Notes from the Complete Streets Conference: New York provides a glimpse into the Future

Janette Sadik-Khan

Janette Sadik-Khan, super hero of complete streets implementation, Occidental College alumna

The most inspiring portion of the Complete Streets Conference was the keynote speaker, Janette Sadik-Khan, transportation commissioner of New York City.  Khan was appointed by Mayor Bloomberg in 2007 and has implemented drastic changes throughout the city including closing streets to vehicular traffic for pedestrian plazas, implementing a vast network of buffered bike lanes, and generally redesigning the conception of the street as a human-based place of transaction.

Something often overlooked in planning are the things we take for granted: our already built environment.  Progressive street ideologues challenge us to expand our thinking, asking us to revisit the most basic design elements: dimensions and scale.  Our world exists in its current form to adhere to the way we live, but as we change, our streets can change as well. This touches on a theme from my thesis, that much of our roads are built to the dimensions of a past era with no design consideration as to how they are used today.  Something Janette Sadik-Khan emphasized repeatedly was that if a business didn’t change the way they were doing business over the course of 60 years, they would fail, and this is the same for cities.  Adjusting laws as well as the built environment (stop signs, lights) for today is one of the first steps towards building cities that will continue to thrive into the next decades.

In order to undertake great changes though, one needs to have public support.  Sadik-Khan’s knowledge and experience in corralling public support was inspirational.  To implement NYC’s complete streets measures she had an arsenal of tricks that ranged the gamut of technical wonkishness to PR glitter. In addition to having the support of the Mayor and a leadership directive to end departmental infighting, she stressed the importance of city agencies creating an accessible narrative and telling a story in order to obtain support for change.  Her constituent-based approach focused on human perception and identity.  City changes are branded towards the individual, such as designing midblock crossings based in desire lines, focusing on wayfinding needs, and creating a system of “heads up mapping.” The PR campaigns used in NYC are sophisticated and enticing- you know they spend a lot of money on this branding and that the effort has paid off.

plaza transformation

Under-utilized street transformed into pedestrian plaza in NYC

The most interesting part of New York’s efforts is that the city does not view these street strategies as transportation, but as “hard core economic development.”  Sadik-Khan cited that on 1st and 2nd Aves, where they had applied a buffered bike lane and streetscape improvements, businesses experienced 40% less vacancy.  These improvements are at the forefront of getting people back on the streets, using public space as a catalyst for culture and economy.  This re-humanization of a city through streets proves that pedestrians need not be subordinate to engineering for cars. Though it is easy for New Yorkers to talk about a world without cars, the perspective of a people-basis for transportation planning has traction anywhere because of its ability to stimulate economic development.  New York provides a glimpse for everyone else into the future: environments engineered towards people.

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