Sadik-Khan Packs the House, Then Brings It Down

Thanks to Clarence Eckerson for this Streetfilms Shortie.  Sadik-Khan will be speaking again at the start of the StreetSummit this Saturday

Last night, the L.A. StreetSummit kicked off with a rousing keynote address and slide show by the groundbreaking New York City DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Kahn.  Three levels of Occidental College students, bike advocates from around the county, and others interested in Livable Streets packed the auditorium to hear Sadik-Kahn show the changes that have come to New York City's streets under her and Mayor Michael Bloomberg's leadership in the past three years.

Sadik-Khan's lecture was continually interrupted by cheers, which were in part a more polite way of "booing" our beloved LADOT who seems to operate under the exact opposite working theories of their Big Apple Counterparts, and even gasps of astonishment for the "before" and "after" pictures of the now car-free pedestrian plaza at Herald Square.  You almost felt bad for the only LADOT representative in the audience when Sadik-Khan got a round of applause for something as simple as setting benchmarks and goals for things as obvious as "reducing pedestrian deaths to 50% of 2007 levels" and then measuring every year how the city is doing in meeting said goals.

One thing that you could palpably feel from the NYCDOT boss was the sense of pride in how her department has changed the way people think about transportation and even about city government, the speech was peppered with New York City promos, my favorite of which was when she pointed out that "New Yorkers have one-third of the carbon footprint of the average American.  If you're really serious about saving the planet, you should move to New York City."

But the real message of the evening was that Angelenos, especially our government leaders and transportation buerocrats, shouldn't be so damm terrified scared of trying something new.  After all, the transportation planning for Los Angeles up to now clearly hasn't worked, so why not try something new?  If you try pilot programs and they don't work, there's no lasting harm.  It's not like what we're doing now is working wonderfully.

And that's the main difference between the "new" NYCDOT and the "current" LADOT.  While NYCDOT is constantly pushing the envelope, and seeing dramatic success in giving people more options in how they travel; the LADOT has resisted all efforts to change business as usual.  NYCDOT is concerned about moving people, LADOT seems more concerned about political gamesmanship and protecting their jobs and the failed status quo on our streets.  This "goofus and gallant" comparison was in-part inspsiring and in-part depressing.  All you have to do is compare Sadik-Khan's delighted boast that her department completed 2,000 hours of outreach to LADOT General Manager Rita Robinson's excuse making that her department can't afford to send representatives to Neighborhood Council meetings or properly staff Bike Advisory Committee meetings.

As Sadik-Khan talked about how easy it is to make some of these changes, some in the room got a little quesy.  It's easy to paint bus-only lanes?  Sorry, that takes decades of studies and environmental reviews.  NYCDOT has a goal of fifty miles of new bike lanes ever year?  Well, here in L.A. we can bring a Sharrows pilot program on a couple of streets to fruition a mere three years, and counting, after the city starts studying it.  To be fair, yes, there is an effort out of the Mayor's office to change L.A. into a transit town in the next decade through leveraging Measure R funds in the "30 in 10" program.  But New York had a more extensive subway system than L.A. will have even under "30 in 10." As recently as three years ago their city looked a lot like ours does now.

And what are some of these new changes?  The car-free Broadway pilot program created pedestrian plazas in Times Square (burst of applause from the audience,) and Herald Square (gasp of astonishment.)  There was also some good work done to create bike safety in the "new" Columbus Circle (a mere murmur of approval.)  And there's more good news, along the new "car-free" Broadway corridor, traffic time is actually improved with the removal of cars on New York's signature street.  Travel time has been reduced 15% on 6th Street and another 4% on Seventh.  Injuries are down to pedestrians by thirty five percent, and a shocking 63% to motorists.  Nearly three-quarters of all New York'ers responded to a survey that the Times Square Plaza is a "dramatic improvement" to the traffic clogged Times Square of yesteryear.

But with all that change going on, Sadik-Khan told an amusing story about how sometimes people focus on the strangest things.  With just ten days until the pedestrian plaza in Times Square was to open, the NYCDOT staff realized that they had nothing to fill the new space.  In a rush, they bought a lot of beach chairs.  And what happened?  All anyone wanted to talk about when the project opened was the beach chairs.  The real lesson of Times Square, "If you ever have a controversial project, just put in beach chairs."

But it's not just the headline grabbing projects in Manhattan that make a difference.  Sadik-Khan was just as happy to talk about a new pedestrian plaza put in the DUMBO area of Brooklyn, which looked suspiciously as though it is outside of Streetsblog's offices, and a bus improvement program in the Bronx that utilizes pre-paid boarding passes to reduce travel time by 25% while ridership increased by 30%.  A new project for the Eastside Green Corridor, along 1st and 2nd Street is going to take things a step farther y also adding "bus bubbles" so that the buses don't have to pull into and out of traffic to pick-up and drop-off passengers.

Sadik-Khan also talked about the importance of safety on the streets.  Showing a slide of a four-person family biking in a green-painted bike lane, she commented that "families and women are the indicator species of safety for bikes," which is both a true and sad statement for Angelenos.  A recent bike count completed by the LACBC showed that only 18% of those counted were female.

Sometimes, Sadik-Khan's speech seemed to be an unintentional jab at the way things are done in Los Angeles and Southern California.  The person sitting next to me actually laughed when she said that the top goal of any DOT is safety.  At another point, she made a crack about "once it became clear we weren't going to triple-deck the FDR," which is an unintentional slam of our Greenhouse Gas fighting Governor's plan to double-deck portions of the I-405

To close her speech, she talked about the success of the Summer Streets, the Ciclovia style street closures on Sundays, that really helped people change the way they think of their streets.  "Streets don't have to be used the same way all the time," Sadik-Khan told the audience before pointing out that this wasn't just some big bike party.  in addition to bikes there were block parties, people playing with their children, and even cha-cha and kickboxing classes.  She later joked that just watching all the dogs that took to the streets at the same time were worth all the effort by itself.

She also took a moment to praise the work of activists and advocates in creating a safer, greener, New York City.  That seemed appropriate, because while LADOT is busy defending the failed status quo, the frustrated community of activists tired of the dominance of L.A.'s Car Culture has taken it upon themselves to write their own bike plan, paint their own Sharrows and bike lanes, plan their own CicLAvia, devise and promote their own traffic calming plans, track their own bike crashes, do their own bike counts, create their own safety signage, film their own safety videos...the list goes on and on.  Sadik-Khan told the audience, "You can do a lot with a paint brush and paint can," and while she was doubtlessly talking about the changes a DOT could bring, to L.A.'s activist D.I.Y. community that's a lesson already learned.

In addition to the questions captured above in the Streetfilms Shortie by Clarence Eckerson, Sadik-Khan took two other questions that both amused and informed.  First, she seemed flummoxed by a question from Roadblock asking about the best paint to use for Sharrows, a clear reference to the most ludicrous excuse for delaying the Sharrows pilot project by LADOT.  Later, she fielded a question from a City Council staff member, who asked about the economics of these changes in a down economy.  To nobody's surprise, she reminded the audience that the kinds of changes brought to New York City cost a heck of a lot less than traditional road widenings and other similar projects.  We've theoretically asked before what kind of changes could be made to Los Angeles for the billion dollars wasted y widening the I-405, again, but it doesn't cost a lot of money to make big changes to a city's street DNA.

All it takes is innovation and political will.  Unfortunately, the closest we're coming to that is in the work of former Angelenos and some of L.A.'s sattelite cities.