Hip Williamsburg party hails ‘Street Fight For People Space’
When former Department of Transportation (DOT) Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan celebrated the release of her new book “Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution” this past Thursday, it made sense that she chose Brooklyn Bowl as the location for the launch party. The hip Williamsburg music venue and nightclub was buzzing with a youthful energy that night, reflecting the former commissioner’s unique ability to generate popular interest in the DOT and issues of public transportation. When Sadik-Khan took the stage, urban transportation policy, often associated with red tape and bureaucratic drudgery, suddenly became sexy.
The presentation she gave highlighted some of the progress made by the DOT during her tenure from 2007 to 2013, including the installation of 400 miles of bike lanes, 60 pedestrian plazas and the launch of CitiBike, NYC’s first bike share program, which recently became the largest bike share in North America. She was also excited to announce that “New York City is leading the way in data-driven approaches to reducing traffic fatalities.”
Sadik-Khan, referred to by her colleagues as “JSK,” is perhaps most well-known for spearheading the transformation of Times Square into a pedestrian plaza, which she irreverently referred to as “the living room of New York City.”
The book release comes at a time when issues of urban transportation and pedestrian safety have decidedly captured the public interest.
Brian Zumhagen, communications director of the nonprofit Transportation Alternatives, pointed out that “a few years ago, nobody knew what Vision Zero meant, and now that term is everywhere. Obscure concepts like ‘desire lines,’ for example, used to be known only to transportation nerds like me, but now you’re hearing these ideas in everyday conversations.”
Desire lines refers to the naturally occurring paths people take when traveling throughout the city. Transportation experts like Sadik-Khan use this concept to identify the most heavily trafficked paths so they can adjust traffic patterns, subway routes and safety measures accordingly. The idea is that urban planning should follow the choices and patterns of individuals, not the other way around.
This concept is useful in explaining the success of Sadik-Khan’s approach in comparison to her predecessor, the often-criticized Giuliani-appointed Iris Weinshall. Weinshall was known for prioritizing traffic flow — most of the changes she implemented were focused on decreasing travel times and increasing vehicle speed within the city. Perhaps the best example of this was the installation of pedestrian fencing, which limited pedestrian pathways in busy areas of the city, like Rockefeller Center. This vehicle-centric approach was effective by some measures, but drew the ire of pedestrians who felt increasing threats to their safety and their rights to move freely about the city. Under Sadik-Khan, the DOT has shifted its priorities from vehicles to bikes, pedestrians and other alternative modes of transportation.
“Clap if you rode your bike here tonight!” she said during her introduction, prompting a mighty cheer from the audience. Of those in attendance who rode bikes, many of them arrived at Brooklyn Bowl via the Wythe Avenue bike lane, a protected corridor that runs along the East River and is one of the most heavily trafficked bike lanes in the city.
It’s no surprise that one of the most popular bike lanes traverses the vibrant neighborhood of Williamsburg, and it hammers home a point that’s also supported by statistics: young New Yorkers do not drive. This trend is nothing new. What is new, however, is the DOT’s willingness, under the leadership of Sadik-Khan and her successor Polly Trottenberg, to embrace alternative modes of transportation and to create an infrastructure that supports this.
Trottenberg seems willing to take on this mantle. Significantly, she has continued Sadik-Khan’s vocal support of NACTO (the National Association of City Transportation Officials), an organization that provides progressive urban street designs currently utilized and embraced in New York City. Previously, under the leadership of Weinshall, NYC street designs were drawn up by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, an organization that was criticized for primarily focusing on suburban and rural needs.
In the words of JSK, “This is a street fight to make room for people.”