Profiles in Design: Janette Sadik-Khan
An Interview with the Author of ‘Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution’
Thursday, November 3, 2016
Designer: Janette Sadik-Khan
Specialties: City street redesigns and urban transportation policy.
Notable Projects: Author of Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution and former commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation, where she helped redesign Times Square and start the Citi Bike program.
City planners are faced with a perplexing future. Congestion, population, and pollution continue to squeeze our commuters, consumers, and residents. Janette Sadik-Khan has responded with a dramatic idea: Build fewer roads. Instead, she asks us to view our streets as dynamic and safe public space. Her innovative programs focus on simple redesigns and inexpensive reallocation of space, and she invites readers to reimagine the role streets play in our lives in her data-driven book Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution.
You emerged as the clear winner of the brutal “streetfight” in New York City. Has that affected the way that smaller towns like Santa Barbara are looking at their streets? I took a lot of the heat along the way, but New Yorkers were the biggest winners of the streetfight. A lot of cities don’t have grand plazas or town squares, so streets are our de facto civic, cultural, and community spaces. Yet streets in cities big and small have been designed for cars for the last century, and we’ve forgotten that they could be any different. This is an incredible missed opportunity.
Making streets work better for transit and for people who walk and bike is controversial at times. But we’ve seen in many cities that once you scratch the surface, that there’s a real need to update our infrastructure and that people are really hungry for new ways to get around. Given the choice, people will choose better streets. The biggest lesson for cities large and small is that if we can transform streets in New York City, you can transform them anywhere.
How has your careful attention to data helped drive your street designs? The fight over city streets tends to get stuck on misconceptions about how they function. People assume that building more highways or widening streets will somehow solve congestion, or that traffic hot spots can be erased simply with new signs and signals. If that were the case, then Los Angeles, Houston, and Atlanta would be moving at highway speed after 60 years of highway building.
Meanwhile, a lot of people fear that bike lanes, bus lanes, and increased pedestrian space will bring car traffic to a standstill and crush small businesses. There’s a growing trove of data that shows that the opposite is true: More roads lead to more traffic congestion, and creating space for buses, bikes, and pedestrians can actually help keep traffic moving.
We looked at tax data in New York City and found that retailers thrived where we built plazas, bike and bus lanes. Data provided a bigger context for understanding how our streets work and for prioritizing our efforts. If you think your city will somehow build its way out of congestion and into economic prosperity with more roads, I’ve got a bridge to sell you.
You say that using the perspective of moving people, instead of just moving cars, when designing streetscapes improves the quality of life of city residents. Can you explain this? Wide streets don’t make cities great. It’s the people and places that make a city worth living in, working in, and visiting. So it’s not the cars that you want; it’s the people in them. Investments in streets that make it easier for people to get around without a car are investments in a city’s economic vibrancy. People argue about bike lanes, but their impact is felt well beyond the lane, improving the safety and function of the entire street.
How do you suggest cities like Santa Barbara foster more bicycling routes without eliminating the already limited amount of street parking available? When you suggest taking away a parking space, some people react as if you’re taking away their firstborn child. But streets aren’t a zero-sum game, and there’s a lot more flexibility to our lanes than meets the eye. A lot of our greatest street designs retained parking, either with “floating” parking lanes that protected a curbside bike path, by reducing lane widths instead of removing entire lanes, or by taking a new look at parking regulations to accommodate deliveries and customers on side streets. Every city has its own opportunities, and designs can be tailored to each city’s needs.
Global research also finds that business owners tend to overestimate their revenue from customers who drive while undervaluing how many of their customers walk, bike, and take transit. If you think a business is 100 percent dependent on every customer arriving by car, there may be more to the story, but it’s a problem that can be fixed by providing more transportation choices, not more car lanes.
Santa Barbara is a particularly scenic city with great year-round weather. Some would say that we are an optimal city to implement some of your transportation policies. What kinds of benefits do your streetscape designs offer us? Good weather conditions are an important plus, but we found that a safe, interconnected network of bike infrastructure is the primary determinant of whether people want to ride. We have brutal winters and summers in New York City, and still we see large numbers of people riding because the streets are safer and more accessible to people on bikes — including to women and families — young and old.
I think there’s also a misconception that riding a bike is a recreational activity. Biking, walking, and quality transit aren’t just fun and games, and they’re not political statements or lifestyle choices. They’re essential pieces of a 21st-century transportation network, and cities aren’t going to survive this century unless they diversify their streets.
In Santa Barbara, as elsewhere, when neighborhoods “get better,” the longtime residents — from renters and homeowners to artists and businesses — often get displaced. How do you design cities to accommodate the people and workers who have always lived there? Everybody deserves better streets. They’re not out-of-place in any neighborhood or in conflict with traditional neighborhood patterns. What we’ve seen in city after city is that street designs that support more transportation options help make neighborhoods thrive, whether they’re in existing and emerging communities. And we see that support and public opinion eventually catches up with the experience as fears over changing the street give way to appreciation for a new road order.