The 2013 NYC Streetsies, Part 3


Happy New Year, and welcome to the third and final installment of the 2013 NYC Streetsies, also known as the Streetsblog Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

Lifetime Achievement

We take it for granted these days that NYC DOT is primed to make change happen — that every year, the department will roll out a fresh new batch of projects devoting a greater share of our streets to walking, biking, transit, and public space. It wasn’t always that way. Before Janette Sadik-Khan took over in 2007, the defining traits of NYC DOT were stasis and rigidity. Change happened, but the pace was glacial, and modern ideas about designing and managing streets failed to take hold.

DOT was a place where ambitious bike planners quit in frustration. Where grassroots pedestrian safety initiatives languished for a decade. Where mayoral campaign proposals for faster busways gathered dust. Then-DOT Commissioner Iris Weinshall deferred to engineers who believed the agency’s prime directive was to move cars. There were no strategic goals to improve the safety, efficiency, and sustainability of the street network. As late as January, 2007, Weinshall resolutely opposed legislation requiring DOT to evaluate its performance according to a new set of metrics that prioritized walking, biking, and transit.

Fast forward to April 2008. Sadik-Khan had led the agency for a year, bringing with her a new team of top deputies and giving fresh directives to the department’s career-long engineers. By that point, her DOT had already implemented the first stretch of on-street protected bike lane in any major American city and begun to experiment with quick, low-cost public space projects like the Pearl Street plaza in DUMBO. That month, in step with the Bloomberg administration’s citywide sustainability blueprint, PlaNYC 2030, the agency put out its first strategic plan, setting specific benchmarks to implement transit-priority corridors, reduce traffic deaths, and increase bicycling. It was, in retrospect, a key benchmark in and of itself. This is what it looked like for a big-city transportation department to commit to values other than moving traffic. There weren’t many other precedents, if any, in the country.

Photo: Brad Aaron

The strategic plan, the protected bike lanes, and the nimbly-built plazas were emblematic of the wave of innovation during Sadik-Khan’s tenure. But “innovation” didn’t necessarily entail invention. The city had been left in a position where it had to play catch-up with global leaders in transportation policy. By trying out proven ideas in New York for the first time, DOT could show that overhauling city streets was not only possible here, but also effective and desirable.

Before long, DOT teamed up with the MTA to implement New York’s first enhanced bus route with off-board fare collection. Then came the first demand-responsive parking prices on neighborhood commercial streets (not the sexiest innovation, but a solid one). The first on-street bike parking, the first “pop-up cafes,” and the first neighborhood-scale 20 mph zones. In the final act, DOT launched the nation’s largest bike-share system.

Once DOT hit its stride under Sadik-Khan, it became fairly common for the press (and even more common for anonymous blog commenters) to invoke Robert Moses when describing her tactics. But the comparison always seemed incongruous. Not only was DOT merely reshaping the public right of way (in many cases with nothing more than paint and planters!) as opposed to seizing people’s homes and property, but the public process that had been institutionalized in reaction to the excesses of Moses formed the backdrop for every single DOT project. “Robert Moses,” more often than not, was just code for “there’s less free parking than there used to be.”

What the opponents of DOT’s street redesigns never understood — or, perhaps more accurately, never admitted — was that their own neighbors, not city officials, were the most committed supporters of change. For years, DOT had been infamous for telling street safety activists “No.” That wasn’t the case at Sadik-Khan’s department, where New Yorkers who wanted safer streets could get a hearing. Neighborhood groups like the Clinton/Hell’s Kitchen Coalition for Pedestrian Safety, the Grand Army Plaza Coalition, and Brownsville’s bike lane activists saw many of their ideas turn into major improvements for walking and biking. Change didn’t always come promptly to everyone who asked for it, but under Sadik-Khan, DOT became an agency that often said “Yes” to residents who wanted more livable streets.

Did those changes please all New Yorkers? Hardly, but as the poll numbers on bike lanes and plazas began to pile up, it was clear that most of us liked them just fine.

