During Janette Sadik-Khan's six years as the New York City transportation commissioner under then-mayor Michael Bloomberg, she implemented a massive change in the city's streets, adding 400 miles of bike lanes and 60 pedestrian plazas—including a huge plaza in Times Square, which required shutting down car traffic on parts of Broadway. It's an approach that was often viewed as controversial; although New York Times hailed her as a "bicycle visionary," the New York Post gave her the far less flattering moniker "psycho bike lady."
Sadik-Khan says it wasn't always easy, but that a majority of New Yorkers now approve of the changes. In her new book, Streetfight, she details the whole process as a model for other cities that are looking to increase transit options as they grow.
She sat down with Mayor Sylvester Turner this week in Houston ahead of his mobility address, in which Turner held up a plan to diversify the city's transportation options with more commuter rails and increased pedestrian access. That makes Turner the first mayor Sadik-Khan says she's ever heard of to give a mobility address, something she thinks is a sign of his commitment to improving Houston's transportation system. "It’s a fascinating time," she says. "Transportation has been such a sleepy field for so many years and now we’re the innovation leaders; now, it’s all about transportation."
Houstonia: A lot of what you did in New York was controversial at the time, but it seemed like people relaxed a lot once the changes were made and people got used to them. Here in Houston, a lot of proposed transportation projects, like the Post Oak bus lane near the Galleria, have caused heated debate. Is it par for the course for transportation projects to get this response?
Janette Sadik-Khan: Well, it really is. That’s why I think the one of the biggest innovations we did in New York was piloting projects, trying them out. And testing them. And so we presented them that way to the communities—we’re going to try it, and if it works we’ll keep it and if not we’ll put it back. It really went a long way to reducing that nervousness and that anxiety that people felt about the change and so they were more receptive to it, because they had the opportunity to influence how it went. And there wasn’t a single project that we did that we didn’t tweak in some way.
But change is hard, you know? And there was a backlash, certainly. Because when you change things ... people are very used to how their streets operate. They’ve operated the same way for 50 years, and how dare you change them? And to be from the government and saying you’re going to be changing it and making it better is a double whammy that you’ve got to get over. But what we’re able to show is that if you build these projects, try them on for size, see how it works, and you’ve got a strong vision, you work quickly, you’ve got a lot of data to show what you do and what the impact of these projects were, we found at the end of the administration, the vast majority of New Yorkers supported these changes.
People’s expectations of their streets changed because we showed what was possible. If we had just done modeling, or engineering drawings, we never would have gotten there. So moving quickly and showing the potential of the streets that we have that were hidden in plain sight was a really important way that we were able to get that change done.
What do you think of what you've seen so far in Houston?
We walked around the downtown today, and Houston’s got great bones. You can sort of see the future actually being built literally right in front of us. And it’s interesting to see the increasing numbers of people moving downtown, with the number of residents expected to triple in the next few years.
And it really does show that if you build it they will come. And if you create livable, walkable neighborhoods and make it easy to get around, people really like that, and by improving the quality of life for people in your city with those kinds of investments—bike lanes and plazas and bus lanes—you really improve the economics of the city. The economic development of the city is dramatically improved when you invest in people and places.
In New York, a lot of public transportation infrastructure is already there. In Houston, we’re not very far in that regard. Do you think the improvements in our transportation system will be more cost-intensive because of that lack of infrastructure?
Well, you have to start somewhere. And I think that the new light rail that you've got going is a great down payment on the future of Houston, and you can build out from there. But you have to start with a spine, a backbone. You know in NYC, our spine started in 1904, and you know, real estate developers invested in it.
It’s really interesting to see how the real estate community understands the value, and what it does to increase property values, when you put down a really strong transit spine. So in Houston, what you’re seeing in terms of the light rail and in terms of the surface transit renaissance, with the remade bus network, is really exciting. I think that approach, to really looking holistically at your surface transportation, is a model for other cities. I’d love to see other cities take the Houston model and run with it.
How important is density when it comes to making transit options work?
I think density is destiny when it comes to these kinds of projects. I mean, for transit-oriented development, it’s critical. And having just the volume of people to anchor a downtown, a neighborhood, a community, is really key. But you have to lay down the transportation network to make that possible. People aren’t just going to come because you put in some nice trees, you actually need to make it possible for them to get there easily, affordably, and conveniently.
Texas has recently been in the news because of the battles cities like Houston and Austin have been having with Uber over the driver screening process. How important do you think ridesharing is, and what's your take on the current dust ups?
I think shared mobility is the future and there’s no question that ridesharing is here to stay—that genie’s not going back in the bottle. And I think that’s great. Young people today don’t really want to own cars ... it’s just a hassle. So the idea that you can just call it up whenever you need it, it’s fantastic. And then freeing up all the real estate that’s taken up with parking cars and moving cars, it’s incredible to think what we could do to repurpose our roads, whether it’s better walking or biking infrastructure, housing options, parks, all of that. So I think that it’s a great trend.
It’s just important that we set a level playing field for all the parties that are in there, so all the transportation network companies, whether it's Uber or Lyft or taxis, they all need to have the same rules of the road and same rules of the game. That’s really important. Same with security and background checks and all the rest. But I think it’s really fair for mayors to say it needs to be an equal playing field, and we need to look after the safety of our passengers and the condition of the cars and make sure that this works for the city that they’re operating in. I don’t think it’s anything more than that.
This interview has been condensed and edited.