Sustainable Cities™

Janette Sadik-Khan: Rethinking the city

Janette Sadik-Khan discusses her work as Transportation Commissioner of New York City, including her efforts to create more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly streets. In the 21st century, she tells us, we will need to balance our transportation networks better.

What are the qualities that characterize a sustainable city?

"A safe city, a healthy city, a city that has a high quality of life. Mayor Bloomberg outlined his blueprint for what that city should look like in his sustainability initiative called PlaNYC.... Our chapter of that, the transportation chapter, is creating world-class streets…. We first of all have to take care of the fundamentals. If you don't get the fundamentals right, if your infrastructure isn't in a state of good repair, then you're not going to be able to take on anything more ambitious. But thanks to the investment strategy of this mayor, our infrastructure is in a state of good repair. It positions us to be able to make the kind of investments that are necessary to not only improve the quality of life for New Yorkers but to ensure that the city continues to be an economic engine and a place where people want to live for the next 20 years."

What are the challenges that top the to-do list in cities around the world?

"We've started looking at our streets differently. Until a couple of years ago, you could come to New York City and our streets looked like they had been unchanged for 50 years, which is not how they need to be. When you think about the people who come to our central city, to our central business district, 96 percent of them are coming by train or by walking or biking, and yet most of the road space was dedicated to cars. So we're trying to balance our network better, balance it so that it's healthier for the city, balance it so that it's safer for the city, and balance it so that we can provide future growth in the city, and that means investing much more in public transport and much more in our cycling program."

What are the most promising initiatives that would make living in cities more sustainable?

"We are doing everything we can to move people in a more sustainable way. And so we are prioritizing transit, our subways and buses. For example, one of the biggest projects that I've got going on this year is the transformation of First and Second Avenue on the east side of Manhattan. For 12.6 miles of that corridor, we are dedicating a bus lane so that it will function as a sort of surface subway….

"At the same time that we're putting in this busway, we are putting in a protected bike lane. We will double the amount of bike lanes that are protected in the city in this one year alone….

"We are also working very hard on our pedestrian spaces, making it easier to walk around, breathe, and enjoy the city of New York. We created some great new iconic pedestrian spaces in Times and Herald Square, so that you can actually take in the wonder of New York City. People don't go to Times Square because they want to see the traffic; people go to Times Square because they really want to see the great lights of the Big Apple. And so now we've given them an opportunity to do just that."

In your ongoing efforts to turn New York into a city of cyclists, what do you perceive as the biggest challenge to overcome?

"There's sort of a battle on the streets of New York between the pedestrians and the cyclists and the motorists. At any given point in time, …where you sit determines how you feel about the others in the network…. So we have to create a culture of respect and sort of change the way that people look at the streets, which means that we need to look out for one another in the streets. We need to look out for cyclists, we need to look out for pedestrians, and drivers need to look out for all of the above. But that's a different cultural shift, and that's one of the biggest challenges that we face."

About Janette Sadik-Khan

Janette-Sadik-Khan_193x193 As Commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation, Janette Sadik-Khan is responsible for about 10,000 kilometres of road, 800 bridges, 12,000 intersections, 1.3 million street signs, and 300,000 street lights. She has launched an ambitious project to create world-class streets in New York City as part of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's city sustainability plan. Initiatives have included creating pedestrian plazas at Times and Herald Squares and significantly increasing the city's protected bicycle lanes.

Prior to her role as Transportation Commissioner, Ms. Sadik-Khan worked as a senior vice president at the international engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff and was the founding president of the communications consulting firm Company 39. She also serves as President of the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO); as Chair of the Transportation Research Board's Committee on Transportation Issues in Major U.S. Cities; and on the Board of Directors of Reconnecting America, an organization that focuses on the link between transportation and community development. 

Last updated Tuesday, January 21, 2014