Saturday, March 20th, 2010

Janette Sadik-Khan on Changing the Transportation Game

I don’t normally post on Saturdays, but am compelled to put out this “Urbanophile Extra” to highlight this absolutely beyond must-watch video of NYC Transportation Commissioner Jannette Sadik-Khan explaining to an audience in LA what it takes to implement progressive transportation policy in our cities. If you care about transportation in our cities, you must watch this relatively short piece.

It’s not just that I’m sucking up to Sadik-Khan here. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I am sucking up to her, but more than that, she says more about this in about one total minute of talking than most people do in a lifetime. (If the video doesn’t display for you, click here).

Want to change the game on transportation in your city? Here’s Sadik-Khan’s workplan for you:

  1. It starts with strong leadership from the top (i.e., the mayor) with a long term vision of the city.
  2. Then you need a policy framework to make it reality. “The public needs to know why you’re doing what you’re doing. What’s the plan?!”
  3. You need a team of great people, and the institutional capability to deliver.
  4. Move fast, don’t get bogged down in endless debates, and don’t be afraid to experiment. The results will speak for themselves. (I’m reminded of Jaime Lerner’s dictum: “If you want to make it happen, do it fast.”)

It’s really that simple folks. If you don’t have these basics – if you don’t have leadership, don’t have a plan – you might as well hang it up.

Like Sadik-Khan, I think you’ve got to give major credit to Mayor Bloomberg on this. As a CEO and guy who built a major business, he instinctively gets what it takes to make it happen on all these fronts.

And it was great to hear Sadik-Khan give some props to the folks at Streetsblog and Streetfilms. Way to go!

Update: Since I see this post went out on a number of transit lists, I thought maybe you’d like to read my award winning paper on boosting public transit ridership in Chicago.

New York: Leadership in Transportation Design
Another Epic Public Space WIN in New York
15 Quick, Easy, and Cheap Ways to Make a Big Urban Design Impact in Indianapolis Right Now

Topics: Strategic Planning, Transportation
Cities: New York

16 Responses to “Janette Sadik-Khan on Changing the Transportation Game”

  1. Sadik-Kahn’s advice is sensible for New York, which already has superb transit infrastructure to provide alternatives as the city puts the squeeze on cars. I wonder how well it will go over in Los Angeles. Mayor Villaraigosa talks about acting fast on transit, but he just means getting things in one decade instead of three.

  2. Remember that Sadik-Khan does not run the MTA. I interpreted her comments as being mostly around street design, public plazas, bike lanes, and other quality of space matters. Clearly, you can move very quickly on pilot programs and small scale efforts there.

    Most importantly, if you don’t have that long term vision though, your investments aren’t taking you anywhere, no matter how fast you move on pilot programs.

  3. Chris Worden says:

    If it starts with strong leadership at the top, I think Indianapolis is hosed.

  4. urbanpln says:

    Chicago certainly does not have those 4 basics. Mayor Daley has done a good job but, it’s time for change. We don’t know what his vision is and, I don’t think anyone in that administration knows. When was the last time you’ve heard him say (publicly) that we need a long term plan that includes public transit. Now that I think of it, I’ve never heard him say anything about what his vision is for Chicago. I think it is important for a leader to explain what their plans are (intelligently).

  5. Alon Levy says:

    What JSK is proposing here is essentially a blueprint for authoritarian planning, a method for which both she and Jaime Lerner have come under a lot of criticism. The upside of this method is that it’s fast. The downsides are,

    1. Indifference to community concerns about such issues as delivery truck access.

    2. Neglect of minority and generally off-CBD neighborhoods. The New York neighborhoods with the most air pollution and the most pedestrian-hostile roads have gotten nothing from JSK, most of whose projects are in the city’s gentrified areas.

    3. A general view of the city as consisting of a gentrified core and suburbs, with nothing in between. This is an extension of #2.

    4. A preference for the spectacular over the functional. Lines on a map are cool; general improvements in bus circulation are boring.

    Authoritarian visionaries are a real problem in planning, because their ideas are rarely what the city needs. Competent governments can get away with having vision, because part of what makes them competent is detailed knowledge of the city’s different parts, which means their visions are likely to be good for the community. However, no government in the US is competent, which means city leaders need to spend more time listening to local concerns and less time ramming projects on neighborhoods that don’t want them.