There is one respect in which Sadik-Khan’s legacy does resemble Moses’s: She is an exporter of ideas. Through her leadership of the National Association of City Transportation Officials, NYC DOT’s pioneering street designs turned into templates for other cities. Nowhere is this influence more apparent than in the rapid adoption of protected bike lanes. A few years ago, this type of street design was basically non-existent in America. Today, dozens of U.S. cities have built bike lanes with physical protection from motor vehicle traffic.

Generally speaking, Sadik-Khan’s work with NACTO is the antidote to the suburban and rural bias that pervades American street design standards. The nation’s urban streets tend to be designed like highways because that’s what the dominant engineering guides call for. NYC DOT and other pioneering transportation departments have created proof on the ground that city streets should be built to a different standard. Thanks to NACTO’s design guides, cities around the country are starting to realize that they have “permission” to tailor streets for the urban context.

Yesterday was Sadik-Khan’s last day as NYC transportation commissioner. As much as she’ll be remembered for Citi Bike, the Midtown plazas, and other physical changes to the city, an equally important part of her legacy is how we think about streets. Expectations are higher now than they were six years ago. Transportation policy occupies a more prominent position in our local press and public discourse. After all the changes that have unfolded on her watch, there’s a greater understanding that so much of what we want out of our city — to feel safe, healthy, happy, and part of a community — is bound up in our streets. This will be invaluable as New Yorkers continue to fight for a city that’s safe from traffic violence.

Janette Sadik-Khan would be the first to say that NYC DOT’s accomplishments in the past six years have been a team effort. It’s not possible for me to personally acknowledge everyone at the department who’s contributed to these tremendous successes, but I hope this Streetsie conveys gratitude to them as well.

Turnaround of the Decade

It’s hard to remember this today, after four solid years of tabloid attacks on bike lanes, but transportation was almost a non-issue for Mayor Michael Bloomberg during his first five years in office.

Despite early intimations that East River bridge tolls might be on the table, Bloomberg didn’t really touch the status quo on NYC streets in his first term. The underwhelming “Thru-Streets” program was the big transportation innovation of those early years. When he mobilized his administration to lead on climate change midway through his second term, though, his transportation proposals got much bolder.

Congestion pricing didn’t get enacted, but the campaign for it set off a big public discussion of NYC’s transportation problems — and how to solve them. The basic idea that “something needs to change” anchored the next six years of NYC DOT transportation reform.

Bloomberg wasn’t perfect on streets and planning issues. It will be up to the current mayor or his successors to improve NYPD’s prevention of traffic violence, eliminate parking minimums, build better transitways, and compel the EDC to develop buildings that don’t belong in the suburbs. But once he was convinced of the merits of an idea, Bloomberg stuck with it, and throughout his third term he stuck with the street redesigns that his DOT implemented.

A transportation commissioner like Janette Sadik-Khan needed a mayor like Bloomberg, who gave his deputies relatively free rein and always had their backs. With so much of NYC’s political establishment — including Democratic Party royalty — taking umbrage at the reallocation of a small fraction of street space to bikes, buses, and pedestrians, Bloomberg’s ability to withstand intense lobbying was the key to DOT’s success.

The language of livable streets did not come naturally to Bloomberg. He is, after all, the same guy who casually said, at a public event in 2006, “We like traffic, it means economic activity, it means people coming here.” Four years later, though, he seemed more attuned to the idea that city streets aren’t just for cars. Sparring with reporters at the announcement that the Midtown plazas would stay in place, he asked rhetorically, “Are the roads for multiple uses — everybody, pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorists, or are they just for motorists?”

It was toward the end of his third term, at the launch event for Citi Bike, that Bloomberg really started to nail this stuff down. At this Q&A, the mayor swatted away one objection to bike-share after another. No single quote really does the cumulative performance justice. However, I did especially enjoy his response to one reporter who asked about all the space bike-share stations would consume: “Bike racks do take up space, but the parked cars they replace take up a lot more space.” This is the Bloomberg I’m going to remember.

