Building cities for people: a lesson from New York City

3 June 2014

How do you decrease the number of cars, increase the ease of getting around, and create better business in a city? By putting people first. Janette Sadik-Khan was recently in Auckland, sharing her expertise on sustainable transport in New York.

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In her six-year tenure as Commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation (2007 – 2013), Janette Sadik-Khan made a lot of changes.

She led many innovative projects, most notably, the transformation of Times Square into a pedestrian plaza; development of the city’s Select Bus Service; expanding the city’s bike lanes by more than 580 kilometres; installing now-commonplace protected bike lanes; and rolling out thousands of Citi Bikes (North America’s largest bike share system).

Janette and her team had to figure out how to deal with “traffic, congestion, dangerous streets, pollution, you name it. Our streets simply weren’t designed to meet the demands we had on them today”.

Her goal was to make it easier and safer to get around in New York, and to make the city a better place for residents and businesses.

But some of her solutions were met with intense opposition, and her department was met with criticism for not consulting enough with residents.

“I heard every objection, but good outcomes always outlast bad headlines,” she said.

To create effective transportation change, “you need to look at the streets in real time, but without costly construction.”

Janette and her team used temporary measures such as paint and bollards to block off areas that used to be road for cars, to assess how the public reacted to changes.

“If we’d done this the traditional way via traffic modelling and design, it would have taken us five years to get the same feedback and data that we got in six months,” she said.

Time Square has now been redeveloped as a permanent pedestrian plaza, an idea that former Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York initially thought was ‘one of most stupid ideas [he’d] ever heard.’

Janette spearheaded the development of more than 60 suburban plazas, or grassy areas with trees and park benches for people to use.

“We were building spaces to park cars, but nowhere for people to sit”, she said.

Since the changes have been made, retailers have reported dramatic increases in business.

On streets where bike lanes have been put in, retailers are reporting a 15% increase in retail sales, and there are fewer commercial vacancies in streets where there are bus lanes. Additional benefits include few injuries and an increased travel speed time of 15% on nearby streets.

“People are looking for alternatives. They want to get to places, but they want to get there on their own terms. The biggest transformation I’ve seen here is how people think… what do they think is possible?”

We think New Zealand cities could take a leaf out of New York City’s book, building streets primarily for people, mass transportation, and finally cars, instead of the other way around.

Our new workstream on Accelerating Smart Transport in New Zealand will look at some of these issues. If you’re interested in finding our more or getting involved please contact #SmartTransportNZ

Click here to listen to Janette’s presentation at Auckland Conversations in Auckland on 26 May 2014.