When Fusion Halifax first published their reimagining of Wyse Road in Dartmouth as part of The Little Easy: Fusion’s Pitch for a Great Youth City, I could almost hear the guffaws resonate throughout town. The proposed rendering includes increased pedestrian space, protected bike lanes, and a bus-only lane. In short, it looks amazing. Almost too amazing, at least for Halifax, Nova Scotia.
One Examiner commenter captured what I think is the prevailing feeling about such proposals in Halifax: “I will never live to see it look like that.”
I thought of this comment while reading Streetfight, the new book by Janette Sadik-Khan, former transportation commissioner of New York City from 2007-2013. When Sadik-Khan was appointed commissioner, there were intractable traffic issues in New York City that people assumed would never be solved in their lifetimes. It was considered the nature of New York to be a congested mess of honking and street-level emissions. But in six and a half years, Sadik-Khan ushered in an awe-inspiring number of street level changes in her city, many of which weren’t even considered possible before she came along.
Sadik-Khan and her team created hundreds of kilometres of bike lanes, dozens of pedestrian plazas, and a bus rapid transit system to parts of the city not served by the subway. She used road diets (reducing the number of lanes dedicated to car traffic) to get the space she needed for other modes. She was a controversial love/hate figure in New York City. In the rest of the world, she became an icon for getting things done on the street, not only within a lifetime, but in less than a decade.
There’s plenty to learn from Sadik-Khan. The nuts and bolts of the ideas she implemented in New York City are laid out in the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) street design guide.
As remarkable as the NACTO designs are, if I had to pick one quality of Sadik-Khan that I’d like to see our transportation leadership emulate, it’s how to get things done. She was gifted at implementation, amidst controversy and plenty of naysaying.
Every community has excuses for why changing the way they use their streets is impossible, impractical, or just insane. I learned first hand that there is no end to the reasons for inaction. But inaction is inexcusable. As our cities grow, leaders and the people they serve cannot accept dysfunctional streets, they must fight to change them…
Reversing the atrophy afflicting our city streets requires a change-based urbanism that creates short-term results – results that can create new expectations and demand for more projects.
How did she get those short term results? Sadik-Khan’s team would come up with design solutions that could be implemented cheaply, in the short term, with paint and minimal concrete work. She then measured the changes to safety and traffic flow, not just anecdotally, but by accessing the GPS movement data in NYC’s 13,000 yellow cabs, among other things. If a temporary design solution was working, it would become more permanently constructed. If not, it could be easily tweaked or reverted.
Her technique meant that within months of the debate over a proposed project, New Yorkers could actually experience the solution.
The fast implementation of projects proved to be far more effective than the traditional model of attempting to achieve near unanimity on projects even when you already have consensus that the status quo doesn’t work.
Sadik-Khan exemplified the idea that not only can you do things temporarily and experiment in real time on city streets, but in many cases you simply must, in order to combat the inertia of an unsatisfactory status quo.
Sadik-Khan also demonstrated that closing a street could actually improve traffic flow. In 2009, she famously closed off a block of the diagonal Broadway to car traffic. The closure meant one less light cycle at Times Square, and therefore longer green lights for all other traffic lanes. At the same time, the closure created a 2.5 acre pedestrian plaza, restoring a balance to public space. Before Sadik-Khan’s intervention, 82 per cent of the people using that stretch of Broadway were pedestrians, but they were squashed into 11 per cent of the space between buildings.
Perhaps most impressively, the Times Square project cost a mere US$1.5 million, and the plan was implemented literally overnight. Construction barrels were rolled into place to block traffic, and beach chairs brought into the new “plaza,” to stand in for sturdier furniture that was still working its way through city bureaucracy. The data collected afterward showed an overall improvement in traffic flow and safety for pedestrians and drivers. The temporary project was deemed a success, and over time, a permanent design was created and built in its place.
Had we tried to convince everyone in New York City that the Times Square project would work before we took the first step – answered every cabbie’s doubt and refuted every newspaper columnist’s armchair analysis – it would have taken five years just to break ground…
After pedestrian plazas, Sadik-Khan is probably best known for implementing hundreds of kilometres of bike lanes, many of which were protected with a lane of parked cars, and then bringing in a bike-share system to help New Yorkers take advantage of them. Her bike lane program got her labeled a zealot who had it in for cars, but armed with data and measurements from each project showing its success, she continued. She considered “bike-lash” to be a kind of call for better street design.
Every epithet yelled at a passing cyclist is a demand for more and better bike lanes.
Many of the bike lanes Sadik-Khan built were parking-protected, the first of their kind in North America. (Halifax installed its first on Rainnie Drive last fall). The idea to put a lane of parked cars between cyclists and car traffic was considered “crazy,” even within her own department. But a trip to Copenhagen with one of her engineers started to convince her own staff that maybe this tried and true design could also work in North America.
The least talked about, but perhaps most impactful project Sadik-Khan took on, was a bus rapid transit system called Select Bus Service (SBS). Starting in 2008, in a collaboration between Sadik-Khan’s department and New York’s transit agency (MTA), the first SBS route opened. Car lanes were turned to bus lanes, and lo and behold, people moved faster. At a fraction the cost and timeline of building new subways, Sadik-Khan created space for the MTA to deliver higher order transit to areas of the city that may never even be considered for a subway line.
SBS offered faster service in just weeks and months, not years and decades… By the end of the fifth year of implementation, we had updated one of the oldest forms of city transportation and saved the nearly 60 million annual bus passengers along these streets more than 550 years of cumulative travel time.
Far from being just a bike lane nut or a plaza builder, Sadik-Khan should go down in history as the person that, amazingly, improved the situation for all modes of mobility in her city. She turned things around for New Yorkers, even managing to change their minds about what made sense on their streets.
So what do you say, Halifax? Shall we try some things?
I’m not suggesting that we replicate exactly what Sadik-Khan did, but rather her approach to getting it done.
Let’s spend a tiny percentage of our streets budget on some solutions that aren’t in the same toolbox we’ve been using for the past five decades. Let’s implement pilot projects quickly, with temporary materials, and measure what kind of results we get.
Let’s at least put things on the table, and not balk at ideas that we know, intellectually, are doable, even though our experience seems to tell us they are impossible.
Wyse Road 2.0, here we come. One day you might be the new status quo.