Photo: Dmitry Gudkov

The Streetsblog Medal of Honor

Howard Wolfson‘s tour of duty during the long, dark winter of 2011 — when the NYC livable streets movement was getting strafed from all sides, every day — was the stuff of legend.

  • jk

    Any Bloomberg retrospective has to mention his NYC2012 bid for the olympics. There were extensive and fevered discussions about transportation at City Hall but they were about the ” Olympic X” and Gold lanes. The Olympics completely dominated Bloomberg’s first term and the bid had to fail before PlanNYC, the Janette DOT, and livable streets explosion could happen. the olympic obsession was all consuming: DoT and DCP bike/planners were assigned to work on the EIS for Bloomberg’s west side stadium and its giant parking structures.

  • Larry Littlefield

    I agree with Bloomberg that a lot of good planning and projects came out of that Olympic bid. The Olympics itself, however, would have been a disaster we couldn’t afford.

    So I’d say things worked out for the best! In fact, I might just grab a barf bag just in case and say for perhaps the only time “Thank You Sheldon Silver.”

  • Frank Davis

    You gotta be kidding with the kudos for JSK. Do you think what Times Square, bike lanes, etc., were her ideas? Bike lanes and the livable streets movement had been templets at DOT for over 20 years. To think that JSK was Moses like is naive. At best, she implemented what others had already created but were stalled by the times.

  • Joe R.

    With all due respect to the Streetsblog staff, I think you missed the single biggest livable streets improvement of all in 2013-namely the citiwide switch to LED streetlighting. Granted, this was only an announcement. It will take until the end of 2017 to complete. Nevertheless, decent lighting has the ability to make streets both more pleasant and safer. Poor lighting discourages people from coming out after dark. This in turn impacts both traffic safety and crime rates. If pedestrians/cyclists aren’t around much at night, drivers tend to not expect them. Moreover, the existing streetlighting kills the peripheral vision which is instrumental to seeing vulnerable users at night. A very large percentage of vulnerable users are injured/killed at night precisely because drivers in some cases literally didn’t see them until it was too late. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that we’ll see large decreases in pedestrians/cyclists killed in the next 3 years, and it won’t be due to any new DOT policies. Rather, the improved streetlighting will be the reason.

    Set your calenders for 2017 to see if my prediction comes to pass.

  • Mark Walker

    Sure, every DOT chief has a grab bag of initiatives that cover all bases. But you are missing the point. JSK changed the emphasis, accelerated the pace of change, sowed more seeds, and got more done. Her predecessor, in contrast, was primarily interested in making cars move faster and put almost everything else on the slow boat. JSK was also a personable and charismatic spokesperson for her own policies. Just the sight of her standing behind the mayor at innumerable events came to be like a progressive beacon.

  • Joe R.

    JSK’s biggest accomplishment in my opinion is putting bicycles on the roadmap as a legitimate form of transportation, as opposed to recreation. That’s huge because it means all future DOT commissioners must now consider bicycles, along with motor vehicles and pedestrians. Sure, the bicycle network is still in a fledging state. We haven’t even begun to address the issues of making bicycle transportation in the city more efficient or more comprehensive. To date much of the outer boroughs have received almost no new useful bicycle infrastructure. However, we’ve made a great start which I don’t think would have happened had we not had a transportation commissioner who wasn’t passionate about bicycles.

  • NuYawka

    I actually hoped that these new lights would be individually solar powered like those in Jersery City. Would be beneficial during power outages. I agree the new lighting will improve safety, though in my opinion more aggressive street redesigns involving traffic calming will be the most substantial.

  • Joe R.

