Before Sadik-Khan’s appointment in 2007, the job of the Transportation commissioner was understood to be fairly straightforward. “Transportation engineers are sort of like plumbers with college degrees,” says Paul Steely White, director of the cycling activist group Transportation Alternatives. “They see their job as solving the clogs and keeping cars and trucks moving.” For a string of previous commissioners, including her immediate predecessor, Iris Weinshall, this meant fixing, expanding, and streamlining roads—all in the service of managing flow.
Sadik-Khan’s approach to traffic management is not as extreme as it may first appear. Many transportation experts now recognize that adding more lanes to a traffic-clogged road is a poor long-term solution for gridlock, because over time more lanes just attract more cars. (This, in a nutshell, is why cities with the most highways tend to have the most traffic.) Sadik-Khan’s Broadway plan, which reduces lanes and improves streetlight timing, reflects this new evolution of traffic theory. Eliminating the three-way intersection at 34th Street, for example, means that cars on that street and on Sixth Avenue will no longer have to sit through green lights on Broadway; the DOT predicts that this will shorten wait times by nearly a third. Southbound drivers on Seventh Avenue should expect a 17 percent improvement in travel time between 59th Street and 23rd Street. Northbound motorists driving up Sixth Avenue can supposedly look forward to a 37 percent improvement.
But even though the Broadway plan has been pitched as a way to ameliorate traffic, it’s apparent when touring Times Square with Sadik-Khan that the planning problem that most animates her is not car congestion but people congestion. “This is a plan to pedestrianize a street, not to mitigate traffic,” says someone who has discussed it with DOT officials. “This was a plan about greening New York, outdoor space, and seating. It was almost a happy accident that they found that traffic could be mitigated.”
In this offhand remark one can see Sadik-Khan’s truly revolutionary vision. She has fashioned herself the city’s streets commissioner, rather than the city’s traffic commissioner, and has not been shy about imposing a vision of the 21st-century street that seizes it back from the automobile. “One of the good legacies of Robert Moses is that, because he paved so much, we’re able to reclaim it and reuse it,” she says. “It’s sort of like Jane Jacobs’s revenge on Robert Moses.”
Her acts of revenge are now visible throughout the city. A new traffic pattern in the meatpacking district has opened up a large pedestrian space protected by planters and bollards. A similar conversion has taken place in Dumbo. Two lanes of Broadway have been closed to traffic between Times Square and Herald Square since last August, allowing for a new bike lane and a pedestrian esplanade with café tables—a preview of what’s to come this summer. Her most visible markings are the bicycle lanes you see everywhere, 180 miles more of them since 2006. These are small-scale interventions, but they serve an ambitious strategy. “I am basically the largest real-estate developer in New York City,” Sadik-Khan likes to say at public events. For a Jacobs disciple, she has a lot of Moses in her.
When Weinshall stepped down in 2007 to become a vice-chancellor at the City University of New York, it wasn’t clear what Mayor Bloomberg wanted in her successor. The mayor hadn’t shown much interest in innovative transportation policy and had been content to let Weinshall—a Giuliani appointee (and Chuck Schumer’s wife)—run a status-quo operation. The DOT’s last bicycle-program director, Andrew Vesselinovitch, had quit the year before, writing in the Times a month after he left that “our efforts were so rarely encouraged, and so often delayed, that I came to the conclusion that the department is not truly committed to promoting bicycling in New York.” That may have been mostly Weinshall’s doing, but some say the resistance came from higher up. “I’ve heard from DOT people that the mayor really doesn’t like bikes,” says one biking advocate. “He has that Upper East Side–pedestrian attitude. Getting run over by a Chinese deliveryman—that to him is a ‘cyclist.’ ”
On the other hand, Bloomberg was putting the finishing touches on PlaNYC, a blueprint for expanded green space and a reduced carbon footprint for the city that would require substantial rethinking of key government agencies—especially transportation. PlaNYC was a lot more radical than the mayor got credit for at the time, and a serious departure from how he thought of the city’s physical landscape. It also demonstrated Bloomberg’s affinity for symbolic gestures (like the gimmicky idea of planting 1 million trees). Not only were Sadik-Khan’s ideas about public transportation and open space consistent with PlaNYC, but she, too, intuitively understood the power of symbols—a café table or even a bicycle—to illustrate an appealing vision of the city’s future.