It didn’t help matters that Sadik-Khan, racing up to one statehouse meeting, was pulled over and ticketed for illegal use of the car’s lights and siren. (She wasn’t driving.) The episode revealed nothing about the merits of congestion pricing but was a perfect cudgel for her critics. “As she was telling everybody else not to drive their cars, she was speeding her chauffeur-driven limousine to lobby us not to drive our cars,” says Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz. “I think she’s an anti-car extremist. It’s kind of easy for Ms. Sadik-Khan to be holier than thou and tell people they have no business driving. She may live down the block from the subway station—but most people don’t.”
The chauffeured limo (it was actually a hybrid), the Manhattan subway riders—these are classic populist pressure points. But why does transportation reform have to feel so elitist? Related issues like obesity and pollution hit minorities and low-income residents hardest. Poor New Yorkers rely disproportionately on mass transit, and public space is all the more precious to those who live in cramped apartments.
Part of the problem is the movement itself. Like environmentalist groups nationwide, the city’s transportation-reform community is rooted in its affluent, white residents. (One of its main benefactors, for instance, is the financier and software developer Mark Gorton, who has spent millions funding outfits like Transportation Alternatives and Streetsblog.) Its constituents see the city differently from most New Yorkers—and they use it differently, too. The goal of making New York more pleasant to live in is the kind of goal one sets if one believes that, fundamentally, the city already works. It’s telling that battle lines get drawn between shopkeepers and cabbies on the one hand and do-gooding activists on the other. One side is always scraping to get by, the other sees the city as its laboratory and common playground.
“I’m basically the largest real-estate developer in New York City,” says Sadik-Khan.
“I think Janette is a visionary, and she brings a lot of energy and fresh ideas to her position,” says Liu, who is a candidate for city comptroller. “But that’s not necessarily her job. Her job is to do the best she can with regard to managing traffic and striking the balance between all the entities competing for street space.” When it comes to bike lanes and pedestrian malls, he adds, “there is not an overwhelming consensus for these kinds of changes. Some people are telling other people what’s good for them.”
While she must realize what’s going on, Sadik-Khan nonetheless leaves herself exposed to critics’ caricature of a cosseted elite, almost as if she’s happy to play John Kerry to Liu’s Sarah Palin. There’s her talk about cribbing ideas from faraway lands, her idealization of a European vision of comfortable living. And there’s her kinship with cultural figures like David Byrne, who designed nine whimsical bike racks for the department.
But perhaps most important, there’s her obsession with the bicycle. Even though cycling is up in the city—levels have doubled since 2000, according to the DOT—most New Yorkers see a bike as a luxury, or don’t have the space to store it, or live and work in places that do not make for a practical commute. In the longer term, a city like New York might reorganize around a more bike-friendly vision, with more dedicated lanes and better routes stretching from midtown into the boroughs. But in the meantime, the transfer of street space from cars and trucks to bikes is a shift in power, one that disproportionately benefits what could be called Bloomberg-voting New York.
Sitting in a West Village coffee shop, Sadik-Khan does her best to refute her critics. “It’s not just about, you know, elite people on fancy bikes,” she says. “That’s one of the most cost-effective ways to get around, and in tough economic times you don’t pay to get on a bike. That’s why we’re planning a much more robust bus rapid-transit network. We’re making it much easier for people to get around. I don’t think that’s elitism—I think that’s practical.”
But even supporters of Sadik-Khan’s agenda recognize that she has had a difficult timing selling it. “I think there has been a failure to explain how these projects are not elitist,” says Aaron Naparstek, editor of Streetsblog. “And the longer that’s out there, the harder it is to get projects done.” Maybe her challenge is partly a matter of style, even sexism—perhaps a gruff man in a cheap suit with the same ideas would find a better reception in Albany and among owners of ethnic family businesses. Part of the problem, though, is substance. While Sadik-Khan seems genuinely taken by the idea of bus rapid transit, she has clearly put it on the back burner—even though it would likely have practical and utilitarian appeal. But getting a new bus system going is a lot less sexy than making pop-up public spaces, or leading Bike to Work Day rides, like she did last Friday. It would take longer, cost more, and require a lot more bureaucratic tussling (with the MTA, no less). It would be a different kind of revolution—slower, more compromised, perhaps more lasting—and would probably require a different kind of revolutionary leader.