If you can remake it here, you can remake it anywhere.Janette Sadik-Khan on her work in NYC
What it’s about
Written largely in the first-person, it recounts Janette Sadik-Khan’s time as Transportation Commissioner in New York City under Mayor Mike Bloomberg from 2007 to 2013.1 Very open in her biases, she clearly articulates her vision, beliefs, and values. She sets the tone early on in her response to Bloomberg during an initial interview:
I don’t want to be the traffic commissioner, I want to be the transportation commissioner.
It’s a thoroughly interesting insider’s account of the challenges faced and a documentation of the incredible successes. These successes include, but are not limited to, the pedestrianization of Times Square, the large-scale implementation of bike lanes across the city, and the introduction of a major bike-share system.2
What it’s really about
I’m of the opinion that Sadik-Khan really did facilitate an “urban revolution” in New York City. Stephen Mallon of the NYC Department of Transportation noted that it gave New Yorkers the “public vocabulary” and made them “fluent in their streets.” However, the ambitious (and maybe a bit facetious) subtitle doesn’t quite fulfill its promise as a ‘handbook,’ leaning more towards a narrative account (with a self-congratulatory tone) rather than an informative guide. More of a memoir, it offers an insider’s perspective on New York City’s urban challenges during Janette Sadik-Khan’s tenure as Transportation Commissioner. And while it vividly recounts her experiences, readers unfamiliar with New York’s specific political and geographical context may feel a little lost.3
Nevertheless, it’s a really good introduction to urbanist challenges that persist today in other cities and one can root for Janette as a protagonist in the story. In giving a behind-the-scenes look at the human side of change, it’s a relatable yet impressive account of the challenges faced (cultural, technological, political, temporal) in making large-scale changes to parts of the NYC streetscape.
While Sadik-Khan is the lead author on this, some of the book’s emphasis on public relations and communication strategy likely4 come from her co-author, Seth Solomonow. Those contributions, however, aren’t ever clearly acknowledged.
The book also notably omits failures or mistakes. How do these changes hold up during different seasons? (Wintertime is conspicuously absent!) What are the long term maintenance implications of paint? And her use of terms like “up to 18 percent faster”5 and other uncited stats sound like something out of an advertisement rather than an objective recounting.
More than anything, Sadik-Khan demonstrates that there are ways to cut through the bureaucracy and red tape that typically hinder any major attempt at change. She also demonstrates that it’s as much about changing the public’s minds as those of bureaucrats. Therefore, the book may serve more as inspiration than as an ongoing reference.
Streetfight puts a heavy emphasis on qualitative observation of human patterns and decisions. With nods to Jane Jacobs, they show just how important human observation is when planning design.
It also demonstrated how strategic partnerships and relations were essential to get things done (quickly). An effective communications strategy helped ensure that different elements of the public learned about what was going on — and it meant they were prepared and agile enough to respond to negative public reactions. And they showed that “showing” was one of the most persuasive forms of persuasion.
The book and its style reminded me of a particular project that’s been on my mind lately as Apple gets set to launch its Apple Vision Pro VR. The headset promises to facilitate the world of “spatial computing” and may make “virtualization” of cities more effective. The Virtual Hamilton project I was a part of6 was a partnership between the City of Hamilton, McMaster University, and other organizations. It was a “participatory planning” tool that used an interactive virtual representation of a portion of the city so that users could best visualize proposed changes to the area (such as the installation of bike lanes or new construction). Think of it as a video game for participatory urban planning. Rather than one-off single-view 3D artist interpretations, the interactive world allowed members of the public to “virtually walk around” the new space. It was an early chance for me to see the value of: finding ways to align the goals of contributing partners, public demonstration and feedback, and finding the right allies.7
There are some threads of lessons learned there that remain. Sadik-Khan used paint because it could be quickly deployed. Soon, the convergence of AI and VR will help create on-demand interactive virtual worlds for demonstration and participatory planning.8
Of course, qualitative observations are the fodder for creative solutions. Places I’ve lived in have presented interesting opportunities for observation of some particularly unique situations. Is there a chance to learn from those places and apply the lessons elsewhere?
- For the most part, Georgetown, Guyana did not get traffic lights until 2007, procured in an agreement with India in advance of the ICC Cricket World Cup. Is the excessive honking a unique communication system that’s also a vestige of a time when it served an important safety purpose?