    Solar-powered lighting is only possible on streets with very little traffic. The concept is that the lights only turn on when a vehicle is detected within a few hundred feet, and then turn off soon after. Solar cells which generate enough energy during the day to power streetlights which are by necessity on about 12 hours per day average would be huge, as would the batteries they charge. I haven’t seen any figures on the power usage of the new LED streetlights, but I’ll guess it’s in the area of at least 100 watts per light, possibly even as high as 200 watts. That still compares quite favorably to the HPS in use which are either 250 watts or 400 watts (for the bulb only-add at least 20% for ballast losses).

    Anyway, to power a 100 watt streetlight for 15 hours (as is the case during winter months) means you need at least 500 watts worth of solar panels to account for the lower sun angle during winter. You may need more if you also account for lower output on cloudy days. In the end you might need 1 kW worth of solar panels. That would cost more than the streetlight itself. On top of that you need a battery pack capable of storing at least 2 kW-hr. That might cost in the area of $1,000 (i.e. about ten of these: ). And then you need charge balancing and battery protection circuitry. Probably when all is said and done solar power would increase the cost of the streetlights by a factor of ten, not to mention where would you hang 1 kW worth of panels? You’ll also have maintenance issues of having to regularly clean soot off the panels, and possibly having to replace many after major storms.

    There are a great many places where solar-powered lighting is quite attractive but they are mostly very rural areas where grid connection is difficult, and the demand for lighting is very infrequent. For what it’s worth NYC already receives more of its power from renewable sources than most other major cities. That percentage will only grow. We’re talking now about putting in tidal generators. I also think wind power could be a winner here given how many windy days we have. It’s better to just power streetlights off the grid but power more of the grid by renewable sources.

  • NuYawka

    Interesting. Somehow Jersey City is pulling it off. They just attached the panels high on the support beam. They get comparable automobile traffic to a large chunk of NYC.

    Either way I am happy to see more LEDs used.

  • Frank Davis

    Sorry Mark, I don’t agree with the whole JSK idolization.
    I don’t agree that she changed the emphasis or accelerated change of pace. She is no Moses, for sure and for all the high salaried Deputies that DOT has, why has nothing been done by the DC for traffic? JSK maybe personable, as you say, and can speak to her own agenda. However, with no disrespect for Bicycles, NYC still has to move traffic. There hasn’t been a traffic commissioner in over 2 decades who has been able to do that.

  • qrt145

    Ideas are cheap; implementation is what counts. How much was leaderships vs how much was just “the times”, we can debate forever, but I bet that we wouldn’t have seen as much change with someone like Weinshall at the helm.

  • Joe R.

    I’ll grant that there are some ways to move traffic more efficiently during off-peak hours. They include using smart traffic signals with sensors which only go red when something is actually crossing. That would prevent a lot of the time-wasting waiting at empty intersections. However, a lot of the reason traffic doesn’t move is there is just too much of it! Measures have been proposed which would result in faster traffic speeds during peak hours, such as congestion pricing, but they’ve been shot down. There’s no magic bullet to move traffic faster when you have too many vehicles on the road. There isn’t the space in NYC to make more roads, not that it would help in the long run anyway even if there was.

    We need to get nonessential traffic off the roads, especially during peak hours, if we want to move traffic. We have far too many suburbanites driving in when they have a railroad with a park-and-ride within a few miles of their home. We have far too many city residents driving on errands which can easily be done by other modes, including walking. We have way too many taxis. And we have far too many public officials being chauffeured around at public expense when they could take public transit, especially in Manhattan. We should have a bare minimum of motor vehicles on the streets-mainly those needed for essential services which just can’t be efficiently done any other way.

  • Frank David

    Correct, “too many public officials being chauffeured around at public expense when they could take public transit, especially in Manhattan.” Let’s start with the DOT Commissioner and the Deputy and Assistant Commissioners, who all have vehicles, parking privileges and salaries well above an average, for civil servants. The majority of whom do not need cars to get their jobs done.
    And why is it, that the most progressive thinking such as congestion pricing and those who are spearheading it, have been shot down?


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