Urbanist hero Janette Sadik-Khan
Urbanist hero Janette Sadik-Khan

WellingtonApril 9, 2024

Street smart: Janette Sadik-Khan wants New Zealand to embrace the urban revolution

Urbanist hero Janette Sadik-Khan
Urbanist hero Janette Sadik-Khan

The former New York transit commissioner revolutionised cycling and walking in her city – now she wants New Zealand to do the same.

If you haven’t heard of Janette Sadik-Khan, the people running your city definitely have. The former commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation was an early leader in the global shift away from car-dependent transport planning in major cities, towards more pedestrian, cycling, and public transport-focused urban design. She is now part of the Global Designing Cities Initiative.

Within the niche world of urbanists, her arrival in Wellington in March was treated like a visit from the Pope. She was met at Wellington Airport by an escort of superfans on e-bikes, who formed an honour guard as she rode into town. Her whirlwind national tour of New Zealand was packed with public lectures, panels, conference appearances, a conversation with Helen Clark, and meetings with the mayors of Auckland and Wellington. 

Her book, Street Fight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution, has become a must-read among city planners. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard councillors or planners cite it as inspiration. When Wellington City Council started rolling out bus and bike lanes, the teams in charge treated it as required reading. During a panel I hosted with Sadik-Khan at the 2WalkandCycle conference at Tākina, Wellington deputy mayor Laurie Food and Christchurch city councillor Sara Templeton both pulled out well-thumbed copies of her book. 

What I found most refreshing about Sadik-Khan’s approach is that it wasn’t about if cities should change, but how to make change happen. Her talk was mostly targeted at people who already understood the benefits of people-focused streets. It wasn’t a scrappy, uninformed debate about car parks vs bike lanes. It was a strategy meeting, offering a path forward for city leaders who are struggling to make change. 

I sat down with Sadik-Khan during the conference to discuss how New Zealand cities can embrace her approach to urban change. This is an edited transcript of our conversation. 

New Zealand likes to think of itself as a progressive leader on a lot of issues. Are there any particular areas in urbanism and street design that you think New Zealand cities are doing particularly well? 

I think the fact that Wellington won the Bloomberg Initiative for Cycling Infrastructure award is an indication of where it sits globally. We had 270 applications from cities around the world and Wellington won one of the 10 awards. The fact that they had this cheaper, faster, lighter approach is really inspiring for other places. Showing what you can do fast is increasingly the coin of the realm for cities around the world. I think that’s a really good down payment on the infrastructure to come, it’s exciting to see what’s what’s started here.

Where is New Zealand failing? What are we doing wrong when it comes to designing the cities of the future? 

All cities are different, but they face so many of the same challenges. One of the biggest challenges that cities around the world face is car-dominated culture; the culture that says transportation equals driving and anything else is some crunchy-granola type of thing that isn’t real transportation. 

Changing that culture is hard. New Zealand and the United States are in the same boat. But you are starting to see a change. World-class cities today are investing in pedestrian infrastructure, cycling infrastructure, and transit infrastructure, and those are the cities that are poised to grow and thrive in the decades to come. 

When you think about it, that’s what attracts people to cities: the idea that you can walk around and bike around easily, safely and affordably. I think those kinds of investments are really economic development strategies, not just alternative transportation strategies.

Your book is about the idea of a “fight”. You talk a lot about making change despite the backlash. How do you balance the idea of fighting through backlash versus trying to bring the community with you? 

I’ve said there are eight and a half million New Yorkers, and it felt like there were eight and a half million traffic engineers, because everybody had their own opinion about the way the street should look and operate. 

You have to understand why people are concerned. Their streets have worked just fine, and you’re coming in saying you’re going to save it. There’s a trust issue: you have to actually communicate the change you want to make and have a vision for where you are going. You’re not going to change a city by putting in a bike lane here and a pedestrian plaza there; you have to put together a vision of what you want your city to be in 10 or 20 years’ time. 

Janette Sadik-Khan with Wellington mayor Tory Whanau. (Photo: Janette Sadik-Khan)

For example, you’re going to see a 30% increase in population in Wellington over the coming decades. That’s a lot of people, and you’re not gonna accommodate those people the same way. You’re not going to double-deck the roads. You have to look at different strategies for how people get around. You have to have a lot of conversations with people to get to that vision. I think that’s really, really important. 

And you have to move fast, to show what’s possible. When we started in New York City, people said “yeah, yeah, here’s your plan, whatever”. But when they started to see change happen, that was the ‘wow’ moment. Showing what was possible, and moving quickly, was an important part of the alchemy and metabolism of change. 

Do you think sometimes you just have to back yourself to make a controversial change and hope that once it’s in, people will like it or at least be fine with it? That seems like a high-risk proposition. 

I think there’s nothing as powerful as the fruits of the project. But you’re not just going in willy-nilly. We didn’t start our work in Times Square. We started our work in communities that had been asking for these changes. We started in those communities and did them as a pilot. That went a long way to reducing the anxiety that people felt, because if they didn’t work, we could just put it back. People were more open to that. And we also changed the projects – there’s not a single project we put in the ground that we didn’t tweak in some way. 

