Redesigning mobility for the future

Janette Sadik-Khan has been the force behind New York’s dramatic shift to more sustainable forms of transport from 2007 - 2013. As the former Commissioner of New York City’s Department of Transportation (NYC DOT) she talked about the significant transport changes made in the recent years and how New York City is giving mobility back to its people.

New York City
New York City © NYCDOT

What is NYC DOT’s approach to enhancing the transportation network?

Janette Sadik-Khan (JSK): To meet the challenge of accommodating an additional one million residents by 2030, we have been making significant investmentsin our transportation network. The key has been to encourage and enable New Yorkers to switch from automobiles to subways and buses and to the power of their feet by walking and biking more.

We have made it a priority to create multi-modal hubs like Peter Minuit Plaza that seamlessly connect ferry riders to transit lines and bicycle lanes, and to enable cyclists to pedal the first miles of their commutes by installing bicycle racks near subway stations. These strategies are anchored by our commitment to make the streets safe for everyone, The years 2009 to 2011 have been the safest in New York City’s history.

How did the city make cycling a real, viable form of transportation?

JSK: New York City is ideal for bicycling. The land is mostly flat and 67% of trips cover a distance of under three miles. Cycling used to be an extreme sport in NYC with a culture of daredevil cyclists that made cycling look unsafe. We changed that and showed that cycling is not only safe, but it is an efficient and healthy way to navigate the city. We’ve developed an extensive network of bicycle lanes of more than 280 miles (450 km) since 2007. We’ve found that streets with bike lanes have 40% fewer fatal accidents, while streets with protected bike lanes are up to 50% safer for everyone using the road.

We also installed protected bike paths that use parked cars to separate cyclists from moving vehicles. NYC DOT pioneered this with the first-of-its-kind protected path along Manhattan’s Ninth Avenue. Today, more than 20 miles (32km) of these protected bike lanes exist.

Another strategy that has doubled the number of cyclists between 2007 and 2011 is the expansion of bicycle parking. We worked with the Department of City Planning to develop Bikes in Buildings legislation so that cyclists can park their bicycles in or close to their workplaces. We have also improved on-street bike parking opportunities, installing more than 13,000 racks citywide. Some on-street models were the product of an international design competition we held in 2008. Recently, we unveiled new bike racks repurposed from obsolete parking meter poles. Our goal is to retrofit 12,000 of these poles and transform them into bike racks.

How did this idea of converting parts of Broadway to a pedestrian-centric public space come about? What are the challenges of maintaining the plaza space?

JSK: Times Square is an international landmark. It is a hub of tourism, business and entertainment that is active 24/7. Each day, 365,000 pedestrians pass through Times Square, but in its previous form, only 11% of the public space was allocated to those on foot. These conditions led to unsafe situations with “pedlock” causing many pedestrians to swap the safety of the sidewalk for a shortcut in the roadway.

We saw the need to improve safety by more equitably distributing public spaces, and grabbed the opportunity to simultaneously create a series of pedestrian plazas worthy of the “crossroads of the world.” Six months after we transformed former roadbed into a pedestrian plaza, we counted an 11% increase in pedestrian volume. Surveys showed that 84% more people engaged in activities there like reading, eating or taking photos. From a safety standpoint, the reconfigured Times Square has seen a 63% reduction in accidents to motorists, a 35% reduction in accidents to pedestrians, and thanks to the addition of 56,077 sq. ft (5,210 sq m) of pedestrian space, 80% fewer pedestrians are now walking in the roadway. The plaza has also been a boon to the area’s retail economy as five new flagship stores have opened in Times Square, and 2011 marked the first time that Times Square made Cushman & Wakefield’s list of top ten retail locations worldwide. The temporary plaza has been a tremendous success and we plan to break ground on the permanent plaza in 2012.

NYC DOT does not have the capacity to maintain and program the plaza spaces in Times and Herald Squares so we partner with Business Improvement Districts (BID) to meet those challenges. The BIDs collect funds from local businesses and we rely on them to oversee the day to day operations of the plazas, including maintenance, security, event planning, and programming. The BIDs also select design elements including lighting for the streets and plaza areas. These public-private partnerships have played a significant role in the success of New York’s new landmark plazas.

Broadway Times Square NYC
Times Square © NYCDOT

How did you manage to get these projects implemented so quickly?

JSK: Many of our projects to repurpose the roadway for bike lanes and plazas consist of little more than paint and planters in their initial stage. We have put down coloured paint to designate areas of asphalt for bicycle and pedestrian travel and have used planters to protect plaza space from vehicle traffic. It is a terrific way to test out strategies for reconfiguring public space because it allows the public to experience these changes first-hand. When the public reacts favourably, these temporary treatments can be made more substantial, and if the project doesn’t perform as desired, it can be adjusted easily.

How do you think other cities can learn from this?

JSK: If you have an idea for improving your city’s public realm, test it out and see if it works. A pilot programme does not have to involve significant expenditure but the feedback you receive from on-the-street changes will be rich with information on how to improve the project and replicate it successfully in other neighbourhoods.