  6. Alon, one can certainly take a different point of view on JSK. But I would certainly not characterize this as authoritarian. New York does have something called “elections” and one of them just happened and Bloomberg won again. Elections have consequences. Even landslide victories usually have very large percentages of people who voted the other way. They are often bitterly disappointed in the result and continue to fight – which is of course their right. But that doesn’t mean the mayor and his key political appointees have to defer to anyone who has a different point of view.

    The model unleashed by Jane Jacobs whereby almost anyone gets a veto on any project, as necessary as it was at the time, is killing us today. It is simply not reasonable to expect there to be nearly 100% consensus in advance of any action being taken on an issue. I’m all in favor of community input and think we absolutely ought to have some level of it and neighborhood concerns should be taken into account. But that doesn’t mean you give every dissenter a veto.

    Whatever one can say, Bloomberg’s policies are no secret. He told the city “this is where we’re going”. And he won. The voters spoke on this one.

  7. K says:

    I see the New York model as “how it should be”. There is a theoretical basis for the program in the work of Jan Gehl, pushed by a dedicated public servant in Sadik-Kahn and championed by a willing leader in Bloomberg.

    In my home town of Melbourne, the same story can be told in the development of Swanston St. Gehl was the basis again, the project was pushed by the head of urban design Rob Adams and championed by the Mayor Robert Doyle. Doyle was advocating re-introducing car traffic to Swanston St prior to election. Not only has he seen the light but is valiantly promoting further changes to restrict vehicle access.

    Gehl uses Copenhagen as a basis for work and often makes the point that Copenhagen was a series of small adjustments starting back in the 1960’s rather than a single grand project (the need for a long term vision not withstanding). A lot of small scale efforts have paid dividends for them.

  8. K says:

    I see Alon’s point about authoritive planning, because the working example is Robert Moses. I suspect that the people at the NY DOT might argue that they did consult extensively. But when Sadik-Kahn says it comes from the top, she’s just being nice to Bloomberg. It came from beneath, Bloomberg just supported it and “sold” it back to the people who might otherwise have objected.

    Dan Hill at City of Sound made a nice post about the topic of resident veto recently, I see Jarrett has also commented there.

    FYI Aaron, Dan Hill came up with the “street as platform” theory that you mentioned in an earlier post. The original post can be read there.

  9. Alon Levy says:

    Aaron, you’re somewhat misrepresenting Bloomberg’s victory. What happened was, Bloomberg decided that he wanted a third term, against overwhelming public opposition to lifting the city’s term limits. He bribed city council with a promise of giving them a third term as well, and circumvented two separate referendums mandating term limits. He then spent tens of millions on reelection, scaring the heavyweight Democrats out of the race. The Democrat who won was a lightweight who had no positive campaign, and still managed to come in a few points short of victory against a Mayor with 70% approval rating. Bloomberg’s victory is a reflection of the power of money in buying election; it’s not popular will, and it’s not democracy.

    At any rate, my reference to authoritarianism isn’t just a feature of the political system. It’s a feature of process. Partly in response to Jacobs’ criticism of city planning, New York instituted the 197a process, allowing community boards to make plans for zoning. But the 197a plans are just a suggestion, and city practice is to ignore them and instead hand off large amounts of land to developers for megaprojects. The city isn’t siding with the majority of the community, but with a tiny minority. A standard practice of JSK is to stack rooms with supporters to create the pretense of community approval.

    Giving the community a voice does not mean stagnation. On the contrary, some community boards have embraced positive change, when the people made the correct pitch. For example, the community leaders of western Queens are still reeling from Moses’s freeway plans. Thus, the community is very receptive to traffic reduction ideas on QB, such as widening the sidewalk; needless to say, JSK has not tapped into this support, as Queens is not part of the gentrified zone. Conversely, the community is less receptive to traffic calming ideas that close down intersecting streets, believing those are a precursor to turning QB into a freeway; however, even those got support when the street calming activists made the correct pitch.

  10. K, I’ve only got a sec here, but what you’re describing of Bloomberg is not incompatible with strong leadership from the top. I ran some fairly sizeable teams and had significant budget authority in my day, though not Bloomberg levels obviously. But I’ve always said my management philosophy is that I’ve got two main responsibilities as a leader: to build the team that can get the job done, and to create an environment they can be successful in. As part of the latter, I’ve always told people who work for me that they need to have ideas too, and they need to tell me what we need to do to make it happen. My analogy is that I’ve got this big gun, and I need them to load it with ammo and help me figure out where to aim it. No leader can come up with 100% of the ideas himself. No good one at least.

