“Streetfight” by Janette Sadik-Khan

Review by Amrita Gupta in Policy Innovations of the book Streetfight: “Janette Sadik-Khan was New York City’s transportation commissioner from 2007-2013. Under her watch, the city’s streets were reimagined and redesigned to include more than 60 plazas and 400 miles of bike lanes—radical changes designed to improve traffic and make spaces safer for everybody. Over seven years, New York City underwent a transportation transformation, played out avenue by avenue, block by block. Times Square went from being the city’s worst traffic nightmare to a two-and-a-half acre outdoor sitting area in 2009. Citi Bike, arguably her biggest success, is the nation’s largest bike share system, and the city’s first new transit system in over half a century. In Streetfight, Sadik-Khan breaks down her achievements into replicable ideas for urban planners and traffic engineers everywhere, and she also reminds us that the fight isn’t over. As part of Bloomberg Associates, she now takes the lessons from New York City’s streets to metropolises around the world.

The old order vs the new order

The crux of the problem, she explains, is that until recently, cities of the future were thought to be cities built for cars, not cities that encouraged human activity on the street.

Understanding what city-building used to mean is key to understanding how our cities are failing us today. Sadik-Khan offers a quick recap of New York City through recent decades. The historical lesson holds; in many ways, cities in every continent grew along a similar trajectory. Streets were designed to keep traffic moving, but not to support the life alongside it. The old order—which Sadik-Khan writes is typified by Robert Moses—took the auto-centric view that pedestrians, public transit, and bike riders were all hindrances in the path of cars.

Sadik-Khan calls for a more equitable and relevant city, one that prioritizes accessibility and convenience for everybody. Her generation of planners aims to transform roads, tunnels, and rail tracks—the legacy hardware of their predecessors—and repurpose them into public spaces to walk, bike, and play.

The strength of the book lies in just how effectively it dispels the misconceptions that most citizens, and indeed, urban planners, have held onto for decades. There are plenty of surprises in Streetfight.

Sadik-Khan shows that people’s ideas about safety can be obsolete. For instance, bike lanes don’t make accidents more likely, they make the streets safer. The statistics show that bike riders actually protect pedestrians by altering the behavior of drivers. Sadik-Khan states that bike ridership in New York City quadrupled from 2000-2012; and as the number of riders increases, so too does the safety of the street.

The assumption, for instance, that reducing lanes or closing them entirely creates gridlock, is entirely wrong. Sadik-Khan’s interventions in New York City —providing pedestrian space and creating fewer but more orderly lanes for vehicles—actually improved traffic. And she uses taxi GPS data to prove it….

In fact, Sadik-Khan makes the claim that the economic power of sustainable streets is probably one of the strongest arguments for implementing dramatic change. Cities need data—think retail rents, shop sales, travel speeds, vehicle counts—to defend their interventions, and then to measure their effectiveness. Yet, she writes, unfortunately there are few cities anywhere that have access to reliable numbers of this kind….

Sadik-Khan emphasizes time and again that change can happen quickly and affordably. She didn’t have to bulldoze neighborhoods, or build new bridges and highways to transform the transportation network of New York City. Planners can reorder a street without destroying a single building.

Streetfight is a handbook that prioritizes paint, planters, signs, and signals over mega-infrastructure projects. We are told that small-scale interventions can have transformative large-scale impacts. Sadik-Khan’s pocket parks, plazas, pedestrian-friendly road redesigns, and parking-protected bike lanes are all the proof we need. For planners in developing countries, this should serve as both guide and encouragement.

Innovation doesn’t need big dollars behind it to be effective, and most ideas are scalable for cities big and small. What it does need, however, is street smarts. Sadik-Khan makes it clear that the key to getting projects to move ahead is support on the ground, and enough political capital to pave the way. Planners everywhere need to encourage participation, invite ideas, and be more transparent about proposals, she writes. But they also need to be willing to put up a fight….(More)”