Author Janette Sadik-Khan: 'If You Can Change The Street, You Can Change The World'

Author Janette Sadik-Khan: 'If You Can Change The Street, You Can Change The World'

11:14am Jul 21, 2017
By observing how people were already using the streets, New York's city planners created 6 ½ Avenue. Before it was implemented, hundreds of people were crossing the street midblock to access pedestrian spaces. Photo courtesy of Seth Solomonow. 

When we think about infrastructure, we think about highways, traffic, and cars. It’s also much more - something that can completely transform our cities. That’s exactly how the author of a recent book looks at the issue.

"Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution" was co-written by Janette Sadik-Khan (along with Seth Solomonow), former New York City transportation commissioner. She and her team transformed spaces throughout the city with bike lanes, bus lines, and pedestrian plazas, putting people back at the center of urban planning.

Interview Highlights

On the advice that shaped her career:

New York City's DOT created Brooklyn's Pearl Street plaza, the first of 60 plazas installed citywide. Photo courtesy of Seth Solomonow. 

When I was deciding what to do [in the administration of David Dinkins] I called my mom to ask her opinion. She had been a reporter for The New York Post, and she knew the city inside and out. I told her that I wanted to do something that would have an impact on people, that would touch people's lives every day. And she said, 'Well, sweetie, you have two choices: transportation or sanitation.' And you know, kidding aside, she was right. Infrastructure and urban design and how we get around and design our streets is really what defines cities. It's not just landmarks or tourist sites. Our streets are social, economic and cultural infrastructure that really makes cities great or not so great. And if you design your streets well you can help prevent many of the almost 40,000 traffic deaths that we see every year on roads in the U.S. You can make cities more equitable by making it easier to get to jobs and schools and services and make a city more livable and attractive to be in which is great for quality of life and a city's economic competitiveness.

On "the language of the streets" and the ways people naturally move through a city:

When you look at the street you can see that a lot of people use it in ways that really were never intended. You know, people cross in the middle of the block where there are no sidewalks. They walk on grass. They bike on the shoulder where there is no bike lane. And these patterns of getting around are called 'desire lines' because they reflect the way that people actually get around versus the way the street tells them to get around. And some engineers look at this activity and say, 'No, we need to put a fence in to keep people from crossing here or a button that they need to push to cross the street,' you know. But I think instead of looking for ways to shut people out, we can look at these informal traffic patterns and see the city that needs to be built.

On takeaways for cities that are smaller than urban hubs like New York:

Winston-Salem started a bike share in May similar to that which Sadik-Khan implemented in NYC. Photo courtesy of Capture Public Relations & Marketing. 

Well, a lot of people say, 'You know, we're not New York. What happened there can't work here.' And they said the same thing to us in New York, they said, 'We're not Amsterdam, we're not Copenhagen, those ideas can't work here.' And in New York we built more than 400 miles of bike lanes in six years and eight rapid bus lines and more than 60 plazas, and now we hear people say, 'We're not New York.' So, you know, there's nothing new under the sun. And today I work with Bloomberg Associates and with mayors around the world. And we found that there are no cities that are too big or too small for transformation whether it's San Francisco or Santiago or Stockholm, and every city has its own solution. But the underlying theme of all of it is choice. What choices do you really have for getting around? And if your city is designed so that you have no choice but to drive, then your city doesn't have a chance of changing in this century. 

On technology and transportation and how it affects urban planning centered around people:

Madison Square in 2013. Photo courtesy of Seth Solomonow. 

If technology doesn't help us use our streets more efficiently then we're really just spinning our wheels. And if we want a future with fewer cars and less congestion and fewer crashes and more room for pedestrians and cyclists and expanded transit then we really need to think about how technology can open up the playing field and look at how we do a building-to-building reboot of city streets. So I think it's an exciting moment but I think we have to make sure that this new technology works for people and not the other way around. 



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