Brian Williams Doesn’t Get How Streets Work. Will His Four Million Viewers?

Here’s the profile of New York City Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan that aired on “Rock Center with Brian Williams” last night. The show reaches more than four million people, which isn’t enough to win its time slot but adds up to a lot more eyeballs than the print circulation of any NYC daily paper. In all likelihood, it reached a bigger American audience than any other piece of media content about reclaiming city streets for public space and more efficient modes of transportation. So how did NBC’s Harry Smith and his producers do with the assignment?

Well, in a lot of ways they made the same mistakes that Marcia Kramer and her producers at CBS2 tend to make when the subject turns to pedestrian plazas and bike lanes.

For the people-on-the-street quotes, they turned to motorists, not the people enjoying the plazas or the cyclists riding in the new lanes. They put Sadik-Khan and Michael Bloomberg on the defensive for her “brash,” “imperious” style, never acknowledging the ample public demand for safer street designs or the community board votes in favor of them. They gave airtime to Louise Hainline’s discredited bike counts on Prospect Park West. They never mentioned the fact that most New Yorkers don’t own cars, or that bikes and buses can move the same amount of people as automobiles while consuming much less space.

Still, the piece had a few things going for it.

  1. Broadway at Times Square looks great without cars.
  2. They gave Sadik-Khan time to speak. I’m sure a lot of material ended up on the cutting room floor, but the DOT commissioner makes a clear, compelling case on camera for redesigning congested city streets.
  3. Bloomberg provided a choice quote about why it makes sense to give people more transportation options.
  4. I’m speculating here, but the average person watching at home probably came away thinking that training a spy camera on a bike lane from your apartment is not the behavior of a well-adjusted adult.
  5. The one-two punch from Gridlock Sam and Sadik-Khan at the end said it pretty clearly: A hundred years of car-centric design have not made streets function any better; we need to do things differently.

But then came anchor Brian Williams, blithely dismissing the case for change that Smith’s piece had been building toward. An avid horsepower aficionado, Williams seemed to revel in his ignorance of how traffic works (“Those cars, they’re not going to stay home!”) and almost openly rooted for bike lanes to be torn up. The larger truth — that traffic will only get worse unless you give people better options for getting around — apparently escaped him.

  • Glenn

    How many ads ran during that show for bike shops or mass transit manufacturers again? Any bows tied to the tops of cars featured in breaks before or after that segment? Williams knows who pays the bills for his show.

  • mikesonn

    Where are the “couple places” that bike lanes have been removed?

  • fj

    if you have any doubts about the power structure


  • J

    @mikesonn:disqus Part of Bedford Ave in Williamsburg as well as Father Capodanno Blvd in Staten Island both had bicycle lanes removed recently. There have been other examples in the 80s and 90s. In the 80s, protected bike lanes were installed and then removed a month later in midtown. In the 90s the bike lane on upper 6th Ave was removed when the sidewalks were widened. Other bike lanes have simply faded into oblivion and no longer appear on maps. Some of the first bike lanes were installed at JFK airport in the 1970s (God only knows why) but they no longer exist.

  • Danny G

    @mikesonn:disqus Bedford in Bklyn, and Father Capodanno in Staten Island.

  • Clarence Eckerson Jr.

    For all its drawbacks, I still enjoyed it quite a bit.  Especially because the cons had their say, but also JSK, Gridlock Sam and Bloomberg got to counter them – which you’ll never get on CBS.  The city looked good, the new open spaces were clean and beautiful.

    But, yes, they did miss the boat entirely on talking to the average person on the street enjoying the public space.  Then again, that is what Streetfilms is for – the average, non-thinking, mainstream press isn’t ever going to put that much thought into a film like this.

  • Glenn

    I will say, Harry Smith did a respectable job for a national journalist at providing a good background understanding this issue. And he kind of let Markowitz and Hainline hang themselves with their petty actions. I’d love for some intrepid journalist to go to a commuter rail station for once and ask them why they are taking mass transit when they could drive all the way in. Less expensive? Faster? Glad to have quiet time to read/nap? Millions of people use mass transit everyday that own cars. If it’s inferior, why do they continue to do so? The root of most traffic congestion is not engineering, it’s just too many cars.

  • Shemp

    Also the piece presented the economic upside of Bway changes as axiomatic, not in debate.  

  • dporpentine

    I’m speculating here, but the average person watching at home probably
    came away thinking that training a spy camera on a bike lane from your
    apartment is not the behavior of a well-adjusted adult.