    The Streetsblog guys have some great quotes from Bloomberg’s early days when he seemed to embrace traffic as indicative of a strong economy. But people made the case to him for a better approach, he saw the value in the that, and embraced it.

  11. cdc guy says:

    “A standard practice of JSK is to stack rooms with supporters to create the pretense of community approval.”

    As someone with some experience on both sides of zoning disputes (not in NYC), this is far from rare behavior by both NIMBYs and project advocates.

  12. Lynn Stevens says:

    I’ve been thinking about this and your previous post in relation to what makes a city attractive. Cities can focus on what might attract people to the city, what might make the city liveable, and/or what might keep people from leaving. These are not mutually exclusive.

    Creating great places and great transportation design might attract people AND make it liveable given the role that design plays in our everyday lives even when we don’t realize it (sometimes the best design is seemless, unnoticeable, and well-designed because of it). Keeping the train stations clean and the buses running on time, though, are what make it liveable and may keep people from leaving. A great education system may both attract and keep people from leaving.

  13. Thanks for bringing this to our attention. I think JSK has done well at her job, and Bloomberg deserves to be credited for making New York a better place because of his leadership and her efforts.

    I think the difference between her and Robert Moses would be that she advocates for small-scale “improvements as experiments” and then using those to build consensus. Moses just wanted his own grand vision and damn the consequences. Moses had no opportunities to gather feedback, whereas JSK integrates it into the process.

    The idea that “no government in the US is competent” is just plain silly. Our cities could always be better, but they are still great places to live.

  14. K says:

    True Aaron, and I would say pretty much the same thing about our Mayor Robert Doyle. To effectively flip flop on previous statements and then take a posisition that is counter-intuitive to a lot of minds takes a large degree of bravery. I’d like to think all our leaders are capable of it. If I’ve noticed a trend it is that there are a number of traditionally conservative leaders doing this (Doyle is conservative and add Boris Johnston’s recent love of cycling to the mix). I love the idea that urbanism is a bipartisan issue, but that’s getting off topic.

  15. Alon Levy says:

    Hierarchists often like to experiment within the parameters of their vision: a war for a General, highways for Moses, pedestrianization for JSK. Once the top-level policy has been decided behind closed doors, it makes a lot of sense for the hierarchist to have a discussion about implementation. In terms of how much experimentation was involved, Moses was very innovative. He was just unwilling to waver on the basic parameter of turning New York into a CBD and suburbs, without neighborhoods, and neither is JSK.

    American cities are great to live in despite government, not because of it. If you think about which areas are considered the most entrepreneurial – India, Israel, Ireland, the US – they’re the places where government is so offputting good people don’t want to work for it.

    Bloomberg’s management could learn some things from the Urbanophile consulting. Bloomberg’s a master of the not-invented-here syndrome. Come to him with a matching software that could save the city $20 million on finding substitute teachers, and he’ll find some excuse to brush you off. Come to him with a grassroots upzoning idea, and he’ll ignore you in favor of a big business-friendly plan. And so on… being a good CEO at one company doesn’t always make a businessman a good CEO at another company; why should it make him a good mayor?

  16. Will Wiener says:

    Any positive comments about government and its relationship to infratsructure in New York are totally misplaced.
    While cities throughout the country have built new transit infrastructure in the post war period, New York has only
    its recently concluded connection to Kenndy airport as
    an improvement over the past 60 or 70 years.

    Meanwhile the 2nd avenue subway (begun in tnhe 70’s)
    is now supposed to be concluded by 2018 and the date
    for an east side connection for the Long Island Rail Road
    is now 2015 (another 70’s idea)

    The MTA now teeters on the edge of bankruptcy so noone
    knows if these decades delayed , way over budget projects
    will be further delayed.

    Let’s not let a few meager street or sidewalk enhancements
    obscure the big picture when it comes to New York – a city
    dominated by greedy unions and excessive government spending which leaves no room for infrastructure improvements.

    While New York has stagnated new systems and new lines have been built nearly everywhere, even in economically challenged places like Cleveland and St. Louis.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

About the Urbanophile


Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

Full Bio


Please email before connecting with me on LinkedIn if we don't already know each other.



Copyright © 2006-2014 Urbanophile, LLC, All Rights Reserved - Click here for copyright information and disclosures