When guests were let in an hour before the show started, a giddy anticipation buzzed in the air as a long line formed for food and drinks. And when the star of the show got up on stage, the audience broke into extended, spirited applause.
Was this a hit singer on tour? No, it was a speech by a rock star in a different field: Janette Sadik-Khan, former commissioner of transportation in New York City.
Under Sadik-Khan's leadership in the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York City completed a litany of updates to its streets, some of them nearly unimaginable a decade ago. The formerly traffic-clogged Times Square was closed to cars, so it could be opened to people walking, sitting and gathering. Sixty other public plazas opened in neighborhoods throughout the five boroughs. Several new bus rapid transit lines were completed, along with hundreds of miles of bikeways. The nation's largest bike share program opened.
None of this happened without its share of controversy, of course. Sadik-Khan chronicles them in a new book, aptly titled Streetfight! Handbook for an Urban Revolution, co-authored by her communications director, Seth Solomonow.
Her appearance at the Mission Theater March 23, part of an international tour promoting the book, was sponsored by Metro as part of its Regional Snapshot speaker series. Sadik-Khan told the crowd of more than 240 people about the things she had learned through her work in New York – and provided a bit of a pep talk to people seeking to make change on the Portland region's streets. Streets are worth fighting over, Sadik-Khan said, because "when you change the street, you change the world."
Among her overarching messages:
"Paint the city you want to see."
Sadik-Khan described how New York had used inexpensive paint to update streets relatively quickly, adding new bus and bicycle lanes or creating new public plazas while reconfiguring auto lanes to improve safety and traffic flow. She pioneered the use of urban pilot projects to test an idea before making it permanent, helping reduce anxieties for local residents.
"In God we trust; everyone else bring data."
This saying, which Sadik-Khan attributed to Bloomberg, was a guiding principle for the mayor's administration. The transportation department closely tracked the impacts of its projects on safety, traffic flow and business. Better data was useful for justifying projects and trying to figure where the next investments should be. "We moved from streets being governed by anecdote to streets being governed by analysis," she said. The department's reports showed its projects helping local businesses, improving safety and in even slightly improving auto traffic flow in Manhattan.
"Follow the people."
"By looking where people are walking today you can see the city of tomorrow," Sadik-Khan said, describing how the department had specifically focused investments on sidewalks, mid-block crossings and public plazas where many people had already been observed walking and bicycling, and where neighborhoods requested them.
"The public domain is the public's domain."
Sadik-Khan described her efforts to work with community groups of all kinds – transportation advocates, neighborhood business improvement districts, equity advocates, family members of crash victims and more – to define problems and look for solutions that could garner broad support. "Building those relationships with community groups is as important as the concrete, asphalt and steel that you put down," she said, describing a meeting-heavy approach to winning public support with the city's myriad neighborhood associations, elected officials and community advocates. She even paused to request a round of applause for the various community advocates in the theater. "That is tough and thankless work," she said.
"When you push the status quo, it pushes back hard."
Sadik-Khan shared several examples of pushback the city had received for its ambitious plans, including a lawsuit by neighbors to a safety project in Brooklyn's Prospect Park neighborhood, opposition to the Times Square redesign and predictions that bike share would result in deaths and chaos in Manhattan. Although challenging, Sadik-Khan insisted that these controversies – sometimes called "bikelash" – are actually "a sign that you are doing something right." And opposition usually fades as the benefits are seen, she said. Many of the people and newspapers that opposed the Times Square transformation six years ago now strongly oppose the idea of allowing cars back in.
Watch a video of Sadik-Khan's 40-minute presentation above.
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