  • I enjoyed the piece overall, and even the biased viewpoints from only motorists didn’t bother me much. I would’ve like the needed soundbite that ‘Traffic Does not Flow Like Water’ and sometimes closing a congested lane can speed up others. But for th emost part, it was only Brian Williams mocking at the end that hurt. Why didn’t he ask a basic like ‘are the streets now safer?’ answer… Yes.  Tip to the anchor… don’t laugh at your news pieces when people’s lives are at stake.

  • Eric McClure

    Wonder how Brian Williams gets to 30 Rock.

  • Brian Williams may not be aware that NBC’s Rockefeller Center has been a leader in removing space for cars and parking and getting cars to “stay home.”

    The street infront of the NBC studio and “30 Rock” was for cars and became what could perhaps be considered the city’s first Public Plaza. We used this example in the beginning of the Street Renaissance Campaign ( to advocate for the idea of public plazas and how property owners can benefit   What is now Christie’s auction house was a large parking garage. Without parking, nice slow streets and great transit, it is very likely that many cars do “stay home”.The first office of Project for Public Spaces, in the late 70s, was in Rockefeller Center in exchange for working on the public spaces. So we have some good before images:1. A Bank and Eastern Airlines office (some of the only viable retail at the time) is what is now the NBC studio and a pedestrianized street used mostly for NBC events.2. The parking garage for Rockefeller Center was removed to put in Christies auction house.3. The drop off area in front of 30 rock was always filled with idling cars waiting for executives.The public spaces during this time were considered a liability to secure and maintain. All of these changes were a tough political sell but were driven by the potential value of the public spaces and have of course proven to drive great value for the real estate and tennants.

  • I don’t believe this is as much about what Brian Williams thinks as it is a symptom of how newscasts are obnoxiously produced nowadays. They understand that the general public, depressingly, is not only skeptical of bike lanes but are only interested in having the TV repeat back to them their doubts and biases – no one’s looking for a real debate, and NBC News isn’t about to slide further in the ratings trying to teach a civics lesson. They go for the cheap stuff – ideas and questions that are the comfort food of the prime time audience

  • kevd

    Pretty balanced over all.  Harry seems to get it, but how could he come off as anything BUT a policy wonk when he’s got a bow-tie on?

    There were several bites from motorists.  Nothing particularly compelling.  90% of Americans can’t take anyone with that accent seriously, anyway.  But, for fairness’ sake, a few sound bites from those people sitting in the plazas or riding in those lanes (lots of footage of both) would have been nice.  

    As Brian WIlliams said, he’s no traffic engineer, but his intuitive assumptions are basically what most uninformed people think.  Its a shame Bow-Tie Harry couldn’t enlighten him that “yes, sometimes those cars DO go away.”

  • Anonymous

    “I’m speculating here, but the average person watching at home probably came away thinking that training a spy camera on a bike lane from your apartment is not the behavior of a well-adjusted adult.”
    She gets five minutes to show off her jive-ass sting operation of a USB camera and clicker, while there was no mention that the NIMBY, Chuck Schumer-backed, astro-turf NBBL has had their lawsuit tossed, and no mention of the community support and mandate for the lane. 

  • Anonymous

    I agree with Gridlock Sam:  JSK = Visionary.  Visionaries are not always understood, but they rock.

  • Anonymous

    I used to think Brian Williams was funny and a bit hip.  Now, not so much.

  • Anonymous

    I used to think Brian Williams was funny and a bit hip.  Now, not so much.

  • Afterthefall

    I love it how the commenters on this website get so upset when a respected and hip journalist like Williams and a major network explain that the Empress and her Little Napoleon Are Not Wearing Any Clothes.

    And not just local reporters and stations like Kramer and Cuozzo, but community boards and borough presidents and other politicians.

    JSK = “Cities are the future of our planet.”  Duh-oh. Yeah, for the past 5,000 years!

    “Sadik-Khan regularly rides a bike” – Harry SmithYeah, for photo ops, like this one!  Normally she rides a chauffeured-driven limo that we taxpayers pay for.

  • David

    Tired of this us or them debate.

  • Mike

    I thought Williams was very disrespectful to his reporter.

  • Anonymous

    Debate is not the solution. every one has right o talk with any way he is pleased with… but this is seriously very disrespectful. orlando taxi

  • dporpentine

    Agree that the Harry Smith parts are mostly a-okay, though the line about *replacing* 200-some miles of roads with bike lanes is infuriatingly misleading.