- The island of St. Thomas, part of the US Virgin Islands, curiously has predominantly American right-hand-drive cars all driving on the left side of the road. Is there any advantage to this unique driving setup? Does it give a driver a better view on precarious mountain roads?
- Subways and pedestrian underpasses in Seoul, South Korea doubled as shelters during regular air raid drill preparations in advance of a hypothetical attack from North Korea. They may have gotten lax with the drills. But imagine my feelings experiencing them for the first time when unaware that they were merely drills. It was actually my time living in Seoul that made me question the information design of transit systems in Toronto.9
Handbook for an Urban Revolution?
While “Handbook for an Urban Revolution” may be a bit ambitious of a subtitle for what might be better classified as a candid memoir, it’s still possible to distill and refine the lessons presented to make them more actionable for other urban contexts.
If it was really a handbook, these would be the essential lessons:
Observe Human Actions
Jacobs described the New York street scene as a “ballet.” … I’d describe city street life as more of a contact sport…
Observation is an essential qualitative aspect of these processes. It helps designers build prediction frameworks, and it helps you get answers to questions you didn’t know to ask. Desire paths let you see where people are going. It shows you where the space’s information design “tells” a user to go. Jacobs’ work was primarily from thoughtful observation of human actions. Similarly, researchers like Donald Norman and Jakob Nielsen have found ways to turn human observations into actionable data.
Too often in failing wayfinding information systems (eg. in an airport), there’s no feedback mechanism. A lost person in a new environment might self-blame for misunderstanding something “so obvious in hindsight” or a traveller might simply move on and no longer be interested in or invested in that space again. Will someone take the time to offer feedback to an airport or train station after they’ve left and moved on? Seeing the decisions of users — the points where they turn around or are confused, the telling pauses, confused glasses — must sometimes happen in real-time.
By following the footsteps and tracing an outline of the way people use the street today, we could uncover the design of the city we will want to live in tomorrow.
Waiting for idealized consensus results in inaction, indecision, and paralysis by analysis.
For Janette, paint proved to be a medium that could be deployed quickly using existing inventory. Not everything will succeed, but it’s important to try. And even the act of trying can communicate something. Lots of valuable information can be gained when you “fail fast“.10
In God we trust. Everyone else, bring data.
The most convincing argument you’ll ever make will be backed up by numbers. Sometimes numbers simply don’t line up with a person’s emotional expectations. Humans are emotional creatures. Sometimes the bureaucratic process simply needs plausible numbers to allow one to proceed to the next step.
Also, if you want to defend your changes later, make sure you establish good baseline numbers to compare with later.
Lots of the work starts before the change.
These streets of tomorrow can be outlined today in paint.
Sometimes people need to see the changes in action, even if just a first step that let’s them individually visualize and extrapolate the advantages. Today, the use of virtual worlds or immersive video (and AI for speedy development) will be the new “paint” that let’s one best explain the potential for change. How do you explain what a street is, or could be, to someone who has never been there?11
A piece of art typically must pass through hundreds of hands and thousands of eyeballs before winning approval from the city’s design bureaucracy.
Street design elements don’t need to be drab and purely functional — they can also serve as artistic mediums to make streetscapes appealing. And in limiting the time of displays, Sadik-Khan found ways to not only sidestep bureaucratic road blocks, but involve more artists.12
The public domain is in the public domain.
Cities around the world are test beds for new solutions and trials. Go there and experience them. Go there and observe.
New York City is a special case: a unique intersection of culture, infrastructure, and money, and politics. But so is every other city. And ideas can be adapted.13
Critics can be useful
Her reaction seemed so out of touch that the entire line of criticism could no longer be taken seriously.
Sadik-Khan demonstrated that it’s sometimes okay to “feed the trolls”. In doing so, you can unify opposition. It can help some find their voice. In public meetings, moderate views don’t always speak up which can result in a skewed assessment of public perception.
Work you network
Thanks to my longterm friendships with the chairs of the MTA…I could pick up the phone and they would help resolve problems that inevitably come up with programs.
Cities are networks of space and humans. Getting things done in cities relies on utilizing human networks and relationships. For cities, relationships are key. It’s a web of politics, getting buy-in, bridge-building, and forming allies. Building public groups of like-minded citizens can be a first step in connecting citizens.
