Janette Sadik-Khan: When you change the street, you change the world
By Maria Saporta
Repurposing pavement has a nice ring to it.
That was the message at the Feb. 13th annual meeting of the Midtown Alliance.
A person delivering the message was Janette Sadik-Khan, who changed many of the streets in New York City from being focused on cars to streets for everyone – including pedestrians and cyclists.
Sadik-Khan served as NYC’s transportation commissioner from 2007 to 2013 under then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Today, she is a principal with Bloomberg Associates working with cities around the country and the world to help make their streets more walkable and bikeable.
After spending two days in Atlanta meeting with city, regional and state leaders, Sadik-Khan would love to partner with Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms in helping Atlanta become a friendlier city for pedestrians and bicyclists.
“I would love to work with Atlanta,” Sadik-Khan said in a telephone interview following her visit. “Our work is done directly with mayors. I did get a chance to meet with Mayor Bottoms. It was great. She’s very dynamic.”
While she was in Atlanta, Sadik-Khan was able to cycle along the BeltLine and tour several transportation projects in Atlanta. She was particularly impressed with the work being done by the Midtown Alliance. The Midtown Alliance gave everyone at the meeting a copy of “Street Fight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution,” a book written by Sadik-Khan and Seth Solomonow.
Following the Monday lunch meeting with local stakeholders, people embraced her message that “there’s more to streets than just cars.”
Faye DiMassimo, general manager of the city’s Renew Atlanta, was enthusiastic about Sadik-Khan’s ideas and how Atlanta could benefit from her ideas.
DiMassimo was not alone.
“I think people were fairly blown away by what she and her team were able to accomplish in NYC and the work she’s been doing with Bloomberg Associates,” said Kevin Green, president and CEO of the Midtown Alliance. “It would be great if we could tap into that talent pool, and especially her.”
Bloomberg Associates’ business model is that they don’t accept money. “Instead they get a commitment upfront from the mayor that the city will implement the recommendations,” Green said. “And they work in areas beyond just transportation, including affordability and equity.”
In her NYC role, Sadik-Khan was an activist transportation commissioner who closed off streets overnight using orange construction barrels and painting pavement to make room for cyclists and pedestrians.
She closed Broadway off to cars in Times Square, she helped establish nearly 400 miles of bike lanes, and she led the creation of more than 60 plazas citywide.
Sadik-Khan was able to make such a difference because Mayor Bloomberg had her back – even when he was running for re-election and when she had become a lightning rod in the city.
Now the New York City model is one that many cities would like to replicate. Sadik-Khan, through the National Association of Transportation Officials, has been working with 35 cities, including Macon, Ga., to sign on to Vision Zero – pledging to work eliminate traffic fatalities.
Atlanta can be No. 36, Sadik-Khan told the Midtown Alliance gathering at the Fox Theatre.
“For decades, streets have been for cars,” Sadik-Khan said. “That didn’t happen by chance. It’s happened by design.”
About 350,000 people walked through Times Square every day, but they only had about 10 percent of the public space. Cars were carrying about 10 percent of the traffic through the square and had about 90 percent of space.
Today, Times Square has been transformed into a place for people.
“There’s more to streets than just cars,” Sadik-Khan said. “When you build a city for cars, that’s what you’ll get. With walkable and bikeable streets, you get better neighborhoods for living and working. Big cities have choices on how we get around.”
Green described Midtown as being at a tipping point.
“We have an opportunity to create a community that is truly exceptional,” said Green, who described “happy people on foot” as Midtown’s mission. “We really have to get it right for our community. We need to be more livable, more walkable…. Walkability should be our No. 1 issue. It’s more than just sidewalks. It’s a walk that’s pleasant and engaging.”
Jim Durrett, president of the Buckhead Community Improvement District, said Sadik-Khan made a great deal of sense.
“She presented compelling reasons for us to think very differently about how we need to get around in this region,” said Durrett, who also serves on MARTA’s board. “We can’t approach transportation and mobility in the future the way we have in the past.”
Sadik-Khan, however, was not a big fan of autonomous cars.
“It’s not about technology. It’s about the street,” she said. “It’s not about building better cars. It’s about building better cities. When you change the street, you change the world.”