The first time DUMBO developer Jed Walentas spoke to Janette Sadik-Khan, she “screamed” at him, or so he recalls.
Walentas was asking for help with a street rebuilding project.
“So I picked up the phone and called her and introduced myself,” he said recently. “And she said, ‘I know who you are and I know why you’re calling and I’m not giving you any fucking money.’”
Walentas laughed fondly at the memory.
“And you know what, I much prefer that than some bullshit game of, ‘Oh, we’re gonna go see,’” he said. “I didn’t need to waste my time for the next six or eight months on some pretend game.”
(Asked for comment on the exchange, a D.O.T. spokesman denied it happened. Asked for comment on the denial, a spokesman for Walentas said, “It happened.”)
“Visionary,” “ideology maddened,” “unfairly criticized,” “notorious for a brusque, I-know-best style.” If there’s some disagreement as to how to characterize former mayor Michael Bloomberg’s transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, there’s little disagreement about the sheer force of her personality, or the impact she continues to have on how New Yorkers move around their city.
Sadik-Khan was, and is, a sharp-elbowed, impolitic street fighter with an absolute belief in the rightness of her cause: to continue where Mayor John Lindsay left off, vanquishing the automobile’s primacy on city streets, claiming more asphalt for pedestrians and cyclists and tilting the transit balance toward the roughly half of the city that doesn’t own a car.
Over the course of her seven years leading the city transportation department, she oversaw a doubling of New York City’s bike lane network to about 600 miles, turning New York City streets from barely bikeable to somewhat bikeable; used paint, bollards and potted plants to cordon off more than 20 “pedestrian plazas” from car traffic; launched a bike-share system; and with the M.T.A., created New York’s (relatively modest) version of bus rapid transit.
She rewrote the city’s street design manual, embedding her principals into the very DNA of the agency she ran, and helped propagate her transit principles at the national level.
But in the reckoning of Sadik-Khan—whose post-government job is at Bloomberg Associates, a consultancy dedicated to promulgating Bloombergian ideas to cities across the country and around the world—the changes she oversaw were only a beginning.
When I asked her recently how many miles of bike lanes New York City could accommodate, she cited the goal of 1,800 “lane miles,” or triple the current amount, by 2030, laid out in Michael Bloomberg’s long-range sustainability plan.
And CitiBikes, of which there are now 6,000 in circulation?
“The City of New York could easily handle a 25,000-bike system,” she said.
“It will be a long time before the demand for that is satiated,” she said.
"DOROTHY, WHY WOULD YOU WANT A PROGRAM LIKE this in the first place? Are we too fat?”
So went the set-up question from a Wall Street Journal video moderator to Dorothy Rabinowitz, a senior, sharply conservative member of the Journal’s editorial board, on May 31, four days after New York City launched its bike-share network.
“Do not ask me to enter the mind of the totalitarians running this government of the city,” said Rabinowitz, as part of a video screed called “Death by Bicycle” that ricocheted around the web and spawned a parody @BicycleLobby Twitter account.
“The bike lobby is an all-powerful enterprise,” she said.
The bike-pushing mayor was “autocratic,” Rabinowitz said, and the city’s “best neighborhoods are absolutely begrimed, is the word, by these blazing blue CitiBank bikes.”
The video went viral because it was funny, and it was funny because Rabinowitz’s revulsion seemed so severely out of scale to the proposition she was condemning; she was lumping cycling advocates like Paul Steely White in with monsters of history like Joseph Stalin.
(“The all-powerful bicycling lobby,” laughed Thomas Wright, executive director of the Regional Plan Association. “The woman from the Wall Street Journal. I love that video.”)
But if Rabinowitz’s tone was off, and if her assertion that she represented the “majority” of New Yorkers in her CitiBike vitriol was contradicted by pre-launch polling, she was very right about one thing: the city’s cycling and safe-streets advocates did in fact grow more powerful under Sadik-Khan, thanks both to her wholesale embrace of their agenda and her deliberate cultivation of them as a lobby. She had their back, and they had hers.
