In 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.
Her ability to implement seems to be founded in her ambitious drive—those who have worked with her describe the Columbia law grad as very strong-willed, and the mayor has credited her for the diverse array of ideas; the low cost of the projects (the creation of a plaza at the Madison Square Park intersection cost about $1 million, a relatively minor expense in a department that has $1.6 billion budgeted for bridge repairs in the latest capital budget); and the relatively hassle-free legal mechanisms for implementation.
If the DOT wants to close down a lane of traffic and hand it over to pedestrians, for instance, it is not required even to notify the community board (though it typically does). Compare that to the typical private development on city-owned land, which must first go through a months-long environmental review that can cost millions, followed by a seven-month public review process that requires favorable votes from the City Council and the City Planning Commission.
However, the DOT’s recently ramped-up pace has frustrated residents and elected officials, who feel they were let in on the decisions only after all the plans were made.
Case in point, they say, is the process that surrounded the Ninth Avenue bike lane, a lane partitioned from traffic for which the DOT first revealed its plans to the community board in September 2007. One week later, by the community board’s telling, installation began.
“The bike lane was a huge thing,” said the local state senator, Thomas Duane. “Everybody was kind of unhappy at how it went in, but we’ve all expressed that, and now we’ve all agreed to move on.”
The tension comes, Mr. Duane said, as the mayor’s office tries always to move something through quickly if it has the ability, and Ms. Sadik-Khan offers no exception. “Always, in the executive branch, no matter who they are, if they can avoid going through a lengthy public review process, they will … so I think that’s part of what the problem is.”
To the general criticism that she moves forward without listening, Ms. Sadik-Khan responded simply by saying that consulting with the community is an important part of the process. When asked about her fast pace, she merely gestured to the Bloomberg administration’s countdown clock installed in her office (it read 496 days).
Ms. Sadik-Khan is perhaps best known in Albany for her leading role in the attempt to push through a congestion pricing plan—a push that resulted in no vote in either the Assembly or the Senate due to lack of support. Some of the cool reception was in part a response to the aggressive approach by the Bloomberg administration—one that some legislators felt came off as arrogant. (It certainly didn’t help her cause that she got a speeding ticket on the way to Albany to lobby for the program.)
With many of Ms. Sadik-Khan’s key initiatives, there is a potential lack of permanency. The same features that allow the DOT’s projects to get in the ground swiftly could also seal their fate in a future administration: The city has claimed lanes of Broadway as open space with some epoxy, sand, paint, plants and tables, yet a future administration could just as easily pack up those tables and put lane markers right back down on the roadway.
This prospect seemed almost incomprehensible to Ms. Sadik-Khan, who seemed to think that public resistance to it would prove too great, the ease of removal notwithstanding. “People are very protective about their public space,” she said. “I think it would be very hard to take these spaces back to the state that they were in before.”