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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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Part of the responsibility of being a visionary is that people want to hear what you have to say, and there is ample opportunity to articulate your ideas. In reporting, some parts of the media can go gaga about the attractiveness of the vision, and give the impression that the ideas are already underway, already happening, and that the people at the grassroots are being left behind. This makes the community consulting process doubly hard.

I have no doubt that Sadik-Khan's pace can take your breath away. I watched with fascination from my apartment as the bike lane was rapidly built down Columbus Avenue, with a whole new urban art of lines, grids, turns and changes. When I realized that, jeez, parking was actually going to be in what used to be the second lane, I thought, "Oh boy, people aren't going to understand this. What is going to happen?" But the neighborhood quickly adjusted in just a day or two. And yes, there are probably fewer parking spaces, but like it or not, the long-term goal is fewer cars.

As Sadik-Khan told Sarah Goodyear from Grist:

"Every project that we undertake has detractors. Inaction would have its own set of detractors as well. And there is well-covered opposition, but I also think that there is uncovered vocal and deep support for these projects in communities. Every single project that we do, bike project, bus project, or otherwise, goes through the community board. It's been approved by the community board. We work very, very hard to tailor these projects to meet the needs of local businesses and residents. No project is perfect right out of the box, so we go back and tweak them, and do everything we can to adjust them so they work better. I think we've been pretty successful at that. Change is hard. Change is difficult. I like to say that people support change as long as things look exactly as they did before."

Working with the mayor, planning for the future

Even her critics have to admit that as commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan has a slew of accomplishments under her belt. The secret to her success isn't so mysterious: it requires a plan with clear goals. The problems being addressed are researched and analyzed and success is measured and quantified, so the results can be known.

As many know, the mayor, a highly successful businessman, is a data-driven leader. Nothing the city's DOT undertakes is a seat-of-the-pants operation. In a national speech Sadik-Khan outlined the necessary ingredients for changing the game on transportation in your city. Here's how the blog Urbanphile summarized it:

It starts with strong leadership from the top (i.e., the mayor) with a long-term vision for the future. Then you need a policy framework to make it reality. The public needs to know why you’re doing what you’re doing.

[...]

If you don’t have these basics – if you don’t have leadership, don’t have a plan – you might as well hang it up.

For Sadik-Khan, the Holy Grail for planning is the Mayor's PlaNYC. As New York Magazine reported, Sadik-Khan was hired “just as Bloomberg was putting the finishing touches on PlaNYC, a blueprint for expanded green space and a reduced carbon footprint for the city that would require substantial rethinking of key government agencies—especially transportation. PlaNYC was a lot more radical than the mayor got credit for at the time, and a serious departure from how he thought of the city’s physical landscape. It also demonstrated Bloomberg’s affinity for symbolic gestures (like the gimmicky idea of planting 1 million trees). Not only were Sadik-Khan’s ideas about public transportation and open space consistent with PlaNYC, but she, too, intuitively understood the power of symbols—a café table or even a bicycle—to illustrate an appealing vision of the city’s future.

 
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