In some cases she appropriated not just their causes and methods, but the advocates themselves. Jon Orcutt, the former Transportation Alternatives executive who in 1990 was arrested for blocking access to the Queensboro Bridge, became her policy director. Kate Slevin, who ran the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, became her assistant commissioner for intergovernmental affairs.
“She tried to poach my staff,” said Wright, referring to his employees at the Regional Plan Association. “A couple years ago, she came in and she told me what she was looking for and I wandered down the hall and I gave a raise to one of my senior staff members.
“And she was not shy about calling us up and saying ‘I need you guys to be out there pushing this stuff.’ It wasn’t [just] that the advocates became more effective when she became commissioner. She also worked it both ways around.”
During Sadik-Khan’s tenure from 2007-2013, New York City got StreetsPAC, its first political action committee devoted to progressive street design. Transportation Alternatives’ membership soared 123 percent, compared to 47 percent in the five years prior. Aaron Naparstek, founder of the transit policy site Streetsblog, told me traffic went “way up” after Sadik-Khan took over.
The transit-nerd community found its voice.
“Even though the number of people coming in by car is maybe 50, 60 times the number of people coming in by bike, the voice of the bikers and the Transportation Alternatives and others is the roar of the lion coming out of the modal share of the mouse,” said (Gridlock) Sam Schwartz, the renowned traffic engineer and former city traffic commissioner.
Or, in Transportation Alternatives executive director Steely White’s more poetic formulation, cyclists went “from freaks to geeks to chic.”
As evidence of the way Sadik-Khan’s belief system has taken root in New York, one really need look no further than the former mayor, and also the current one.
Bloomberg evolved from thinking of traffic as a salutary indication of economic health to working with Sadik-Khan to fight for congestion pricing, a fight the administration ultimately lost.
Bill de Blasio, meanwhile, appears to be undergoing a similar shift toward a less car-centric way of thinking about how people move around the city.
It’s worth remembering that the great progressive hope was never particularly progressive on nuts-and-bolts transportation issues. And as a public advocate and proto-candidate for mayor, his primary interest in what Sadik-Khan and the city D.O.T. were up to had to do with critiquing the process by which they got things done.
In 2011, talking to the Times about Sadik-Khan, de Blasio said, “Even if one appreciates some of Janette’s goals, it’s clear the approach has been very alienating all over the city. There is a needless level of conflict. A lot of communities have become distrustful of the approach that the mayor and Janette have taken.”
He also sent a letter to Sadik-Khan urging her to subject future pedestrian plazas and bike lanes to full independent environmental impact reviews.
In 2012, de Blasio told the New York Post that Sadik-Khan was a “radical” on bike lanes and pedestrian plazas and he, by contrast, was an “incrementalist.”
He never came out and said that he was against the bike lanes and pedestrian plazas and traffic-mitigation measures the administration had implemented. But the “radical” comment—or more broadly his concerted effort to ride what at the time seemed like a significant backlash against the bike lanes—indicated something about where those items ranked on his priorities list.
Then, in the advanced stages of the Democratic mayoral primary, de Blasio started to give transit advocates more reason to support his candidacy.
In June, he unveiled a campaign platform that set a goal of using “safer streets” to engender more cycling. And in August, he endorsed Vision Zero, a Swedish approach to street safety that aims to eliminate all traffic deaths.
More importantly, de Blasio continued in that pro-transit direction after the election.
It was reflected in his announcement on Jan. 15, following a rash of pedestrian fatalities, that he intended to coordinate a multi-agency effort to implement a Vision Zero-inspired safety agenda.
It was reflected, too, in his decision to appoint as Sadik-Khan’s successor Polly Trottenberg, a veteran federal transportation policy hand and transit-advocate darling who helped propagate Sadik-Khan-style streetscape innovations at the national level.
“Saving the lives of people who use our streets every single day ... is going to be at the forefront of everything we do,” Trottenberg said, upon her appointment, adding, “We’re going to be working to realize the zero vision, which is working towards zero roadway fatalities and injuries.”
De Blasio may not be a true believer in pedestrian- and bike-oriented transit schemes, but a bit like Bloomberg before him, he seems to be open to persuasion.