have to design our streets so that they move at the speed of life. And they take into account all the different ways a street is used. Designing our streets for cars primarily and the rest of the space left over are scraps of asphalt. The leftovers go to people on bikes and on foot. That’s not a strong strategy. That’s not what’s going to get us to competitively healthy cities in the 21st century. We need to lock that in right up front. In Portland, they just changed their design guidance so planners have to justify why they can’t put in a protected bike lane, so that’s the new default standard. We need to change the default standards on our streets.
The Ride: But everything’s already built. So it has to be rebuilt.
Sadik-Khan: Actually, you can re-stripe it. It doesn’t take billions of dollars, and it doesn’t take years to do. You can do a lot with a can of paint. You can re-stripe those lanes, reclaim those lanes, and reimagine them for better ends.
The Ride: How much does this cost for the entire city of LA or New York or Chicago?
Sadik-Khan: It’s a great question. People think we spent billions of dollars. The bottom line is that we spent $6 billion on state of good repair work in New York City. We have 6,000 miles of streets. We have 789 bridges. We’ve got a very big infrastructure and one of the largest ferry systems in the world. And yet we only spent less than one percent of the capital budget on bus and bike lanes and pedestrian plazas, and yet those projects generated 99% of the headlines. State of good repair is not that sexy of a topic. It’s extremely important because it’s the foundation of economic growth. But we can also reimagine and repurpose some of that asphalt so that we continue to meet the needs of people in the 21st century and not people at the turn of the 19th.
The Ride: As long as you’ve brought up the 21st century, are you of the mind that autonomous cars will relieve traffic and parking issues?
Sadik-Khan: I think that we’ve yet to see what’s going to happen with that. But there are lots of studies that say we could reclaim between 50 and 85% of spaces currently used to move and park cars. Cars sit idle 95% of the time, so particularly in cities, they’re not a good use of space. So there are opportunities to take that space and use it for affordable housing, green infrastructure, better biking infrastructure and walking options. I think it’s really important that cities spend a lot of time looking at what city they want to build so we don’t find ourselves back in a car-focused environment that we’re just climbing out of now. Those Googke cars are very attractive. They’re so cute and you want to get in to one and it’s great. I’m very supportive of the technology. I think it can lead to much more efficient and safer transportation, but we have to be careful that we’re not losing the people-focused orientation that makes cities great. So ensuring that the cars wherever they are serve all neighborhoods, that they’re safe and that we’ve got a really strong data-sharing program about how this works. And we put them in corridors where it makes sense, that’s going to be some of the challenges going forward.