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Hit Piece on Innovative NYC Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan Shows She Gets Under Pols' Skin

A feature about Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan raises questions about why the creative, innovative public servant is so frequently attacked.

Sunday's edition of the New York Times had a national story, by Michael Grynbaum, about New York Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, who many consider to be the most innovative and successful public transportation official in the country. The article comes across as one nasty piece of journalism. It's filled with quotes from unidentified people complaining and whining about Sadik-Khan's aggressive, take-charge personality and their hurt feelings, along with quotes from a gaggle of NYC politicians who take the opportunity to whack her, ignoring her effectiveness. While acknowledging Sadik-Khan's success and smarts, the piece seems aimed at undermining her accomplishments. The big question is, why?

What warranted this lengthy  feature? Apparently it's that the commissioner moves too fast; that she "has a brusque, I know best style, and a reluctance to compromise." 

“She couldn’t care less whether you like her or not,” said a city official who has been close to Ms. Sadik-Khan for years and insisted on anonymity for fear of straining the friendship. “She doesn’t suffer people who don’t support her lightly. She’ll scream right back.”

To be fair, Grynbaum offers some balance, writing, "Ms. Sadik-Khan has earned international fame for transforming the car-clogged streets of New York." "Even some of her critics concede they are impressed with the scope and the speed of her achievements." "City Hall officials considered Ms. Sadik-Khan a brilliant innovator with a sharp mind for data and details." And her supporters " lionize her as the brave and forward-thinking city planner who ushered in a golden age for bicyclists, pedestrians and environmentalists. Two-wheeled ridership has doubled during her tenure; European-style rapid-transit buses now ply exclusive, camera-enforced lanes; and fewer people have been killed in traffic accidents on New York’s streets than at any time in the past century, according to city records."

Two weeks ago, I wrote a profile of Sadik-Khan (you can read it following this article) that focused on how extraordinary and surprising it is that New York City, often slow to change and innovate, was approaching the future in serious, responsible and creative ways. Sadik-Khan, in implementing Mayor Michael Bloomberg's PlaNYC, indicated that NYC was, in many ways, ahead of other cities in the U.S. in preparing for climate upheaval, new urban migration in the face of declining life in the exurbs, and the still persistent need to reduce emissions.

Reading the Grynbaum piece I was left scratching my head incredulously. Let's get this straight: the efforts of the NYC transportation commissioner have, without a doubt, 1) made the city streets safer; 2) made bus transportation faster; 3) reduced carbon emissions by getting more people out of their cars and onto bicycles; 4) made biking safer, which will lead to more New Yorkers exercising and getting healthier: 5) created many more open spaces in the five boroughs, which in some cases has enhanced real estate values; 6) created opportunities for improved quality of life with swathes of tables and chairs generating communication, reflection and latte drinking; 7) made Manhattan even more of a tourist attraction, with all those visitors spending their euros, yen, pesos, loonies and the rest; and 8) perhaps most important, created a vision for NYC and a model for other cities to emulate, as we prepare for a future with less oil and more people. A future that requires our thinking to go beyond the crankiness of tabloid critics and frustrated car owners, to big visions of urban life over the next decades.

And yet, the primary message of the article is that she is the subject of scorn. What am I missing? Where is the problem? What has NYC lost here, beyond, maybe, a few parking spaces. No one has gotten sick and died, lost their business, been put at risk. People will be healthier and safer. Isn't that what government is about?

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