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Surprise: Big Old New York City Is the Cutting Edge for Urban Transportation and a Vision for a Sustainable Future

Thanks to Janette Sadik-Khan, NYC is setting an example for the rest of the country, innovating in public transportation and the pedestrian automobile dynamic.

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Change that looks to address a future that hasn't quite arrived -- like climate chaos -- is difficult and can produce fierce resistance from the protectors of the status quo. Just look at the success conservatives and the Tea Party, with huge funding by the billionaire Koch brothers, have had in scuttling cap and trade. With endless resources and fake think-tanks, conservatives have actually convinced a growing number of Americans to deny the scientific reality that life on the planet will be quite different in the coming decades.

The future of NYC also forces people to look ahead, when they are not necessarily ready. New York is expected to add another million people over the next 20-30 years. Now is the time to plan and build the infrastructure and figure out the best ways to handle the growth. 

And like it or not, change for the 21st century is about tackling the special status of the automobile, and in some ways the unfair perks that drivers have always had in America, even in a city where so many use mass transportation.

Sadik-Khan says, "I look at it as balance. About a third of New Yorkers walk, about a third of New Yorkers take transit, and about a third of New Yorkers drive. We haven't allocated our street space accordingly. When you think about it, so many things have changed in the last 25 years in New York City. Crime is down, our schools are better, parks are better. The one thing that hasn't changed in 25 years are our streets. No business would be in business for 25 years if they hadn't changed the way they worked."

Sadik-Khan's focus on bicycles and pedestrians has caused pushback, especially from the New York Post, with headlines like: "Strangled by bikes: Transport commish is out of control."   

The tabloids have taken up the cause of the "forgotten driver," and advocate for neighborhoods whose residents may feel they have been by passed too quickly. Ironically, they paint the transportation reformers, not the car drivers, as elites, even though the changes being implemented are enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers and large numbers of visitors, who bring huge spending money to the city -- and even though no car has been removed from the streets. In fact, the Transportation Department has data showing that traffic moves faster in certain key areas as a result of the changes, and that businesses are thriving where the pedestrian traffic has multiplied -- retail asking rents in Times Square rose 71 percent, the biggest increase in history, and key stakeholders, from the local business districts to community boards, are pleased with what is happening. 

However, as is often the case with competing media, it's easy to generate tensions between Manhattan and the Outer Boroughs, where cars are more plentiful and people more conservative. The tabloids love to focus on a visible target, demonize him/her and drive a wedge of outrage to sell papers. And in the case of Sadik-Khan, the more that magazines can't help themselves from lavishing praise and (in a somewhat sexist manner) obsessing about how attractive, hot, and hip she is, the more she is attacked by the tabloids -- fodder for a faux class war.

Change is difficult

It is important to not underestimate the impact of change, which can be hard for many people. In a world where unwanted change is imposed on people all the time, many want their lives to be as predictable as possible. So when they walk out of their apartment in the morning and see chairs and large flower pots instead of the vehicles they saw the day before, they may be taken aback (though probably eventually thrilled).

 
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