I had the good fortune of attending a forum last night with Janette Sadik-Khan, the innovative Transportation Commissioner for New York City. She was the featured speaker at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs Complete Streets Initiative, an effort to make local streets more user-friendly for pedestrians, cyclists, transit users and motorists.
New York has taken a number of bold steps since Sadik-Khan began working for Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2007: building new public plazas in places that were once streets (including parts of Times Square), creating new bus rapid transit lines with the New York MTA, adding 300 miles of bike lanes and implementing traffic calming measures to reduce fatalities and injuries caused by motor vehicles in New York City’s five boroughs. The New York MTA is also building a new subway line and extending another.
In other words, New York City made a lot of significant changes quickly, not letting distractors or controversy get in the way even when things didn’t break their way (such as a plan to implement congestion pricing in Manhattan). I think most of what she discussed is highly relevant here, given that some big changes are underway in L.A. County courtesy of Metro’s Measure R program along with many other local initiatives and projects that are either being discussed, studied or implemented across the county.
I few things I heard that I really liked:
•”Just remember the headlines don’t always translate into the opinions of actual people,” said Sadik-Khan. Couldn’t agree more. It’s difficult in some media reports to gauge the degree of opposition or support for a particular projects and many media outlets either don’t offer the context or disclosed they rely on the same people for years for quotes.
•”Safety and sustainability go hand in hand,” she said. “You won’t get more people walking or biking if they don’t feel safe.” Several cities in L.A. County are quickly putting in new bikes but I haven’t seen a lot of data about which are being used and which are not — and why not. For example, there are new bike lanes directly next to three lanes of freeway-like traffic on Huntington Boulevard in El Sereno. It’s great to have the lanes, but I have seen very few people actually using them and non-productive lanes could harm the overall program.
•”People are hungry for public space,” she said, adding that the city managed to avoid its usual five years to complete construction of a project on the public plazas by moving quickly with paint, new curbs street furniture and simple landscaping. Sadik-Khan also said that New Yorkers had given up on the notion that New York’s streets could be changed — because nothing much had been done since a series of one-way streets were created in the 1950s. All in all, a very good reminder to all agencies that speed is a good thing and earns the public’s trust. Taking forever to do relatively simple things (i.e. website upgrades) is a good way to make it look like you’re not minding the store.
A couple of other take-aways on this point: L.A. has the same exact issue as far as its streets go — traffic often stinks, but there seems to be high resistance against doing anything different because of concerns it will impact traffic. Also, New York has seemed especially adept at creating public spaces that are easy to reach. I really like the new Grand Park and L.A. Historic Park in downtown L.A. but I wouldn’t give either a gold medal for their connections to surrounding streets or sidewalks.
•Sadik-Khan said that Mayor Bloomberg is very data driven, which isn’t surprising for a billionaire who owns a giant media company. Therefore, changes impacting transportation are closely tracked to determine if they’re working and a lot of public data is created to earn the public’s trust. (Check out these bike usage stats). That’s how the city knows that retail and car safety has greatly increased near public plazas and the corridors where bus and bike lanes have been implemented. (Here are the stats from when the Times Square plaza was made permanent).
•How did New York do all these things politically and fiscally, asked Metro Board Member Richard Katz, who attended the event. Sadik-Khan said the plans originally came from PlaNYC, a citywide effort to engage residents on planning and transportation issues. They were ultimately approved by community boards across the city with funding from the city budget, which under Bloomberg has emphasized these projects as economic development opportunities, i.e., mobility + quality of life = a strong economy. My three cents: how often do you hear that discussed here?
•Of course there was the inevitable question on what Sadik-Khan would recommend for Los Angeles. She reminded the audience that she attended Occidental College and didn’t have a car at the time, the reason she believes L.A. is doing the smart thing by building out its transit lines (something long in place in New York). She specifically mentioned the importance of connecting LAX to the rail system.
“I would say there’s a lot of opportunity here,” she said. “You have a lot of streets. There’s a lot of room to play.”
She also said it’s important to have bold leadership — not a knock at anyone — and that a good way of showing that is to push projects that be built within the four or eight years a mayor is in office. “Otherwise people believe change can’t happen,” she said.
All in all, it was a great talk — inspiring and mildly depressing at the same time. It reminded me of the many big changes underway here, namely the new rail lines that have opened or that are under construction (two currently, three soon). It also reminded me of the many big unfunded or under-funded plans here, i.e. the Los Angeles River master plan, the Los Angeles Streetcar, the many worthy transit and planning projects that are beyond the reach of Measure R.
Finally, I wanted to emphasize something Sadik-Khan said about cities: they are the future of the planet and they’re the places where most people are going to live. Cities can also be very sustainable because of efficiencies of having many people live close together. But when it comes to funding in the United States, as she emphasized, “Cities are home alone, we have nowhere else to go.”