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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.

Who would have thought that New York City, the nation's most populous city, often perceived as lumbering when it comes to change, would be a cutting-edge innovator in transportation and the future of open space? Who would imagine the city could serve as an incubator for the rest of the country for ideas about the future of urban life? At a time when the price of fuel is skyrocketing as its availability decreases and the burst housing bubble turns exurban sprawl into ghost-towns, smart, savvy, creative, environmentally conscious people are returning to the inner city, where a sustainable lifestyle is more feasible.

It's supposed to be nearly impossible to get anything important accomplished quickly in New York City. With powerful, conflicting political interests, tabloids ready to pounce at every opportunity, and a state legislature arbitrarily lording over the world's most influential city from its perch in Albany, progress and innovation face an obstacle course of challenges -- or, more accurately, a minefield. 

But New York City's transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, has turned conventional wisdom on its head. In three years on the job, with her potent combination of smarts, chutzpah and political savvy, Sadik-Khan has made great strides in moving New York City into the 21st century. She has overseen the building of hundreds of miles of innovative bike lanes; she's turned traffic-clogged streets like parts of Broadway into vibrant public spaces; she has secured huge grants from the Feds to improve bus service, and perhaps most importantly to her boss, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, she has made the streets safer than they have been in many decades.

Sam Schwartz, first deputy transportation commissioner from 1982-'86, and now a consultant and columnist, says, "She has this remarkable speed. A speed the likes which of is unmatched." He readily acknowledges that Sadik-Khan has done more in the past few years than anyone "in the past 50."

Gobs of praise, pockets of resistance

Visionary change, especially in a time of economic anxiety and scarcity, is never easy, and Sadik-Khan's remarkable accomplishments have met with resistance from some. On the one hand, she's seen as a brilliant, take-charge innovator, giving hope to many who want change, and receiving some glowing press coverage along the way. Esquire magazine chose her as one of the "The Brightest: 16 Geniuses Who Give us Hope" and writer Lisa Taddeo lavished her with praise

Until one day about five decades after Robert Moses was dethroned, another prophet was anointed. One who wore silk dresses. She looked nicer than Moses, and she had a new way of doing things — using facts and numbers the way he had used will and force. She seemed gentler, too, but she imposed her way almost as much. And whether or not the new officials and the new villagers agreed with her, the intestines of New York City began to quickly unravel once again.

Michael Crowley of New York Magazine says Sadik-Khan manages to be equal parts Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses. She "is a heroic figure of vision and inspiration -- the women who tamed the automobile and made the city safe for cyclists.....'She's a rocket,' says her friend and City Planning director Amanda Burden, courageous, determined, hilarious, fearless, and exuberant." 

But others see Sadik-Khan as moving too fast, not spending the necessary time to prepare people for change; ironic, since Sadik-Khan, ever a political animal, invests a good deal of energy consulting with a wide range of stakeholders. To the conservative tabloid media she has become a lightning rod for their frustrations and a target for their brand of newspaper drama.     

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