New York City: Inspiration for a quicker, smarter Seattle?

By Josh Cohen
Crosscut archive image.

Traffic in New York City.

By Josh Cohen

If Seattle is going to make dramatic innovations in transportation, the city may need to act fast.

That was the big message when one of the nation’s most innovative transportation leaders visited Seattle recently to talk about the city’s future.

Along with practical advice, former New York City Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan delivered a bit of an urbanist sermon on reclaiming streets when she spoke to a packed house at Town Hall on April 15.

She was at the helm from 2007-2013 under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and is largely credited as the architect of the city’s ongoing transformation from a car-centric city to the pedestrian plaza-laden, protected bike lane-rich, bike-sharing place Seattle wishes it could be.

Crosscut archive image.
Janette Sadik-Khan, former commissioner of New York City's Department of Transportation, walking with Darryl Irick, New York MTA senior vice president of buses. Credit: Marc A. Hermann

Sadik-Khan was a speaker in Seattle Department of Transportation’s four-part “Where Are We Going?” series that’s bringing national and international transportation experts to Seattle to talk about how they implemented major change in their respective cities.

Over the course of her 45-minute speech, Sadik-Khan highlighted New York’s “golden-era” accomplishments and offered a few salient lessons for Seattle to take to heart.

The theme of the night? Bucking the status quo.

“It requires really hard work to get beyond the dashboard view of our streets,” said Sadik-Khan. “You can’t move a city without a vision.”

One of the major themes of NYC DOT’s street plan was re-molding underutilized space for pedestrian use. They created 60 pedestrian plazas in six years. Their most famous example is Times Square, where they closed five blocks of Broadway to create a huge, car-free space.

Bike infrastructure was another key part of the plan. The DOT installed 400 miles of on-street bike lanes, including 30 miles of protected bike lanes. The city’s bike share program launched during her tenure. New Yorkers take over 34,000 rides on the local bike share, Citi Bike, each day, which SDOT Director Scott Kubly pointed out is slightly higher than LINK light rail’s daily use.

Similarly to Mayor Ed Murray’s new rhetoric about the end of “mode wars,” Sadik-Khan emphasized that New York's push for better and safer ways to get around without a car is “not anti-car. It’s pro-choice.”

Sadik-Khan also highlighted the creation of New York’s first bus-only lanes, art projects on city streets to make public space more appealing and other small touches such as benches, new bike racks and new way-finding signage.

As with any major change, none of this came particularly easy. Some projects, such as the Prospect Park West protected bike lane, became a battleground for old New York versus new.

“When you push the status quo, the status quo pushes right back,” said Sadik-Khan.

But in the end, the DOT got its way. Sadik-Khan attributes it to the speed with which projects were implemented. Projects were treated as pilots with planters and paint — and the promise that if something wasn’t working, the DOT would tweak it until it was. Sadik-Khan said that delivering projects fast and showing people what was possible was critical. “Changing people’s expectation of what can happen on city streets was a huge sea change.”

For process-loving Seattle, that could be a difficult message. But it’s certainly not a wholly new concept for SDOT and the mayor. The Second Avenue protected bike lane is on the ground because Murray and Kubly implemented it as a relatively inexpensive pilot project and have been tweaking its design ever since.

While that’s just one example compared to New York’s hundreds over Sadik-Khan’s tenure, Murray showed interest. Answering questions after Sadik-Khan’s talk, the mayor said, “We have a lot of catch up to do. We need to move fast, take risks and allow people to make mistakes.”

SDOT's four-part "Where are we going?" series will continue with events May 6 and June 10. To learn about upcoming events and speakers, go here


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