19961JSK in NYT
- Jun 17, 2013=v= Here's an interview with Janette Sadik-Khan, New York City's
incredible Transportation Commissioner.
Transportation Chief Talks of Giving the Public More Public Spaces
By CLYDE HABERMAN
New York Times | 17-Jun-2013 | Page A14
A wary look fell upon Janette Sadik-Khan when conversation over
breakfast turned suddenly to the protests in Taksim Square in
Istanbul. Where, that look said, was this going?
She relaxed when it became clear that she was not being asked
about authoritarian tendencies in Turkey's leadership. Rather,
the question was about what had sparked the demonstrations:
government plans to rip up a last vestige of green in the heart
of a great city to make way for a mall. This put her on familiar
"People are very possessive and passionate about public space,"
said Ms. Sadik-Khan, the New York City transportation
commissioner. "When it's taken away, I'm not surprised that
there's a strong reaction. If you took away Central Park ..."
She didn't finish the sentence. She didn't have to. New York
would surely have a popular uprising on its hands.
Not that Taksim Square is remotely comparable to Central Park.
The point, the commissioner said, is that "there are not enough
green spaces, open spaces, in cities; what we're seeing is
cities looking to expand the number of places where people can
gather." And so pedestrian plazas have bloomed in this city on
her watch, including some controversial ones in Times Square.
"We did an inventory of our streets early on, and found that
New York was largely a city without seats," she said. "You'd see
people perched on fire hydrants. That's not exactly the mark of
a world-class city. It's not good for families. It's not good
for seniors. It's not good for anyone."
"The mark of a world-class city," she said, "is having
iconic, safe, beautiful public spaces for people to enjoy,
to congregate, to rest, to take in the beauty of the city."
By now, Ms. Sadik-Khan, 53, probably needs no introduction.
Few public figures in New York are as polarizing as she has
been during her six years at the helm of the Transportation
Her supporters are effusive. Last month, the Web site
Business Insider ranked her No. 8 on a list of "50 women who
are changing the world." Two years ago, _Time_ magazine included
her in a roster of American "game changers." A year before that,
_Esquire_ magazine featured her in a series of articles on
"geniuses who give us hope."
Then there are the detractors. We're not talking about people
merely unhappy with innovations like pedestrian plazas, bicycle
lanes and, now, the bike-share program. These are the sorts who
practically froth at the mouth on mention of her name, who
describe her as "wacko-nutso," "eco-fascist," "totalitarian,"
"psycho." And those are just some of the printable words.
A condition that might be called S.K.D.S. -- Sadik-Khan
Derangement Syndrome -- seemed reasonable to discuss during
breakfast at the Breslin, in the Ace Hotel on West 29th
Street. It is a New York hot spot, the kind that makes you
wonder as you look around if it has an unwritten rule barring
anyone over 30. Ms. Sadik-Khan suggested meeting there because,
she said, "I like the booths." They were indeed pleasant.
She settled for grapefruit juice and oatmeal (steel-cut, to
be sure), followed by coffee. Her interviewer, also a coffee
drinker, enjoyed baked eggs with spiced tomato and chorizo.
At the end, Ms. Sadik-Khan insisted on paying for her own meal,
never mind the interviewer's preference for picking up the
entire tab. "It keeps things clean," she explained.
Back to Sadik-Khan Derangement Syndrome. "I don't know what that
is," the commissioner said. Then she laughed. She laughed often,
sometimes out of genuine amusement but other times, it seemed,
to deflect discomfiting questions.
All right, then, let's put it this way: What is it about you
that drives some New Yorkers up the wall? Maybe no one at the
Breslin stopped her to complain about something, but it is
hardly unusual, she acknowledged, for her to get an earful from
the citizenry when she is out and about.
"You know, it's their streets," Ms. Sadik-Khan said. "We don't
live in suburbia, so our front yards are really the streets, and
people are very opinionated about them, as well they should be."
"A lot of it is change, and I certainly am a visible part of
that change," she said. "If you push the status quo, the status
quo is going to push back."
"The last time we've had a major change on New York City streets
was when the Manhattan avenues were changed from two-way to
one-way, and that was during the Eisenhower administration,"
she said. "That's a pretty long time to have your streets in
suspended animation. If we're going to be able to continue to
grow, we have to meet the demands on our streets. Accommodating
a million more people is not going to work by triple-decking the
F.D.R. or the Brooklyn Bridge. We have to find more efficient
and effective and sustainable ways to move people around."
Like the mayor she serves, the commissioner is data-driven.
Discussing the need that she feels for pedestrian zones, she
talked about "354,000 people going through Times Square every
day, and you had 90 percent of the space there allocated to
cars." Slow buses? "Twenty-five percent of the delay is waiting
to get on the bus." Bicycles? "In the last Quinnipiac poll,
New Yorkers gave 66 percent support for bike lanes. We saw 72
percent support for bike share." (Actually, it was 74 percent
of New York City voters, but who counts? That figure, from last
August, could well change in a new poll expected before long.)
Numbers aside, Ms. Sadik-Khan said the broader goal was to
build "a menu of new ways to get around the city." And she is
convinced that cities are essentially on their own trying to
figure things out.
"They're the front lines of delivering to citizens," she said.
"Federal funding is going down. State funding is going down. You
don't see a lot of big policy ideas in transportation. The last
really big idea was the construction of the interstate highway
system." One result, she added, was that American cities became
locked into "a 1950s kind of traffic engineering" that "crowded
out a lot of other planning disciplines."
O.K., a personal question cried out to be asked: Does she own a car?
"Yep," she said. It is used mainly for trips out of town.
"It's not about being anti-car," Ms. Sadik-Khan said. "It's
pro-balance. It's bringing balance back to the streets, making
it easier for people to get around. In lots of ways."
"There's a complicated ballet on the streets of New York," she
said. "You've got drivers, and you've got pedestrians, and
you've got cyclists. And which mode you're in determines how you
feel about the other two." Not all of those groups are created
equal. Remember, she said, "every New Yorker is a pedestrian at
some point during the day."
A version of this article appeared in print on June 17, 2013,
on page A14 of the New York edition with the headline:
Talk of Giving the Public More Public Spaces.