    But the most irritating thing about the part with Brian Williams is that when he asks Smith questions, Smith responds with factually accurate statements–and that gets called *being played*.

    Welcome to New Reality™.

  • Badplanner

    What bothered me was how they made it all about personality as if Sadik-Khan individually dreamed up the idea of bike lanes and pedestrian plazas and rammed through all these brand new ideas. Where’s the credit for the rank and file DOT planners and engineers, consultants, state and MPO planners, and all the other cities, suburbs and even rural areas that are making moves toward walkability and bikeability that are just as dramatic given their context? To present the movement toward sustainable transportation as the brainchild of a few “celebrity planners” is to marginalize it. I’ve heard enough about Sadik-Khan and Gabe Klein and Mia Birk. When will the mainstream media start to focus on the real story – the everyday Americans who are changing their ways to travel more sustainably?

  • Media Maven

    Dear Badplanner,

    The story you’re describing is the story of a nationwide livable streets movement. The mainstream media will *never* focus on that story. They are only capable of focusing on narratives driven by personality, conflict and advertising. 

  • PlannerT

    The wrap-up segment was disheartening at best.  Williams and the reporting journalist were essentially laughing at the fact that Sadik-Khan had convinced the reporter of the need for bike lanes.  Williams accused him of “drinking the Kool-Aid”.  Bad form Williams.  

  • Bluewonderpowermilk96

    I actually liked the piece (and the Mali gold extraction too), and I think still Brian Williams is one of the best reporters on television. Similarly, Harry Smith did alright in presenting the story and if Kahn and Bloomberg where on the offensive in the report…well Kahn mentions that sometimes she feels the city is made up of 8 million engineers so it has become a matter of pitching there case, so to speak. Besides Smith tried to get both sides of the spectrum, the DOT side and the protesters via the Prospect side, even a couple of drivers. At least Kahn for once got a little positive face time on TV, rather than the usual bashing media outlets normally give her. As for bashing Williams, I think it’s just plain overkill and kinda off the mark here.

  • David

     Businesses have a valid concern with lost customers due to removal of parking.  I bike and drive and it really is almost impossible to drive to go out and run an errand any longer where the lanes exist.  I do like the lanes in general as a biker, but biked before them so
    I’ll be ok without them too.  Clearly all factors need to be considered when making these lanes.  I’m clearly not in the “Me car, me good, u  bike, u evil” camp.

  • Anonymous

    Aside from the continued propagation of a few misleading or
    incorrect statistics, like  that less
    than 1% of commuters are cyclists, and 200 miles of streets have been taken
    over by bike lanes, and the mistaken impression that may have been left that
    the lanes are not used much, the piece wasn’t terrible. They also did not do
    much to analyze exactly how all of this has actually affected driving conditions,
    aside from interviewing a few grumpy drivers with short memories. It’s never been easy to drive or park here.


    At least they didn’t repeat that old dishonest saw that
    cyclist on pedestrian injuries are ‘more than was thought’ (I want to rip out
    what’s left of my hair whenever I hear that), and JSK was given adequate airtime
    to make her case and was allowed to come across as someone both knowledgeable and human, and
    with method to her “madness”. I also like that a heavy hitter, Koch admin. DOT commissioner “Gridlock Sam”, was called in to back her
    up, and that the kooks (Hainline and Markowitz) belonged to the opposition for
    a change. The mayor looked good too.


    But I like Brian Williams, and still do. I didn’t mind him
    playing the friendly foil to Harry Smith as the skeptical Everyman needing to
    be convinced even if he still has a way to.  I’d give the whole thing a ‘C+’…  maybe a ‘B-’.

  • Anonymous

    Brian Williams: what do you expect from someone who gets chauffered around Manhattan? How one lives tells you a lot about how they think. But the reporter couldn’t ask his boss that question. Also, Media Maven nailed the TV formula: focus on narratives driven by personality, conflict and advertising.

  • Bryan

    I stopped watching at “powerful /woman/ with an /exotic name/”

  • This same piece just ran in Australia as the featured, up-beat, segment of the Saturday morning show. in contrast to the Brian Williams version, the banter before and after the segment was inspired by and supportive of JSK and making the case that “cities should be for people too.” 

    Australia is at least as car oriented as the US, (though gas is much more expensive) but seems generally much more ready to admit mistakes and change course.


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