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Why New York Enticed Translink Chief

When Translink CEO Tom Prendergast starts running NYC's transit system, he'll have a visionary ally in Janette Sadik-Khan.

By Chris Keam 8 Nov 2009 | TheTyee.ca

Chris Keam is a Vancouver writer with a focus on transportation and urban planning.

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Transformer: Janette Sadik-Khan, New York City's Department of Transportation Commissioner.

Translink's challenges are once again in the spotlight, with a damning ministry report preceded by last week's announcement that CEO Tom Prendergast is leaving Vancouver to become the president of New York City Transit. The reasons for Prendergast's decision, rumored and official, include Translink troubles and Big Apple opportunities. But one largely unmentioned reality that surely played a role in Prendergast's decision is the powerful compatriot he will have in Janette Sadik-Khan.

Sadik-Khan is New York City's Department of Transportation commissioner. She's spearheading an ambitious reboot of New York's transportation priorities, with the goal of putting pedestrian, bike, and transit improvements in the fast lane. And she and Prendergast have worked together in both the public and private sectors for over twenty years.

In Vancouver on Monday, Oct. 20th Sadik-Khan addressed a Translink cycling strategy workshop, speaking to a capacity crowd at the Vancouver Trade and Convention Centre. Her speech featured a vision of New York City re-imagined for the twenty-first century, where cars literally yield road space to pedestrians, cyclists, and buses -- taking lanes and entire streets away from cars and putting them to new uses.

Inspired by European cities

In her speech, Sadik-Khan described the process and goals for a revamped city.

"Mayor Bloomberg launched PlanNYC in 2007, and it was the first time we took a long range view -- what are we going to look like in 25 years? What the plan concluded was that the only way to secure the future of the city of New York was to invest in transit, reduce our environmental impacts and improve the quality of life... and transportation was one of the areas where we can have the most profound effect."

Since then she has added 200 miles of bike lanes to the city's road network, replaced gridlocked streets with pedestrian plazas, improved public transit service times so effectively that 98 per cent of users expressed satisfaction, and for the most part, silenced critics in a town that is, as she likes to say, made up of 8.2 million transportation planners.

At the heart of Sadik-Khan's success is a theory -- borrow from the best and make it your own. European cities such as Copenhagen and Paris have provided her with inspiration -- in the form of protected bike lanes and public bike programs. She notes she's also found good ideas to take back to New York in Portland and Washington -- and here in Vancouver.

"I was here [Vancouver] about ten years ago... and you have this seamless transportation system where you have one fare card and you can use the entire network and I thought, it really is nirvana. So it was no surprise to me when you managed to -- I'm not sure the word is 'recruit,' I think the word is 'steal' -- our best transit professional in the form of Tom Prendergast, who I think is one of the best in the world."

'Pavement into plazas in a matter of weeks'

With Prendergast headed back to New York, Sadik-Khan gets a measure of revenge for that theft. Of course, one typical feature of Metro Vancouver's transportation network she doesn't have to contend with is the cumbersome bureaucracy and funding challenges that have dogged Translink for years. Sadik-Khan enjoys plenty of support from Mayor Michael Bloomberg and she has the power to move rapidly and decisively, without getting bogged down in red tape.

"My secret word is pilot program," says Sadik-Khan. "We've been able to move very quickly. We can transform pavement into plazas in a matter of weeks. I think it's very important that you show quick progress when you are bringing change."

Among other notable changes, Times Square was transformed from traffic chaos into a car-free pedestrian plaza. Sections of other streets were transformed into linear mini-parks. Also popular with New Yorkers was the Summer Streets program -- seven miles of Manhattan streets were closed to cars for three Saturdays, as residents took over the streets to cycle and take fitness or dance lessons. They were able to simply enjoy the opportunity to stand in the street, look up, and contemplate the high-rise majesty of skyscrapers without being run over. A defunct elevated freight railroad, the West Side Line, has also been transformed into a public greenway now called the High Line. All of this innovation took less than a decade to move from idea to reality.

New York becoming far safer for pedestrians

Besides the sustainability and quality of life issues surrounding transportation, Sadik-Khan cites safety and health concerns as major reasons for her initiatives.

"I take it personally when someone gets hurt on a New York City street. We've now got the lowest traffic fatality rate since the city started keeping records in 1910. We're targeting our most vulnerable pedestrians -- kids and seniors. Since we started the program [Safe Streets for Seniors] we've seen a 43 per cent drop in pedestrian fatalities for seniors."

Sadik-Khan also identifies chronic health conditions as something that can be impacted by designing road networks with cyclists and walkers in mind.

"When you think about it, we've got a crisis of obesity and diabetes in New York City like a lot of other cities in the U.S. We have to do something about that, and cycling is an easy way to build increased mobility and more active transportation into our network."

Sadik-Khan clearly loves her city. As she describes the changes wrought through her initiatives, her enthusiasm for New York and belief in the city's possibilities is evident. She's also quick to point out that while New York's road system may have been rooted in the goal of making car travel efficient, courtesy of Robert Moses [the city's famous traffic czar], its design is now lending itself to new ideas as well. Wide streets -- originally envisioned to facilitate automobiles -- now provide the necessary space for separated bike lanes, public spaces, and pedestrian safety improvements.

"One of the positive legacies of Robert Moses, who paved a lot of New York City, is that right now we have a lot of capacity to play with... it's a gift of a kind."

'Hungry for public spaces'

Despite the auto-focused planning among North American cities during the early years of the twentieth century, New York may be the easiest place to usurp the car-centric style of urban planning. Only five per cent of Manhattan commuters arrive by car, and the city's density makes walking, biking, and transit viable options in a way that's hard to imagine in car-reliant places such as Los Angeles -- or Coquitlam.

However, Sadik-Khan's accomplishments can't simply be racked up to being in the right place at the right time. Too many other jurisdictions struggle to implement even minor adjustments to the status quo. Even in supposedly bike-friendly Vancouver, the cries over the Burrard Bridge lane reallocation trial clearly demonstrate how changing the way we think about road space is not for the faint of heart. The difference is political will and powerful mandates. Having both gives Janette Sadik-Khan the opportunity to leave her mark on one of the great cities of the world.

"I like to say you can do a lot with a can of paint and a paint brush," she says. "We are literally painting the outlines of this greener city. Every time we roll out the orange barrels (to block off street space) people are ready to go. People are really hungry for these public spaces."  [Tyee]

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