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Starts & Stops

New York’s transportation chief says there’s more work to be done

Janette Sadik-Khan made street safety a top priority. Janette Sadik-Khan made street safety a top priority. (Ramin Talie/Bloomberg)
By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / October 2, 2011

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If you’ve been to New York recently, you’ve seen the work of Janette Sadik-Khan, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s transportation commissioner since 2007.

Best known for converting Times and Herald squares to public plazas and closing a frenetic stretch of Broadway to automobile traffic, Sadik-Khan’s citywide campaign to promote biking, walking, and riding transit is even bolder and more ambitious than a similar effort in Boston.

New York Magazine likened Sadik-Khan to a cross between Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs - the master builder who razed neighborhoods and defined the highway-building era, and the urban activist who stood up to Moses’s bulldozers. New York Post columnist Andrea Peyser dubbed her “the psycho bike lady’’ and “Janette ‘Sadist’-Khan,’’ while New York Times columnist Frank Bruni urged her on as an unflinching visionary whose full recognition would come later.

Obscured amid the attention is the fact that the vast majority of Sadik-Khan’s transportation budget still goes to road and bridge repaving and reconstruction, with the bike and pedestrian improvements folded in on a shoestring. The changes, which in some cases actually improved traffic flow, boosted bike and bus riding and reduced bike, pedestrian, and car-accident injuries.

Sadik-Khan was in town recently to speak at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, hosted by its Zofnass Program for Sustainable Infrastructure and the LivableStreets Alliance. She agreed to an interview, an edited version of which follows.

Q: You’ve become a household name in New York, but how would you describe your approach, work, and goals to readers unfamiliar with you?

A: Just a small question. What’s your theory of the universe? [Laughing]. I’m proudest of our safety record. The fact that our streets are safer than they’ve ever been is really important, and the fact that we still have 4,000 people a year killed or seriously injured on the streets of New York City is unacceptable.

We did this landmark pedestrian safety study two years ago, with an $800,000 grant from the Federal Highway Administration, and it was really our Rosetta stone of where crashes happen and why. That guides all of our work on the streets and where we do projects, and you’re starting to see the payoff.

You’re not going to get on a bike if you don’t feel safe. And we’re an aging society. You’ve got to make streets work better for seniors. We have kids out there. So it all works together, and streets that have protected bike lanes are safer for everybody.

Q: Are you surprised at the resistance you’ve met?

A: Change is messy, and change is hard. And so it can be difficult, and people get used to how their streets look, and they take it all very personally and I understand that. But it’s really important that we don’t get stuck in an approach that’s 25 years old. Until recently our streets have been in suspended animation, and we really can’t afford that - we can’t afford that economically, we can’t afford that socially.

Q: How important is it to be bold, and could others replicate your work elsewhere?

A: A lot of the reason that we’ve come as far as we have is due to the hard work of a lot of advocates over the past 10 to 15 years who have really laid a strong foundation for the initiatives that we’re implementing. Encouraging everyone to speak up for what they want to see on their streets continues to be a really important part of moving a sustainable transportation agenda forward.

What we’re also trying to do is show people that you can get things done without a lot of money. Capital resources are increasingly scarce at the federal, state, and local level, but that doesn’t mean you can’t implement new projects. And so literally with paint cans and paintbrushes, you can change a place overnight.

We started doing a lot of that, like some of our early work in [a Brooklyn neighborhood], taking an area that was just used as this parking lot, and over a weekend we painted it and added planters, and the community was instrumental in getting this done, and we turned it into a great little plaza.

Q: Will your work extend beyond the Bloomberg administration?

A: As the mayor said to me, your job is to leave this city in a better place than you found it. And that’s really what we’re doing. It’s also really important that no matter who the next mayor is, no matter who the next commissioner is, that these approaches continue in the years to come, and we’re working very, very hard on manuals for the design of our streets.

Commuters to wait just a little longer for Old Colony weekend service

I reported in September that the MBTA is well ahead of schedule on replacing 150,000 crumbling rail ties on the Old Colony commuter rail lines. That’s still the case, but the T overstated its ability to resume running trains on weekends.

Spokesman Joe Pesaturo said the T erred in saying that weekend service on the Greenbush, Plymouth/Kingston, and Middleborough/Lakeville branches would return in the next few weeks. With the exception of special Thanksgiving-weekend service, none will operate on weekends until at least wintertime, Pesaturo said.

The matter came to my attention when a reader on the South Shore called the MBTA’s customer-service line after he was surprised not to find the information on the T’s website. He got the runaround.

Pesaturo said the mistake was a matter of internal communication, not project complications. The suspension of weekend service is needed so workers can get on the tracks for final surfacing and alignment - a stage that does not preclude trains from running during the week, when crews are not present.

What’s old is new again on Storrow Drive westbound

Here’s more proof that you can’t please all the people all the time, at least not on the roads: A flurry of e-mails and calls came in recently about restriping on Storrow Drive, where the Department of Conservation and Recreation reversed a lane configuration that it had introduced in 2009. That last change generated complaints from drivers who liked the old way, while the new change - well, you get the idea.

We’re talking about the area where Storrow westbound approaches the split for the Fenway/Kenmore exit. Historically, Storrow had two through lanes and one exit lane there.

After closing one through lane for construction staging, DCR found it had an unintended effect: a merge became smoother down the road, where on-ramp traffic from the Bowker Overpass met just one lane, instead of two lanes, of Storrow Drive through-traffic.

So when the work was finished, DCR changed the configuration to one through lane and two Fenway/Kenmore exit lanes, planning to study the results. Now, the old alignment has returned.

“The current change is once again a game of chicken, trying to enter Storrow Drive with the continuing traffic, going west, coming around the corner at full speed,’’ reader Cynthia Schuneman of Newton wrote. “Help, where is the sanity in the traffic department?’’

Reader David B. Waters called the now-old way “the best thing the Patrick administration did in their first term. . . . But now they’ve reversed their decision and put back the dangerous merge! It’s a deadly accident waiting to happen! Do you know what they were thinking?’’

DCR spokeswoman S.J. Port said the department’s traffic engineers studied data over the past year and found little difference in accident frequency before and after the change.

So “we went back to the original lane alignment as it had been for the 40 years prior, because people had complained about the new alignment,’’ she said. “Our plan is actually to watch that data over the next six to 12 months. . . . If there is a significant spike in accidents or disruption to traffic, we will certainly consider changing it again.’’

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at