“Streetfight”-ing with Janette Sadik-Khan

Bianca Taylor Headshot

Standing outside of SPUR Oakland in the line of people waiting to see Janette Sadik-Khan speak, you heard things like this:

“She’s like the Beyoncé of the planning world!”

“I heard there’s a Broadway musical* about her.”

It’s clear that, for people who love cities, Janette Sadik-Khan is a celebrity. And for good reason. During her time as New York City’s transportation commissioner (2007-2013), she and her team transformed the infamously congested city into a place where many more people can safely bike, walk, and even relax in a lounge chair near a busy intersection.

In Ms. Sadik-Khan’s new book, Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution, she and co-author Seth Solomonow break down what it took to make these changes and how other cities around the world are reclaiming their streets for people, not cars. She came to Oakland on Tuesday evening as the guest of honor at SPUR and TransForm’s event, where she shared some of the lessons she has learned in her many years of fighting for safer streets.

Lesson 1: Paint the city you want to see

“Once you adapt it, people adopt it.” One of Ms. Sadik-Khan’s most famous projects during her time as New York City’s transportation commissioner was converting a segment of Broadway into a pedestrian plaza. But she noted that it started not as a huge infrastructure upheaval, but as a pilot project that simply started by placing orange cones on the street to keep them car-free. People flocked to the open streets, confirming that there was a real desire and need for safe, public space there.

Lesson 2: Follow the people

“Looking at where people are walking today shows you the city of tomorrow.” By looking at where people were crossing the street (without crosswalks), walking (without sidewalks), and riding their bikes (without bike lanes), Ms. Sadik-Khan and her team saw what areas of the city needed safer infrastructure; when they painted lanes and poured asphalt at those spots, injury rates for pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorists went down, and travel times actually increased.

People walk and bike along Lake Merritt in Oakland

Lesson 3: The public domain is the public’s domain

“Building relationships with community groups is as important as anything you do with asphalt.”  It comes as no surprise that people care deeply about the spaces where they live and travel. This means a lot of meetings and outreach to get people involved and on-board with new plans for sidewalks, plazas, bus routes, and bike lanes, even if this takes a lot of time.  She applauded TransForm, SPUR, Bike East Bay, and Walk Oakland Bike Oakland for engaging the community in their work.

4. The status quo strikes back

“Every day was a fight for giving people choices for getting around.” Despite all of her success, Ms. Sadik-Khan made it clear that these transformations in New York City didn’t come easily (hence the title of her book). She recalled a lawsuit that one community group filed, angry that there were new bike lanes painted on their streets: “If this lawsuit were a child, it would be old enough to ride in this bike lane.” But her advice to stand your ground was well-heeded. Changing Americans’ love of car culture is hard work, but the alternative – doing nothing and leaving city streets dangerous for people who are walking and biking on them – is not acceptable.

As Janette Sadik-Khan ended her presentation, she added that all cities (not just New York City) have the potential to truly become places where all people have choices for getting around. 

TransForm is working hard to realize that potential in Oakland, with particular emphasis on neighborhoods that have historically been given short shrift in transportation investments. We’ve invested greatly in lesson #3, working with communities near the Lake Merritt BART Station and along International Boulevard to ensure that local people are helping shape plans for the future of their neighborhoods.  Learn more about the regional work we are doing to make transportation and housing more affordable, our communities more connected, and our cities better places for people of all incomes to live and get around.

*There is a Broadway musical about a New York City planner, but it’s based on Amanda Burden, not Janette Sadik-Khan.

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TransForum is the blog of TransForm, California's leading transportation advocate. For more about our work, including ways you can take action and contribute, visit TransFormCA.org.