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!

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

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?”

jsk and mayor edward reed1 Janette Sadik Khan Is the Best Mechanic the City Streets Have Had in a Generation—So Why Do Motorists Hate Her So Much?

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.


  1. Jackmorpher says:

    this is a reputational rehab piece, for the bike mafia, and her Don boss, who needs all the help he can get which won’t be enough

    i would like our author to divide the dollars spent on bicycles by the number of bicycles, probably an obama’s worth of dollars per rider, no surprise there, seasonally adjusted of course, how many bicyclists in winter, commish? as we have alternate side parking, how about alternate season bike lanes

    as for faster traffic, well you can’t have it both ways, either traffic is NOT slowed, as one paragraph says, or traffic IS slowed, and accidents are no longer s fatal

    btw i support traffic cameras, and would also like real-time linkage to insurance status, and traffic warrants and other warrants

    1. Driver says:

      Yeah! How about alternate season parks and schools? How many tennis court users in the winter, commish?  How many empty school cafeterias in summer?

    2. mike says:

      as for faster traffic, well you can’t have it both ways, either traffic is NOT slowed, as one paragraph says, or traffic IS slowed, and accidents are no longer s fatal

      It’s counterintuitive, but this is actually not true. It is entirely possible to reduce cars’ maximum speed but also reduce the amount of time they spend stopped, thus actually improving travel time.

    3. Anonymous says:

      Try reading the article before commenting:

      “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.”

    4. Anonymous says:

      Here’s some quick math for you Jackmorpher. $15.8 million spent on 250 miles of bike lanes for 17,000 daily cycling commuters works out to about $12 foot in infrastructure or $929 per cyclist. Lets contrast that with the projected $16 Billion (low-end est.) it will cost taxpayers to build the 8.5 mile long 2nd avenue subway which is projected to service 200,000 users per day: $356,500/ft and $80,000 per user. Bicycles are the most cost effective transportation mode we have.

      1. Biker/Driver says:

        The number per cyclist is far lower.  The 17,000 figure is a screenline count, measured at 6 entry points into Manhattan (bridges, the Staten Island Ferry terminal and the West Side Greenway) and was actually 18,809 in the Spring of 2011.

        There are far more daily cyclists, many of whom weren’t counted in that figure.  Anyone who stays within a borough and doesn’t cross a bridge doesn’t get counted, so if you run errands on a bike in a bike lane or bike from Greenpoint to DUMBO for work, you also don’t get captured in these screenline counts.

        The per-cyclist cost of bike lanes is probably much much less than $900. Considering how many cyclists also own cars (many), have a drivers license (most), and pay taxes (all), we’re more than paying our share.

        As for expensive projects, don’t forget the $500 million Brooklyn Bridge rehab project happening right now. You can be sure the bridge wouldn’t need so much work if it weren’t for heavy car traffic using the free bridge every day.

  2. Unknowncolor says:

     First the Bus islands and lanes in SoHo are a big mistake ,it cut down Broadway to a one lane street. On Spring if any vehicle is making a left hand turn its gridlock because you can only use one lane the rest are for Tourist Buses Same for Spring because of the grid lock no one can move down Spring St .Whats so annoying is all these decisions are being made for TOURISTS  not New Yorkers and while Im at it the new BID set up on Broadway is a failure ,last weekend garbage was every where piling up and overflowing on the corners. Bring back ACE immediately 

    1. It seems you’re under the impression that SoHo traffic moved any faster before the bus islands came along. And that the tourism industry… as uninteresting as it is to locals, including myself… has no benefit to the city and would simply go away if we narrowed the sidewalks and turned streets into highways. 

      Yeah, buddy, you’ve got my vote in 2013. You’ll be running as a Republican, right? Or “Tea Party / The Way Things Ought To Be Party” specifically? 

  3. Adamlaw says:

    Far and away Mayor Bloomberg’s best decision as Mayor was his appointment of Janette Sadik-Khan. Both Bloomberg and Sadik-Khan recognize that in order for NYC to succeed its policies need to factor in the enormous costs associated a car centric or overly car-accomodating model.  Those who oppose Sadik-Khan and bristle at her and Mayor Bloomberg’s transporation policies are like ostriches with their heads in the sand. Their car centric model is unhealthful and completely unsustainable. My biggest fear is that the next Mayor and DOT commish don’t share Bloomberg’s and SK’s vision.

  4. Gus says:

    My only gripe is that it takes over a MONTH to pave the streets after crews tear it up, when in many cases the asphalt wasn’t that bad to begin with.  This happens in every neighborhood, from the Bronx to Astoria to the LIE to right off of Central Park. Aside from it being annoying to motorists, it leaves jagged edges on manholes, gas valves etc which can cause flats (accidents) and furthermore it makes virtually every street corner non-ADA accessible. For WEEKS.  Is is so hard to schedule road paving soon after asphalt removal?

    1. Z Fechten says:

      “in many cases the asphalt wasn’t that bad to begin with.”

      As the oil filter guy used to say, you can pay a little now, or a lot more later.

      It’s been conclusively proven that it’s much cheaper to resurface a road when it is still in relatively good condition, rather than waiting until it needs full reconstruction. A dollar of preventive maintenance or resurfacing can prevent spending five dollars only a few years later.

       From a system-wide perspective, it’s more cost-effective to concentrate on keeping the good roads good, and fix the bad ones as the budget allows. If you concentrate on the roads in poor condition, by the time all of them are fixed, the roads that were good when you started will be poor.

      Unless they are doing cold-in-place recycling, it does seem they could be doing a better job on scheduling. CIPR needs at leasta week to set before putting the top course on.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Finally, a positive story about Sadik-Khan.  Just the reduction in crash deaths alone is huge.  I only regret that Cuomo didn’t tap her for State DOT.  We could use her help in the suburbs.  We’re getting fatter and fatter in our cars, and too scared to walk anywhere for fear of being mowed down by cars.

  6. Gnossos says:

    Quoting a Transportation Alternatives spokesperson on what’s good for drivers is the journalistic equivalent of quoting a Nazi on what’s good for Jews.