Bloomberg’s Street Fighter

brown 6 Bloomberg’s Street FighterIn the late winter, Dan Biederman had a meeting with the city’s Department of Transportation in which the agency’s commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, gave him a heads-up on a project in the works. The agency wanted to close down traffic lanes on Broadway, she told the longtime president of the 34th Street Partnership, with the aim of opening up large swaths of the central corridor to pedestrians and bikes.

“It was one meeting at which we were going to discuss several things, and one was to be a surprise,” Mr. Biederman said. “She said, ‘Nobody knows this; please don’t share this with the press. It’s not ready to be announced.’”

By May, the agency rolled out its full plan for “Broadway Boulevard,” and another two months after that, construction started, then finished, and now suddenly midtown south has a whole new chunk of public open space, with one and two lanes of the city’s most notable thoroughfare closed to cars.

“It’s extremely surprising that Broadway Boulevard got done as quickly as it did,” Mr. Biederman said. “In the whole history of DOT projects, this has probably moved the fastest of anything I have ever seen.”

At a time when the Bloomberg administration is in a mad dash to get its initiatives in the ground, given the mayor’s scheduled exit at the end of 2009, it is finding something of an unlikely model of expediency in the DOT and Ms. Sadik-Khan, who came to the job in April 2007 from an executive spot at transportation engineering giant Parsons Brinckerhoff.

As many large legacy projects of the administration slowly plod along, she and the mayor are looking to the streets in order to leave their own lasting, physical imprint on the city. Using the wide-ranging powers of the DOT, the administration is swiftly pushing cars out of road lanes and installing a host of protected bike lanes, pedestrian plazas and bus lanes in their place. To name a few of the streets in Manhattan that Ms. Sadik-Khan has targeted: The messy intersection just west of Madison Square Park has become a mostly pedestrian plaza; Ninth Avenue now has a bike lane cordoned off from traffic in Chelsea; Broadway has seven blocks of new plaza and bike lanes; Eighth Avenue has a separated bikeway planned; and the Summer Streets program closed off Park Avenue to cars for three weekends this month.

“We’ve got 6,000 miles of streets and over 12,000 miles of sidewalks, and we’re trying to look at making them livable spaces, and not just these utilitarian corridors,” Ms. Sadik-Khan said in an interview. “So when you take a look at the streets of New York, that’s 80 percent of our public space. In some ways, I think of myself as the largest real estate developer in New York.”

Key to her strategy is speed. With broad powers over the road and virtually no public approval process, the 48-year-old is able to plan and then implement, often in just a few months or even weeks. It’s this ability that has irked elected officials and some in the community, who feel they are unfairly left out of the process.

On the ideological scale of transportation planning, her policies err far closer to Trotsky than Reagan. She is decidedly pro-bike and pro-pedestrian, and thus inherently anti-automobile, earning her constant praise from the normally critical transit advocates. “Sustainable” or “sustainability” seems to come up every few words in her talking points; she often rides her bike to work; and the rumor mill around City Hall says that she wants to be federal secretary of the Department of Transportation in an Obama administration. (She said she hadn’t heard that rumor, and responded: “I’m focused on New York City. I’ve got 496 days left; I’m looking forward to each and every one of them.”)

 

MS. SADIK-KHAN landed the top job 16 months ago when the prior commissioner, Iris Weinshall, left to take a job as vice chancellor at CUNY. Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff and Mayor Bloomberg brought Ms. Sadik-Khan on just as the administration was putting the final touches on its PlaNYC 23-year sustainability initiative, a plan that fit well with the relatively radical policies Ms. Sadik-Khan advocates.