If city leaders clearly articulate a vision and pursue it in ways that rely on constant public engagement, transformational change is possible.
That was the message delivered by New York City Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan Feb. 28, as part of the UCLA Luskin Lecture Series. Sadik-Khan spoke to an audience of more than 200 transportation planners and advocates at the 2013 UCLA Complete Streets Conference, an annual gathering produced by the UCLA Lewis Center and the Institute of Transportation Studies.
In a talk that touched on nearly every aspect of a "complete street" -- pedestrians, bicycles, buses, plazas and parks, as well as private vehicles -- Sadik-Khan reported on her five years as head of transportation in America's largest city. Throughout her tenure, she said, change has been at the forefront of her job.
"These streets have been unexamined for too long," she said. "We should be designing streets for 2013, not 1963."
Sadik-Khan has overseen a major revitalization of the ways New Yorkers get around their city. Beginning with Mayor Michael Bloomberg's "PlaNYC" strategic document, Sadik-Khan has put into place a program of expanded amenities for pedestrians, cyclists and transit users while continuing to perform the tasks traditionally associated with a city transportation department -- improving bridges, maintaining streets and filling potholes. "We've worked hard to bring balance back to the streets of New York," she said.
In working for what she described as "a very data-driven mayor," she has relied on a steady stream of surveys, evaluations and data analysis. When the city decided to close Times Square to vehicles and turn it into a pedestrian plaza, the administration was able to point to GPS data from New York's 13,000 taxicabs to show that traffic had actually improved as a result of the closure. Pedestrian safety also improved, as did economic performance -- Times Square is now one of the highest valued retail spaces in the world, Sadik-Khan said.
Other improvements across the city saw similar results. There were 47 percent fewer commercial vacancies after the city installed bike lanes along First Avenue. On streets where bus service has been refigured, retail sales have gone up 71 percent. "These are improvements of safety, livability and strong economic performance," Sadik-Khan said.
Key to the success of her plans was the ability to implement change quickly and tangibly. "Change used to take years," she said. "Now with paint, stones and street furniture, we can changes things overnight." The improvements help the public see the potential of big ideas and accustom themselves to change.
"It's not a rendering, it's a real-world model," Sadik-Khan said. "It lets people touch and point to it and say 'I want that.'"
The Luskin Lecture Series is designed to enhance public discourse on topics relevant to today’s societal needs. Bringing renowned public intellectuals and scholars together with national and local leaders, the Luskin Lecture Series presents issues that are changing the way our country addresses its most pressing problems. For more information on upcoming Luskin Lecture Series events, please click here.