Janette Sadik-Khan: New York’s streets? Not so mean any more


Janette Sadik-Khan was the Commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation from 2007-2013


Streets are one of the most valuable assets a city has, but their power is not fully recognised. Janette looks at New York’s modernising of their infrastructure, which is generally unchanged since the 50s. Goals were to cut fatalities, treat streets as public space, double cycling commuting, and implement rapid bus lanes.

Looking at the design of streets, there were no seats, no room for pedestrians crossing the street, and Time Square was chaotic.

To redesign Time Square, Janette installed temporary materials to close it off to traffic. The temporary materials allowed a 6-month trial to be carried out, and if data showed it worked it could be continued. The closing of Time Square was a monumental success, turning it into a top 10 worldwide retail hub, 5 new stores opened, and people flocking to the public space. Similar road closures were done elsewhere, and were powerful for businesses who recognise that more foot traffic is better for them than car traffic.

All up her team created 50 pedestrian plazas, and they have been emulated in other US cities. The power was using paint and temporary materials to quickly roll out a change and trial it, rather than waiting for conventional design, simulation and construction.

Although it used to be scary as a cyclist, after the roll out of new bike lanes New York has become the cycling centre of USA. New Infrastructure has included USA’s first separated bike lanes and bike share schemes, and injuries are down by 50%. The bike lanes were controversial, with media frenzy but 64% of New Yorkers supported the move. Over time it has become even more accepted.

The bus was another key issue – New York has the largest bus fleet in US, but the slowest. Everyone knows you can walk faster than a New York bike. Adding priority bike lanes has made their movement much faster.

It is possible to change the streets quickly, it’s not expensive, can provide immediate benefits, and is quite popular. You just need to re-imagine your streets – which are hidden in plain sight.

Jeff Speck: The walkable city


Jeff Speck is a city planner and urban designer who, through writing, lectures, and built work, advocates internationally for smart growth and sustainable design.


The worst idea Americans have ever had is urban sprawl, and it is being emulated in other countries. Through it the automobile, that was once a symbol of freedom, has become a gas-belching, time-wasting, life-threatening prosthetic device that people need just to live their daily lives. Jeff wants to make cities more walkable to free us from relying on cars, for 3 reasons

  1. Economic: in the 70s the average american spent 10% of their income on transport, now the spend 20%. Working families now spend more on transport than housing, since they travel further to find cheaper houses.
  2. Health: in the 70s 1 in 10 Americans were obese, now it is 1 in 3. The current generation is expected to live a shorter life than its predecessor. Jeff sees this as an urban design problem – by denying people chances to be active in their daily life. There are clear correlations between how walkable a region is and the obesity of its residents. Asthma rates are also up due to car exhaust. Car accidents are the single largest killer of healthy adults. We think of it as a natural event, but rates are far less in cities which have been designed to reduce car usage.
  3. Environmental: Cities reduce CO2 emissions per capita, with densely populated cities reducing emissions more. However cities can always reduce more.

Portland has instituted policies to differentiate it from other US cities. It has instituted a city boundary to limit sprawl, reduced the width of roads, and increased cycling infrastructure. As a result, Portland residents drive 4 miles and 11 minutes less per day – which is saving 3.5% of their income. It has also attracted young workers, because people want to be in that sort of city.

Jeff argues our houses are getting greener in the wrong way. We’re looking for greener gadgets and ideas to add to our houses, but the impact of energy saving bulbs is a fraction of the impact of living in a walkable city. People shouldn’t be afraid of selling the lifestyle of living in a more walkable city. The lifestyle of people living in cities is studied and these studies show that people are happier in cities with better sustainability. It isn’t an easy transition, but it can be done and is worth trying.

Winston Churchill said “Americans can be counted on to do the right thing, once they have exhausted the alternatives”.