Sadik-Khan had her own prior experience in city government, but it was the mind of an activist, not an engineer, that led her to transportation. “I’ve always been interested in politics, and that probably stems from conversations around dinner tables,” Sadik-Khan told me over breakfast in the West Village. Her father was a managing director at Paine Webber, but she seems to have been most inspired by her mother, an environmental activist who has worked with quality-of-life groups like the Citizens Housing and Planning Council. From her, Sadik-Khan inherited a green streak that dovetailed with a passion for transportation—which, after all, involves core questions about energy and the environment. (Sadik-Khan’s mother also covered City Hall for the Post, presumably affording her daughter a minor degree in political intrigue.) She earned a law degree from Columbia and briefly worked as a corporate lawyer before joining the Dinkins administration in 1990 and quickly becoming his top transportation adviser. After Giuliani’s election, she went to Washington to be deputy administrator of the Federal Transit Administration. By 1999, she was a senior vice-president of the international engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff, traveling the world and swapping ideas with just about every transportation thinker who matters.
On some level, Bloomberg may ultimately have been attracted to Sadik-Khan’s pure force of personality. She shares with him a quick and impatient temperament, a disdain for bureaucratic muck, and a soft spot for visionary, internationally influenced thinking. But when the appointment was made, some entrenched members of the city bureaucracy were skeptical. “The transportation world is a small, cozy, and generally a pretty dreary crowd,” says one city transportation insider. “So when you have a woman who is younger and dresses well, sure there’s going to be some teeth-gnashing among the men in their sixties Brooks Brothers suits.” Sadik-Khan stoked these concerns when she quickly hired several prominent figures from the ranks of the activist class who had long clashed with DOT. Her chief policy adviser, Jon Orcutt, for example, is a former executive director of Transportation Alternatives, which was founded in 1973 as a confrontational pro-cyclist group and evolved into a more mainstream advocacy outfit. “The agency had been at complete odds with the activists,” says one former department employee. As Sadik-Khan brought in her team, “there was some sense that the inmates had taken over the asylum.”
The Broadway plan is about something more than several blocks of midtown traffic. It’s a clash of values.
But Sadik-Khan tried to be inclusive, sitting down with her new colleagues and other city-government officials to explain her vision—fast and bold expansions of space for bikers and pedestrians—and offer them a more inclusive role in it. “She integrated old and new staff,” says one DOT employee. “It wasn’t like she came in and axed everyone who had been here for ten years.” One success story was Michael Primeggia, a 30-year DOT veteran who’d spent half of his term as the department’s traffic-management chief. Some transportation activists called Primeggia “Dr. No” because he epitomized the city’s entrenched car-first attitude. “He was as ornery and curmudgeonly as you can get,” says Sam Schwartz, a Koch-era traffic commissioner who calls Primeggia his protégé. But Primeggia credits Sadik-Khan for including him in her plans, even bringing him along on a spring 2007 fact-finding mission to Copenhagen. Amanda Burden, who also joined the trip, remembers watching him explore the Danish urban planners’ paradise: “I saw Mike Primeggia on his knees measuring the width of the bike lane, and I said, ‘I have died and gone to heaven!’ This agency is transformed!”
One of Sadik-Khan’s first projects was the creation of what she calls “the complete street.” She built a prototype along Ninth Avenue in Chelsea, where a protected bike lane runs between the sidewalk and parallel parked cars, thus narrowing the avenue by one lane for motorists. At 14th Street, a narrow pedestrian strip is dotted with tables and chairs. “You can accommodate bikers, cars, pedestrians, and create open space,” she says one chilly, damp morning, as she walks by the tables. “There’s a guy, despite the weather, sitting there, headphones on, enjoying a little public space. There’s really a hunger for more space in the city, and we’re doing everything we can to quench that.”
The new Ninth Avenue layout was inspired, as are many of Sadik-Khan’s ideas, by another city—in this case, the pedestrian wonderland of Copenhagen. “I am an unabashed thief,” she says. “I basically go around the world borrowing ideas from other places.” One early trip took her to Bogotá, Colombia, where the city’s former mayor, Enrique Peñalosa, led her on a five-hour bike tour. But Copenhagen, often called one of the world’s best-designed and most livable cities, has had a particular influence over her. The city center features eighteen car-free areas and several pedestrian promenades, all stitched together by an elaborate network of bicycle and pedestrian paths. The city impressed Sadik-Khan enough for her to give its mastermind, the 72-year-old urban planner Jan Gehl, a consulting contract. (She raised funds for his fee privately, through private foundations.) Gehl did not always mesh seamlessly with city bureaucrats, but his influence can already be felt, especially on the Chelsea bike lanes and the Broadway redesign.