Build on the past
He was shaped by the assumptions of his era.Sadik-Khan on Moses (Robert)
Robert Moses is often looked at as a sort of villain in the story of NYC. But, Sadik-Khan demonstrates the importance of moving forward and looking at the past as the necessary groundwork for the current changes.
Using parked cars as protection for cycling pathways was a marriage of existing road uses rather than a complete redesign.
Relate to the public
Transforming a city can start by changing its streets. In 2007 there was no public vocabulary in New York City for public space design, for bike lanes and bike share, or for innovative transit and safety. By 2013, when this picture of Madison Square was taken, millions of New Yorkers were fluent in their streets and the changes were just another part of the streetscape. Today, these transformations are being translated around the world.Stephen Mallon – NYC DOT
The public conversations around the transformations gave citizens the language to speak about the changes. The fields of Communications and Public Relations stand at the core of these urban revolutions, acting as critical conduits through which essential information flows between city planners, policymakers, and the public. These disciplines leverage established practices not only to educate the community about ongoing and planned transformations but also to foster a two-way dialogue that can shape the course of development. This process involves the introduction of new concepts and terminologies that enrich the public discourse, enabling a deeper understanding of complex urban issues.
Effective communication strategies can anticipate and address the diverse reactions that urban revolutions elicit, from enthusiasm and support to skepticism and opposition. By providing clear, accessible, and engaging information, communications and public relations efforts help demystify the implications of urban development projects, making them more relatable and acceptable to the general public. These fields serve as the bridge that connects the technical world of urban planning and development with the everyday experiences of urban dwellers, ensuring that revolutionary changes are not only understood but also embraced by those they impact the most.
Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution
If you’re into reading about these insider challenges for huge projects within big cities, you’ll probably be interested in the excellent series from Jason Magder and Marian Scott on the development of the Montreal Metro system: a subway system that came in on-time and under-budget14 due to specific early choices by the design leads. They should make it into a book.
Sadik-Khan continues to work as a principal at Bloomberg Associates, a philanthropic consulting firm focused on cities, and is chair of the Global Designing Cities Initiative (GDCI) which focuses on the critical role of streets within urban environments around the world. They’ve published a few highly-detailed guides for use by city-thinkers and planners around the world. The guides are available for free as an ebook (you can also pay for a hardcover edition).
A book like this really demonstrates the need for living documents. Released in 2016, it’s well cited — but can suffer from link rot. And, it would be especially cool to see how some of the proposed referenced projects have fared. (Did these changes see the light? Or did they also fall into the bureaucratic holding pattern that Sadik-Khan did so well to deftly avoid?) For instance, where is Helsinki in their quest to eliminate car ownership by 2025? How did that paint hold up after one season?
- Sadik-Khan got the benefit of a time-extension due to Bloomberg’s third term: On October 2, 2008, Bloomberg announced that he would seek to extend the city’s term limits law and run for a third mayoral term in 2009, arguing that a leader of his field was needed during the Wall Street financial crisis.
- Okay, calling it Citibike really is a perfect marriage.
- Even more so for those trying the audio book!
- Okay, it’s just my own suspicion driven by my desire to learn more about the communications and public relations strategies that were utilized. “He was the chief media strategist for Janette Sadik-Khan and New York City’s transportation department under Mayor Michael Bloomberg.“
- just a bit weaselly
- I was Director of Urban Interface Design on the SSHRC-funded project.
- Bernie Morelli, who died in 2014, was a key ally as Ward 3 City Councillor in Hamilton as well as interested citizen
- I restarted the 4ward project as a chance to integrate VR and immersive imagery/video to help give first-person perspectives on problems in our public spaces. And this site occasionally uses AI-generated imagery.
- I asked myself “Why is it easier for me to navigate the transit systems in a foreign country rather than my own?”
- Ahem, “accelerated iterative design” processes
- With “spatial computing,” looking for a purpose, it may very well help in this area.
- and also increased the likelihood that an individual would eventually like a chosen design!
- Though this has given me a fearful thought: what’s stopping someone from patenting a unique urban solution design?
- Well, at first. “When it became clear the project would cost less than expected, the city moved quickly to extend the initial plan so the Orange Line would end at Henri-Bourassa station instead of Crémazie.”