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Janette Sadik-Khan: Making a Sustainable City

Interview by Alanna Malone

Edited by Laura Mirviss

September 2012

Janette Sadik-Khan has served as the commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation since her appointment by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2007. During her tenure, Sadik-Khan has overseen the creation of hundreds of miles of bike lanes, the installation of 18 pedestrian plazas, and the rehabilitation of 26 bridges. Her next venture is New York City's bike-share program.

Sadik-Khan says demand has grown for bike-share programs, select bus service, and other green-minded initiatives.
Photo © Randy Harris
Sadik-Khan says demand has grown for bike-share programs, select bus service, and other green-minded initiatives.
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GREENSOURCE: How will the New York City bike-share program work?

JANETTE SADIK-KHAN: Citi Bike will be the largest bike-share operation in the Northern Hemisphere—with 10,000 bikes and 600 stations—and is completely funded by the private sector. About 10,000 New Yorkers submitted suggestions for station locations, and all of the stations will be solar-powered and wireless.

How does the program fit into the city’s existing transportation infrastructure?

It really builds on the bones of the city's extensive transit system. A third of New Yorkers get around by walking, a third get around by transit, and a third get around by driving. Most of the trips in the city are less than two miles, so it'll be a great new option for people to literally tap and go. The city's varied transportation offerings are one of its strongest economic assets. A study showed that New Yorkers save $19 billion per year because of the city's density and its public-transit system; $16 billion of that money stays in the local economy because people don't spend money on cars, gas, etc.

The start date of the program, originally slated for this summer, has been pushed back to spring 2013. Can you discuss the holdup?

There have been issues with the software that have delayed the launch. But we are committed to rolling out a system that works correctly from day one.

How has the Sustainable Streets plan taken shape since it launched in 2008?

The Sustainable Streets plan basically distilled PlaNYC—the mayor's long-term plan to combat global warming—and applied it to transportation. We focused on a few key areas: bus efficiency, bike infrastructure, and pedestrian plazas. Three million New Yorkers take the bus every day, and we have the largest bus fleet in North America. Yet New York City has some of the slowest bus speeds in the country. To address this problem, we launched the Select Bus Service program in 2010. The program is a mix of dedicated bus lanes, three-door buses, preboard fare collection, and transit-signal priority. There have been significant improvements since the program started; travel times are down by 18 to 20 percent, and ridership is up by the same amount.

In terms of bicycling infrastructure, we've created over 300 miles of on-street bike lanes in the last five years, in addition to a big corridor of protected bike lanes. We're seeing significant increases in cycling as a result. Commuter cycling has more than doubled over the last four years. In general, we're looking at our streets differently than we have for the past 50 years. We're viewing them as valuable public places—not just utilitarian corridors that take people from point A to point B. We have 50 pedestrian plazas in the planning, design, or construction phase. One of our most iconic examples was the remaking of Times Square; ironically, making it pedestrian-only improved traffic flow through Midtown—and commercial rates doubled. To grow and thrive over the next 20 years, we must see our streets differently. We're won't be double-decking Broadway.

There has been controversy about some of these ideas. How do you measure public support for these initiatives?

Sixty-six percent of New Yorkers support bike lanes, 72 percent of New Yorkers support the bike-share program, and Times Square has garnered much praise. You see that when you look at usage, whether it's the number of people that are in the pedestrian plazas, the number of people that are in the bike lanes, or the increased ridership on Select Bus Service routes.

The proposed NYC congestion tax never went through. What needs to happen at the state level to facilitate these types of policies?

A majority of New Yorkers and all four editorial boards supported the tax. However, it was held up by the state legislature; the governor's support of the tax would go a long way. The bottom line is we need new ways to fund infrastructure going forward. Localities are struggling to fund a variety of critical programs, whether it's transportation, energy, housing, or any of the assistance programs—and that funding deficit keeps growing.

What is your response to people who might say you're anti-car?

I'm not anti-car; I'm pro-balance. I'm really pro-choice. I think we need to have a mix on the streets of New York. We're transforming a traditional infrastructure program into a green infrastructure program. Basically, we're trying to ensure that the DNA of the city going forward is a sustainable DNA.


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