Janette Sadik-Khan Is the Best Mechanic the City Streets Have Had in a Generation—So Why Do Motorists Hate Her So Much?

Kiss her asphalt, drivers!

Let's drive. (Daily News)

Part of the problem for DOT is that its sexiest projects—literally, think of all the models in skirts and hunks with no shirts biking around the city—are the most controversial. As for the public plazas, like Times Square, they feel like tourist amenities more than anything, even as they protect natives from taxis, which, by the way, are whizzing by a little bit faster than before thanks to all the street redesigns. “So much of what DOT does is invisible,” said “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz, a former DOT traffic engineer who now runs his own consultancy. It is at grade or beneath it.

The biggest project so far undertaken actually had a bit of wow factor to it. The $669 million replacement of the Willis Avenue Bridge connecting northern Manhattan and the South Bronx involved floating the 350-foot-long, 2,400-ton middle section down the Hudson, where it was installed by barge. DOT invited the press out for the occasion while also posting pictures to Flickr and videos to YouTube of the floating span.

In the end, there was only a day or two’s worth of stories, compared to at least a year’s worth of reports lambasting bike lanes. All the while 70,000 people drive across the bridge each day, compared to the roughly 17,000 people who commute by bike across all five boroughs.
Take the repairs to the Brooklyn Bridge as another example. At $508 million, it ranks near the top of DOT’s infrastructure spending list. For years the tabloids had complained about the bridge’s poor maintenance. In June 2010, Vice President Joe Biden came to town to tout the project, which had gotten $30 million in federal stimulus, on top of another $192 million in federal funds. (Capitalizing on her experience at U.S. DOT, Ms. Sadik-Khan has been a master of winning federal money, which comprises roughly 30 percent of the capital budget, with another 5 percent coming from the state.)

A critical piece of infrastructure and a beloved landmark were being fixed all at once. And what do the papers write about? Construction barriers creating narrower walkways, where tourists and bicyclists are forced to mix it up. Therein lies the challenge for DOT—nobody notices the job the department is doing until it screws it up. Such was the case of the Interstate-35 bridge in Minneapolis that drew so much attention to New York’s infrastructure after it collapsed in August 2007, just four months after Ms. Sadik-Khan was appointed.

“She’s had no disasters, which is pretty amazing,” Mr. Schwartz said. “Not just freak accidents, like when the Staten Island Ferry crashed, but mistakes, like when Commissioner Chris Lynn reversed the Queensboro in the ‘90s. It led to massive gridlock. So far, Janette has made almost no mistakes.”

She may have misjudged the politics on Prospect Park West, for example, but short of a few parking complaints, traffic is flowing fine, with no noticeable change in travel times. “Almost everything Janette has done is good for drivers,” said Paul Steely White, the executive director of Transportation Alternatives. “Everything that gives people more transportation choices means fewer people choose to drive. Isn’t that a goal for drivers?”

This is a legacy in the paving. (Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

In total, the city has spent $2.6 billion on bridge maintenance in the past four years, and all bridges are now either in a state of good repair or being worked on to reach that point. Beyond the two aforementioned bridges, $386 million went to the Belt Parkway bridges—talk about outer-borough love. Add to that list the $175 million reconstruction of the Staten Island Ferry bus ramps and parking lots, all of which came from federal stimulus funds, the largest such project in the state. Tens of millions more have been spent at numerous stretches throughout the five boroughs: Borden Avenue and Queens Boulevard in Queens, East Fordham Road in the Bronx, Grand Army Plaza and Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, Richmond Avenue on Staten Island, and whole swaths of Lower Manhattan. More than 3,600 miles of roads have been resurfaced at a cost of $633 million.

And $801 million has been spent on new traffic lights, street lights, signs and road markings and paint. Some of these are the same old stop signs, but just as often it is an energy-efficient light pole or a high-tech program like Midtown in Motion, a $1.6 million real-time traffic monitoring suite that adjusts traffic signals throughout the day to help clear jams. “It’s dynamic controls for a dynamic city,” Ms. Sadik-Khan said. And yet when the Bloomberg administration recently mulled red-light cameras to catch scofflaws, the story made the wood of the Daily News, albeit with a cyborg mayor. “Mike to Drivers: Smile!” the copy read. Ignoring the safety and savings from automated enforcement, the tab played up the fees and nanny-state fear.

Even something as simple as paint can become transformative in her hands. On Church Avenue in Kensington, not far from where this reporter lives, the street was recently repaved, and afterward two new white stripes ran down either side. They marked not a bike lane—though they are frequently used as such—but more of an extra-wide parking lane. Before, there was effectively one and a half lanes on either side of the street, where anxious drivers would jostle around each other, honking and speeding. Now, cars respect the lines, traffic has slowed and the streets feel considerably safer. It is the same as on Prospect Park West, where going from three lanes to two has slowed a thoroughfare once described as a drag strip.

This does not mean people are getting to their destinations more slowly, as many might think. Studies have shown that reducing speeds from 40 MPH in urban settings to only 20 MPH has little impact on travel times; it simply means less time waiting at stop lights. New York may be at the end of hurry-up-and-wait driving. For pedestrians, though, the difference is huge. At 40 MPH, 70 percent of accidents are fatal. At 30 MPH—the legal speed limit in New York—only 20 percent of accidents are fatal.

This is part of the reason the department has overseen such a decline in traffic fatalities, as well. From 393 pedestrians, cyclists and motorists killed in 2001, the number was 271 last year, up slightly from 258 the year before. That averages out to roughly a reduction by one-third. “No number of traffic fatalities is O.K., but it’s crazy these stats don’t get more play, especially given all the press the NYPD gets for keeping murders down,” one DOT official said. Even if drivers believe themselves to be impervious, as Mr. Moss puts it, “Everyone is a pedestrian at some point.”

Yet who has benefited most from these safety improvements? Bicycling and motorcycling fatalities have remained roughly constant at 19 and 35 annually for the past 10 years. Pedestrians have faired better, with 193 deaths in 2001, compared to 152 last year, a decline of 21 percent. Driving fatalities, meanwhile, have fallen from 146 to 61 the past two years, a nearly three-fold decline.

Janette Sadik-Khan Is the Best Mechanic the City Streets Have Had in a Generation—So Why Do Motorists Hate Her So Much?