How Do You Make New York's Mean Streets A Little Nicer?

Jun 6, 2014
Originally published on April 20, 2015 11:00 am

Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode Getting There.

About Janette Sadik-Khan's TEDTalk

Former New York City Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan says cities can tackle the challenges of tomorrow by completely re-imagining our streets today.

About Janette Sadik-Khan

As commissioner of the NYC Department of Transportation under the Bloomberg administration, Janette Sadik-Khan was responsible for an aspect of the city that hides in plain sight: the streets, highways, bridges, signs and lights.

For six years she was responsible for some 6,300 miles of streets throughout the city's five boroughs. Sadik-Khan adopted a designer's approach to urban innovation: try an idea to see if it works; if it doesn't, try something else.

Under her watch, the city created pedestrian plazas, rapid bus transit, safe bike lanes and a bike share program.

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, "Getting There," ideas about transportation for a crowded planet.

And in the U.S. and around the world, two numbers have gotten a lot bigger in the past decade - the number of people living in cities and the number of people getting around those cities by bike. How long have you been a bike rider?

JANETTE SADIK-KHAN: Oh, pretty much since I learned.

RAZ: This is Janette Sadik-Khan, and she served as Michael Bloomberg's transportation commissioner in New York City. And Sometimes she bikes to work, and sometimes she doesn't.

SADIK-KHAN: I do drive, and I do bike. And I do take the train, and I do take the bus. And like a lot of New Yorkers, you know, I'm really happy about the fact that in this city there are so many choices to get around town. And I think that's what people want. People want choices. It's not about one mode over the other. It's not about bikes over cars over buses over pedestrians. It's about providing the options that people need.

RAZ: So if you've noticed more bike lanes or wider sidewalks, just a better flow around your city, some of that may have been inspired by what Janette did in New York. She made it easier to get around. And other cities around the world are watching. Here's how she starts her TED Talk.


SADIK-KHAN: We live in an urban age. For the first time in history, most people live in cities. And the U.N. estimates that over the next 40 years, the population is going to double on the planet. So the design of cities is a key issue for our future.

Mayor Bloomberg recognized this when he launched PlaNYC in 2007. The plan recognized that cities are in a global marketplace, and that if we're going to continue to grow and thrive and to attract the million more people that are expected to move here, we need to focus on the quality of life and the efficiency of our infrastructure. For many cities, our streets have been in a kind of suspended animation for generations. Not much has changed in 50 years.

RAZ: And what Janette means by that is that for the past 50 years, city streets have been designed to cater to cars and not to people. And in most cities today...

SADIK-KHAN: You see people on the street, you know, huddled on medians and sidewalks, you know, just jostling to get around.

RAZ: So when she took the job with Mayor Bloomberg, Janette started to think about how she could make the city more like it was before cars took over, when pedestrians had space to walk and shop and take a break in between.


SADIK-KHAN: When we started out, we did some early surveys about how our streets were used. And we found that New York City was largely a city without seats - you know, pictures like this - people perched on a fire hydrant, not the mark of a world-class city. So we worked hard to change that balance.

And probably the best example of our new approach is in Times Square. Three hundred and fifty thousand people a day walk through Times Square. And people have tried for years to make changes. It was dangerous, hard to cross the street. It was chaotic.

And so we took a different approach, a bigger approach, looked at our street differently. We closed Broadway from 42nd Street to 47th Street and created two and a half acres of new pedestrian space.

And we just took paint and planters and tried it out. And lo and behold, it was a big home run. Traffic flowed better, and it was safer. And it worked better for business. It's now one of the top 10 retail locations on the planet, which certainly wasn't the case before.

RAZ: So you did this with just some paint and, like, orange cones and chairs, and that was it?

SADIK-KHAN: Yes, you can move fast. And, you know, a lot of people think that transportation or economic development starts with something. It's like a new building or a tech hub or new subway line. And these usually take billions of dollars to create.

But I think changing your city starts with something even more basic, which is rethinking your streets. And it doesn't have to cost a lot of money. I think that's a really compelling strategy for mayors around the world.


SADIK-KHAN: We also brought this quick-acting approach to our cycling program, and, in six years, turned cycling into a real transportation option in New York. I think it's fair to say...


SADIK-KHAN: ...It used to be a fairly scary place to ride a bike. And now New York has become one of the cycling capitals in the United States. And we moved quickly to create an interconnected network of 350 miles of on-street bike lanes. We also brought new designs to the street. We created the first parking-protected bike lane in the United States.


SADIK-KHAN: We protected bikers by floating parking lanes, and it's been great. Bike volumes have spiked. Injuries to all users - pedestrians, cyclists, drivers - are all down 50 percent. We've built 30 miles of these protected bike lanes, and now you're seeing them pop up all over the country.

This summer we launched City Bike, the largest bike share program in the United States, with 6,000 bikes and 330 stations located next to one another. Since we've launched the program, 3 million trips have been taken. People have ridden 7 million miles. That's 280 times around the globe. And so with this little blue key, you can unlock the keys to the city and this brand-new transportation option.

So looking at the different ways to make it easier for people to bike, whether it's sending them a bike infrastructure or whether it's making it possible for them to park their bike once they get there or developing a bike share system so that you didn't have to have a bike or worry about parking it when you were getting around town.

RAZ: You know, like, in a place like Copenhagen - right? - I mean, I think, like, 50 percent of the people commute by bike, right? I just wonder, I mean, is that realistic for most cities? I mean, could you achieve that everywhere, or can you jut do that in a place like Copenhagen?

SADIK-KHAN: No, I think that people, you know, when you build it, they will come. You know, we've seen quadrupling of bike commuting in New York City since 2000. And, you know, while that's happened, there's been no change in the number of serious bike crashes in New York. So that's a 75 percent drop in risk. And so a lot of the work goes into building that safe infrastructure. And I think, you know, you've seen biking explode.

RAZ: Do you think, though, that at some point, even if bike lanes and pedestrian zones and public transit isn't as prioritized as highways and roads, that the reality is just going to change that equation - that the reality of what's happening in urban spaces is going to mean that those are the things are going to have to be prioritized?

SADIK-KHAN: Yeah, I think so. And we are in a global competition, you know. Businesses and people can move anywhere. So it really - changing how your streets are designed is a matter of economic competitiveness. It's a development strategy.

And when you can show that it's better for safety, it's better for business, it's better for health, you know, those kinds of strategies are going to be the kind of strategies that make a city sing and sore and compete well. So it's really like back to the future, you know? I mean, prioritizing pedestrian movement now is something that cities are looking at. Streetcars are having a huge comeback. You're seeing a lot of buses come back with bus-rapid transit and of course bikes, you know, one of the oldest modes of getting around that there is.

And so making New York City with 8.4 million people today work even better for the million that are expected to come here by 2030 means that you can't just wait for it. You can't just expect that it's going to work. You have to plan for that future. And you have to design the city you want to see.

RAZ: That's Janette Sadik-Khan. She's now working with Bloomberg Associates advising other cities on how to change their streets as well. You can check out her full talk at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.