How are New Yorkers responding to the transformation of public spaces and how are they engaged?

JSK: Polls show that New Yorkers like public spaces and this is evident from the number of community groups applying to NYC DOT’s unique Plaza Programme, which has broken new ground by allowing non-profit organisations to request plazas for their own neighbourhoods. Through the Plaza Program, NYC DOT works with local organisations to create neighbourhood plazas that transform underused streets into vibrant, social public spaces. We prioritise locations in neighbourhoods that lack open space, then evaluate site recommendations proposed by the community, and partner with neighbourhood groups that commit to operate, maintain, and manage these spaces so they become magnets for the neighbourhood’s public life. This innovative process ensures strong buy-in from the community which is integral to the success of a new plaza. Since the Plaza Programme was launched in 2008, 49 groups have submitted applications to request a plaza and 18 projects are moving forward with neighbourhood partners.

Our public spaces aim to attract visitors, bring community members together, and enliven the city by allowing for New York’s favourite spectator sport: people watching. We have found that a terrific strategy for activating these spaces is to install art. Public plazas, fences, barriers, footbridges, and sidewalks serve as canvases for temporary art in all five boroughs. NYC DOT's Urban Art initiatives rely on partnerships with neighbourhood organisations and the creativity of artists to present site-responsive artworks that resonate with local residents and instil pride in the community. Weekend Walks is another NYC DOT programme that empowers communities to shape their public space. NYC DOT partners with neighbourhood groups to close a street to traffic for the day, and invites them to design their own street fair. The events highlight local cultural institutions, non-profits, and economic resources and also serve as stepping stones for neighbourhood groups to increase their civic engagement.

What else is NYC DOT doing to lower the carbon footprint of the city?

JSK: In the summer of 2012, NYC DOT will launch the largest bike share programme in North America giving New Yorkers a healthy and affordable option for carbon-free travel around the city. Bike share will introduce many residents and visitors to the joy and ease of cycling for pleasure, to do errands, or for travel between meetings.

Getting more New Yorkers to rely on our bus system is another step toward reducing carbon emissions. City buses are used by nearly three million New Yorkers each day, but unfortunately, our system is not only the country’s largest, but also its slowest. Speeding buses up to make them a better choice for more New Yorkers is a matter of redesigning both the street and the service itself. We have launched a new model of bus transportation—Select Bus Service, New York’s version of Bus Rapid Transit—and we’ve seen increases in both ridership and bus speeds. Our first efforts have been on high ridership routes on Fordham Road in the Bronx, and on 1st and 2nd Avenues and along 34th Street in Manhattan. We aim to remake bus service across the city on an ongoing basis, refining and improving its features as we go. We plan to roll out new dedicated bus routes spanning Brooklyn and Staten Island next year, with many more potential routes in the wings. Again, this is a way to provide needed transit service for thousands of people without waiting years and spending the billions of dollars it can take to extend a subway line or create a light rail system.

NYCDOT has also worked to green its own fleet by replacing traditional vehicles with 2,900 hybrid vehicles, 500 natural gas vehicles and 300 electric vehicles and by using alternative fuels in both our on- and off-road light and heavy duty vehicles. We are also upgrading the engines in our ferries which will bring about significant energy savings and emissions reductions.

With the shift from cars to a more people-oriented experience how do you see the streets and roads evolving?

JSK: New York City’s public realm is both versatile and vibrant. In addition to vehicles, an incredible amount of culture and creativity flow along New York’s streets each day, inspiring residents and captivating visitors who witness the unique events that, true to the saying, happen “only in New York.” While New York’s pulse pounds at a frenetic pace, it is vital to the city’s sustainability and quality of life that we continue to invest in world class public spaces that allow people to stop, linger, and take in their surroundings.

These spaces clearly include parks and permanent plazas, but can also be created by temporarily reimagining utilitarian corridors. A model programme is NYC DOT’s Summer Streets, where we prohibit vehicles along seven miles (11.3 km) of a major avenue during three Saturdays each August and invite New Yorkers to come out on foot, bicycles, rollerblades and more and use our roadways for recreation. In 2011, over 250,000 people accepted this offer, proving that our streets can effectively fulfil different needs at different times. In the future, I look forward to seeing many new and inspiring examples of streets that are designed and programmed to be true public spaces that can satisfy the diverse needs of city residents.

What is your favourite form of transport?

JSK: My bicycle.

This article was first published in June 2012. All images contained within this page are used with license and shall not be copied, modified, or reproduced.

Janette Sadik Khan

Janette Sadik-Khan

Janette Sadik-Khan is the former Commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation (2007 - 2013). Since her appointment by Mayor Bloomberg in 2007, she has implemented an ambitious programme to improve safety, mobility and sustainability throughout NYC. Her innovative projects include Broadway Boulevard, new Select Bus Service routes in the Bronx and Manhattan, the installation of 18 plazas, the addition of more than 435 km of on-street bike lanes, car-free summer streets and weekend pedestrian walks.