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Honk, Honk, Aaah

Janette Sadik-Khan, the city’s Transportation commissioner, manages to be equal parts Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses. As she prepares to close swaths of Broadway to cars next week, she is igniting a peculiar new culture war—over the role of the automobile in New York.


Photo-illustration by Andrew Eccles  

Sometime early Sunday morning this Memorial Day weekend, a work crew from the New York City Department of Transportation will arrive in Times Square. Waiting for a pause in traffic, the team will close off Broadway at 47th Street, directing southbound cars east to Seventh Avenue. In the weeks to come, construction workers will refashion the next five blocks of the boulevard, turning one of the world’s most congested stretches of asphalt into a 58,000-foot pedestrian plaza. The same will happen a few blocks south, where another stretch of Broadway—from 33rd Street to 35th Street, at Herald Square—will be closed to cars and, by fall, dotted with café tables free for public use.

This simple but dramatic act will amount to bypass surgery on the heart of New York. It will become the most visible component yet of Mayor Bloomberg’s citywide attempt to make New York’s streets calmer, greener, and safer. And it will establish the front lines of a growing movement to tilt the balance of asphalt power away from the automobile and toward cyclists and pedestrians.

On a recent weekday, Janette Sadik-Khan, the city’s Transportation commissioner and the woman who dreamed up this plan, is standing at the heart of Times Square and surveying the mayhem around her. Though it is late morning and nothing like the Hieronymus Bosch tableau of the evening rush, traffic is still crawling and honking through the bizarre convergence of Broadway, Seventh Avenue, and 45th Street. Pedestrians are spilling into the street. A biker shoots up Broadway riding in the wrong direction.

“From a transportation perspective, Broadway has been a problem for 200 years,” Sadik-Khan says. Fifty-thousand cars pass through this point every day, but the knot formed by the intersection of three streets limits traffic speed to roughly four miles per hour. And then there are the people—about 356,000 of them marching through Times Square daily, from aggravated office workers to bewildered midwestern tourist families with roller suitcases. This stretch of Broadway is 140 percent more dangerous than comparable stretches of a midtown avenue.

“You can try to tweak it with a little signal change here, maybe a traffic lane there,” Sadik-Khan continues. “But nothing has worked because you’re not reaching the fundamental problem, which is that midtown is basically broken. There’s just not enough space for people.”

People, however, are not all the same. You’d think that closing Broadway to traffic would be seen as a grand egalitarian gesture. Returning a public amenity like the street to the perambulating masses should be a source of democratic harmony. And yet it’s not. Plans like these never are. Perhaps it’s the sense of a centralized hidden hand at work. Or maybe it’s the fact that the streets are the ultimate shared resource, giving everyone a proprietary feeling about them. But redrawing the map of the city invariably stokes suspicion and resentment, and doing so at its absolute nerve center is being read by some as an act of provocation.

Sadik-Khan has been at her job long enough to know that one does not rearrange traffic in midtown lightly, so she has grounded her Broadway plan on assiduous analysis and computer modeling of traffic flow. She has managed a sophisticated PR campaign that has paid off with support from both the Times and the Daily News, as well as the business-improvement districts.

But even though her models suggest that simplifying the three-way intersections will enhance circulation, she has yet to convince many of the players who use Times Square the most. There are the practical complaints: Small-business owners worry that traffic will clog the side streets, making it harder to handle deliveries and pickups. Cabbies and theater owners are similarly concerned about dropping off ticketholders. Then there are the more abstract objections that have to do with a Transportation commissioner many perceive to be an anti-car radical. “Broadway in theory is a good idea, but unfortunately what’s a good idea for the city is not always a good idea for all the stakeholders,” says John Liu, an ambitious young City Council member from Queens who chairs the council’s Transportation Committee. For people like Liu, the Broadway plan is about something more than several blocks of midtown traffic. It’s a clash of values. “There is a sense of the elite telling the everyday people what’s good for them, and that’s simply not appreciated,” Liu says. “I think it can no longer be ignored, the demographic groups calling for these changes versus the demographic groups that protest.”

Between her plans for Broadway and her smaller interventions scattered across the city, Sadik-Khan has unwittingly touched off New York’s latest culture war, a street fight of sorts. To her supporters, she is a heroic figure of vision and inspiration—the woman who tamed the automobile and made the city safe for bicyclists. To her opponents, she’s the latest in an extensive line of effete, out-of-touch liberals: the hipster bureaucrat. All parties would agree she’s an unusual Transportation commissioner, a title that may call to mind a paunchy, mustachioed male with a penchant for dirty jokes. Sadik-Khan is a stylish, young-looking 49-year-old whose skirts don’t always pass her knees. (“I am a gay man, but I appreciate a sexy-looking woman!” says her friend the former restaurateur Florent Morellet.) She lives in the West Village and often bikes to work. She frequently enlists celebrities like Jay-Z, Diane Von Furstenberg, and David Byrne to headline DOT press ops. “She’s a rocket,” says her friend and City Planning director Amanda Burden. “Courageous, determined, hilarious, fearless, and exuberant. She laughs like no other person I deal with in the entire city.” She is also the most powerful advocate of the city’s burgeoning biking scene, heretofore a largely countercultural force. (“Biking is the new golf,” she’s been known to tell Wall Street crowds.)


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