Gehl is also a believer in acting incrementally—implementing modest changes that demonstrate a larger vision. Which is why the bike lanes in Chelsea initially ran for just a few blocks on Ninth Avenue (and have recently been expanded up to 31st Street, and on Eighth Avenue). The Broadway plan was preceded last year by the closure of two lanes. The Summer Streets program shut down Park Avenue for three Saturdays last August, and was judged enough of a success that it will be replicated this year.
But if politics calls for moving in increments, it can also call for speed. Sadik-Khan moves fast, sometimes making changes literally overnight in guerrilla-style operations conducted with little more than paint cans and a few planters. (For this reason, her projects tend to be quite inexpensive.) “In New York, everybody’s an expert, everybody’s got a point of view, and everything involves delay—and sometimes litigation. So whenever possible, Janette has taken a fait accompli approach,” says Bob Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association. He recalls how the city created a new plaza from a small sliver of asphalt at Madison Square, where Broadway awkwardly intersects 23rd Street and Fifth Avenue. “At 11 p.m. one night, they started putting out bollards and chairs and striping paint, and the next morning—it was just, done deal!” (The result was 41,700 square feet of new public space.) “I’ve dealt with DOT since 1982, and this is the strongest team at the top in terms of getting things done,” says Dan Biederman, president of the 34th Street Partnership. “This is breakneck speed.”
That speed is possible in part because, while Sadik-Khan takes pains to involve local community-planning boards, she doesn’t run her projects past the City Council. She is careful to line up allies, but she doesn’t always court those whose input might cause trouble. So while according to Biederman she started having off-the-record meetings about the Broadway plan months before going public with it, taxi-industry representatives and some Broadway theater owners say that they were consulted barely or not at all. Her approach, says Liu, “has not been all-inclusive. It has been selectively inclusive.” Says one person who has followed New York City transportation policy for many years, “I’ve been in this business a long time, and I am absolutely shocked to see how a group like Transportation Alternatives is literally writing transportation policy in the city of New York—unchecked.”
Sadik-Khan’s sudden moves can have contentious results. Hasidic-community leaders near new bike lanes in Williamsburg complained about scantily clad women cycling past their homes. After angry residents intentionally blocked the lanes with their cars, a self-proclaimed group of “bike clowns” rode through the area in pointed hats handing out fake parking tickets and staging slapstick pileups. Meanwhile, at a recent meatpacking-district community-board meeting, nightclub owners complained that traffic-calming measures are slowing taxi traffic, and a debate ensued over whether the bollards at Gansevoort Plaza resemble female breasts with pronounced nipples.
The more substantive criticisms of Sadik-Khan’s approach suggest that even well-meaning alterations to the street can cause collateral damage. Take the newly designed Chelsea avenues. On the one hand, the mere existence of a broad, protected bike lane that swallows a lane of traffic is a minor miracle of progressive planning. But local business owners say the bike lanes have eroded their profits, preventing their customers from making quick curbside stops and forcing them to find new places to park delivery trucks. Gehl himself was initially unhappy with the design: He thought the bike lanes were too wide but was told they had to accommodate a standard-issue snowplow. And when you look at how the newly designed street gets used—the same amount of traffic in fewer lanes and a surplus of space for a fairly scant flow of cyclists—it can make even an enlightened urbanist wonder whether this was the most efficient reallocation of precious city space. It is certainly getting under the skin of some local merchants. “We’re pissed off,” the co-owner of Chelsea Florist on 22nd Street recently told the Villager.
Sadik-Khan has shown little patience for these critiques. “I think there’s a sense of ‘You don’t get it,’ ” says one former DOT employee. “It’s some bureaucrat telling us what’s best for our neighborhood,” complains Sean Sweeney, who directs the Soho Alliance, a volunteer community group that has sparred with Sadik-Khan over a Grand Street bike lane. “The DOT says, ‘Here’s where we’re going to create a bike lane, and you have two weeks’ notice.’ ”
Similar complaints were common during last year’s congestion-pricing debacle, in which Sadik-Khan played a key role. “You are either for this historic change in New York or you’re against it,” she warned Albany lawmakers, echoing remarks from the mayor. “And if you’re against it, you’re going to have a lot of explaining to do.”