Are you more of a believer in starting small and building momentum, or going for home-run, big-win projects?

I think you should start by showing people what’s possible. We had a toolkit that we took all over the city and showed people what their streets could look like, and who they could be for, and that they could be used for something other than just driving cars.

We’re not anti-car, we’re really pro-choice. We’re pro-options. We’re not demonising cars, we’re just saying there are other ways to use your streets. There’s a lot of real estate on the street to play with. I used to call myself the largest real estate developer in New York City. There are 6000 miles of streets, that’s a lot of real estate. You can reimagine streets, you can redesign them, and repurpose them to meet the needs of today, not the culture of 60 years ago.

I want to ask about framing. You’ve said the hard part of street change projects isn’t drawing or designing them, it’s getting the community on board. When you are putting in a new bike lane or pedestrian area, how do you frame it to get the community on board?

Every city is different, and the goals are different. But you have to look at the ultimate goals: you’re not just putting down a bike lane, you’re making your street safer for everyone. 

The first protected bike lane we put down was on Eighth Avenue. It was better for business, and it was part of a connected network. But the important thing was that it improved safety for everybody on the street. Not just cyclists, but also people driving, and people on the sidewalks, who had closer crossing distances. 

You have to measure the impact on your project, and not just the impact on traffic, but from a larger lens: what is it doing from curb to curb? What is it doing to local business sales? What is it doing from a safety perspective? What’s it doing in terms of moving more people in more ways? We have to change how we measure the street. 

A parade of cyclists greeted Janatte Sadik-Khan in Wellington. (Photo: Janette Sadik-Khan)

Any time you’re putting in a new project, there are a lot of different things you can measure: business activity, foot traffic, safety, equity. Are there any particular angles you think councils should focus on more when making changes?

Safety is a really important consideration. We have a traffic violence crisis on our hands: 373 people are dying every year on the streets of New Zealand. We have three million more people in New York City, and we have a third less traffic deaths. That’s a crisis. That’s something you need to address with the design of your streets. A little marketing campaign saying “drive slower” is not going to work. You have to change the design of your street and we’ve seen that in city after city. 

Another important frame is designing our streets for kids. We even use a reverse periscope so you can see what the street looks like from the perspective of a three-year-old child. Once you invite that kind of design, you make the street safer for everyone. 

I want to ask about economic development. Often the largest, loudest voices against street changes are individual businesses or business groups. How do you convince them to support projects they are totally against?

I worked for a very data-driven mayor. Mike Bloomberg used to say, “In God we trust. Everyone else, bring data.” So, we brought lots and lots of data to him to make the case for changes we were making. 

For the first time, we measured the impact of our projects by looking at local retail sales tax data to show what happened on the street. Previously, we would get these anecdotal reports from businesses saying, “I’m losing businesses, this is terrible, everybody hates it.” And yet, when we looked at the data on Eighth Avenue, we got a 49% increase in retail sales and a huge drop in injuries. That economic data went a long way, and it convinced some of the small business owners who were our largest opponents when we started, and by the end, they were our biggest supporters. Business owners are very bottom-line oriented. And the bottom line is: these projects are good for your bottom line.

There is currently a project underway at the upper end of Cuba Street to expand the footpaths and remove some parking. You would think being right next to the most successful pedestrian plaza in the country would make those businesses in the upper street more supportive, but they are very concerned about the loss of parking. What would you do in that situation? 

First of all, the loss of parking is always the universal objection to any project. I always say losing a parking spot is like taking away somebody’s firstborn child. It’s like, “It’s my constitutional right to have parking in front of my store.”

In New York City, whenever we were making a change, we went door by door, business by business, and asked what their needs were in terms of deliveries, hours of operation and more. In a lot of instances, the traffic regulations hadn’t been updated in 40 years. So that was an important part of it, because often you can help them. 

There’s always going to be a fight when you’re taking away parking. There’s no magic wand you can wave to make those objections go away. But the proof is in the project. That’s what’s so exciting, and what we are seeing in city after city after city. The mayors of cities that have done the most aggressive and ambitious bike lane and pedestrian projects are winning re-election, so it is good politics as well. 

In recent years we’ve seen cities London, Paris and New York undertaking an urban reset, moving from car-focused streets towards more pedestrian spaces. What do you think is next for cities in the next 10 or 20 years? 

I think we’re going to be doing more of the same. I think you’re going to see expanded ways of getting around. It’s better for the environment. It’s better for your pocketbook, and it’s better for your city. These strategies don’t cost billions of dollars and take years to get done. That’s a critical part of it: it’s a cost-effective way of transforming cities that improves the quality of life for everyone.

People can move anywhere these days, and the places they’re choosing to move are those places that make it easy to get around without having to have a car. It costs over $10,000 to own and operate a car – that’s $10,000 you could have in your pocket instead. Not to mention it’s much nicer to be able to get around without needing a car for every single activity. By the end of the Bloomberg administration, polling showed 72% support for pedestrian plazas and 64% support for bike lanes. That was a big deal, when everyone realised this was really popular. 

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