Calgary

NYC planner urges Calgarians not to 'take our streets for granted'

A transportation commissioner who oversaw radical changes to New York City, such as closing Times Square to traffic, argues any city can take radical steps toward improving accessibility for pedestrians, cyclists and transit users — even sprawling Calgary.

'Streets are a quarter of the public space in a city, and we’ve always looked at them as throughways for cars'

Former New York City transportation commissioner Jeanette Sadik-Khan closed Times Square to vehicles, solving "a problem that was hidden in plain sight." (Seth Wenig/Associated Press)

If people are the product of their environment, then Jeanette Sadik-Khan played a pivotal role in developing a new breed of New Yorker.

As head of the Big Apple's transportation department from 2007 to 2013, Sadik-Khan oversaw radical changes, such as closing Times Square to traffic, aimed at steering the city toward a more sustainable future.

In her new book, Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution, she argues any city can take radical steps toward improving accessibility for pedestrians, cyclists and transit users — even sprawling Calgary. She spoke to CBC's the Homestretch about her ideas ahead of a public talk on Wednesday.  

Since closing Times Square to vehicle traffic, the popular tourist destination has become one of the Top 10 retail locations in the world, says Sadik-Khan. (Castlewood Productions)

When you took the job of New York City transportation commissioner what was your vision for the city?

Mayor Bloomberg set out a vision for New York City called PlaNYC, and it was this long-range sustainability plan that looked at how are we going to accommodate the million more people that are expected to move to New York City by 2030.

That had some pretty profound implications for our streets, because we weren't going to accommodate those people in cars. That meant we had to look at more efficient ways for using the assets that we had.

Streets are a quarter of the public space in a city, and we've always looked at them as throughways for cars and we really have not had any other expectations for how streets could be used.

So, we looked at how could we transform that asset that was basically hidden in plain sight, all of the real estate that was sort of trapped between the lanes.

How do you get people to see the streets they've driven down for decades differently?

It's a really important question because we really do take our streets for granted. The way our streets are designed tells people how to use them.

And so we can look at that operating code a little bit differently and use the streets for more than just driving. It really does come down to choices. What kind of choices do people have for getting around?

In New York it was a fight. Every inch of the 180 acres we reclaimed from cars was a fight. When you change the DNA of a city it will raise hackles.

Changing how we use our streets comes down to changing the "operating code," the street signs, lanes and buildings that direct our interactions. (Warren Kay/CBC)

One of your boldest moves was turning Times Square into a pedestrian oasis, actually removing traffic from a large section of Broadway. When you walk through Times Square today what are you most proud of?

Times Square was a problem that was hidden in plain sight. Ninety percent of the space was given to cars, and yet 90 percent of the traffic was people on foot. So it was really a math problem, redoing the allocation of space.

We called the project Green Light for Midtown and we closed Broadway to cars and opened the former roadbed to people and they immediately swarmed the street.

They sat in the beach chairs and they gazed up at the lights. And not just tourists, there are tens of thousands of people that work within blocks of Times Square.

Injuries to motorists went down 63 percent, pedestrian injuries declined 35 percent, it was a smash hit for business, and it became one of the top 10 retail locations on the planet.

It was a total home run.

Your game plan was to implement the changes quickly and then tweak the problems later. Why did that strategy work?

Probably like many people in Calgary, New Yorkers were very skeptical about seeing any kind of change happen in their lifetime, because any kind of change goes through years of planning studies and all the rest. So we moved fast to try projects in the short term to see how they worked. If they worked we'd keep them, and if not we'd put them back to the way they were.

People's expectations for their streets changed dramatically, and they really had a new vocabulary of bike lanes and bus lanes and bike share and they're kind of fluent in this new language.

"Cyclists and cars and pedestrians are in each other’s way not because one way is worse than the other, but because the street itself is programmed for conflict." (Craig Chivers/CBC)

Some might argue that Manhattan already had a critical mass of pedestrians and transit commuters that took advantage of those changes. Can a plan like this work for a city like Calgary that has so much urban sprawl?

Absolutely. A lot of people tend to think that all of New York City looks like Manhattan.

But at 800-square-kilometres we cover a lot of territory that looks a bit more like Manhattan, Kansas.

So we've invested in all of these areas throughout the city, in crucial connections in the Bronx and Queens or Staten Island, that created safe and efficient connections for people to get from home to work by bus or by train and made connections to neighbourhood main streets, which are growing job hubs outside of the core.

That's not New York City specific, the situation is the same in outer parts of Calgary.

You get what you build for. If you build for cars you get traffic. If you build transit that connects people to where they need to go you get more ridership.

Bike lanes are always controversial. What's the solution there?

I think it comes down to choices, and what choices do people have for getting around. A lot of people see cyclists as a nuisance, but I think what you see on your street depends on how you get around.

Cyclists and cars and pedestrians are in each other's way not because one way is worse than the other, but because the street itself is programmed for conflict. People have a really hard time breaking this bike-brain barrier that makes them think that streets can't be used for anything but cars. Believe me, bike riders aren't any happier with the status quo on the street. They don't want to be cheek by jowl with buses and box trucks.

"You get what you build for. If you build for cars you get traffic. If you build transit that connects people to where they need to go you get more ridership." (The Associated Press)

Other than New York City, which global cities are getting it right?

You know there's a seismic shift underway when Los Angeles is building protected bike lanes.

But you see all these capitals changing the way they are designing their streets because they understand these aren't just amenities. Bike lanes and bus lanes and walkable neighbourhoods are critical economic development strategies, because people and companies can move anywhere.

And so what you are seeing is the market demanding cities that make it easier to get around without actually having to drive.


Calgary: The Road Ahead is CBC Calgary's special focus on our city as it passes through the crucible of the downturn: the challenges we face, and the possible solutions as we explore what kind of Calgary we want to create. Have an idea? Email us at calgarytheroadahead@cbc.ca

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