Street Fighter

On Sept. 17, Colin Beavan was riding his folding bicycle down Broadway in Lower Manhattan, near City Hall. Beavan, a writer known as "No Impact Man" for his attempt to reduce his carbon footprint to zero, did not use toilet paper for a year. But let's not get distracted. On that day, Beavan was simply on his bike, making a routine attempt to steer clear of moving traffic and avoid car doors flying open in his path. That was when, by Beavan's account, a black Mercedes veered precariously close to him, prompting Beavan to alert its driver to his presence by knocking on the car's window.

The Mercedes stopped and the driver rolled down the window. "Get your hands off my car, you fucking asshole," shouted Jeff Klein, a New York state senator who represents the Bronx. Klein just happened to have been, last spring, one of the most vocal opponents of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's congestion-pricing plan for New York City. That plan, which died in the state Assembly, would have charged drivers $8 to bring their cars into Manhattan below 60th Street and was enthusiastically supported by environmentalists and public-space advocates nationwide, including Beavan and the nonprofit on whose board he sits, Transportation Alternatives.

No-Impact Man, a first-rate self-promoter, milked the confrontation for all it was worth. He publicized a letter he wrote to Klein, eventually securing a meeting with the state senator. There, Klein apologized to Beavan for his bad language and pledged to revisit the issue of congestion pricing and consider other proposals to make New York streets safer for cyclists and pedestrians.

A happy ending, to be sure. Yet the bitterness of Beavan and Klein's initial encounter is typical of debates between transportation reformers, caricatured as car-hating, overeducated hippies, and their opponents, who portray themselves (sometimes in spite of luxury automobiles) as representatives of the common man. It is ironic, then, that the new national face of the movement to reduce driving and reclaim streets for pedestrians and cyclists is Michael Bloomberg, the finance titan and one-time Republican who spent $75.5 million to become New York City's mayor.

In his first five years in office, Bloomberg was hardly seen as anti-car. But in 2007, his administration rolled out an ambitious plan to reduce New York City's carbon emissions. The city reclaimed auto lanes, turning them over to pedestrians and cyclists, and swore to put every resident in walking distance of green space by 2030. On the transit front, New York is expanding express bus service, creating dedicated bus lanes, and opening several new ferry routes on the East River. Even longtime New York lefties, the sort of people who have decried Bloomberg's fortune-fueled reign for seven years, are impressed.

On the national level, Mike Bloomberg is now recognized as a progressive reformer, and his history as a Democrat turned Republican turned Independent, all for political gain, is largely overlooked. But New Yorkers, whose memories are longer, could hardly have predicted that the most recent iteration of their mayor's chameleon career would be the promotion of a bikeable, walkable city. What even most local observers don't realize is that the Bloomberg administration's unexpected commitment to these issues is due less to ideological conviction than to the influence of one woman: Janette Sadik-Khan, commissioner of New York City's Department of Transportation.

Sadik-Khan's policies have attracted national attention from transportation reformers, and she has been discussed as a possible transportation secretary in Barack Obama's Cabinet. Last April, state legislators in Albany dealt a body blow to the Bloomberg agenda by scrapping congestion pricing. But Sadik-Khan has pressed on with a slate of piecemeal reforms that are transforming, however slowly, the landscape of New York.

As Ron Schiffman, a former commissioner of New York's De-partment of City Planning, puts it, "She's a guerilla bureaucrat."


On a glaringly sunny Tuesday in late September, Sadik-Khan held a press conference in the Village. It was Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, so much of official New York was on hiatus. Early that morning, Bloomberg, Sadik-Khan's boss, had set off a media maelstrom by leaking that he planned to seek a third term in office, in defiance of the city's charter. The press and public awaited the mayor's official announcement scheduled for later that week.

But Sadik-Khan hadn't cleared her schedule for any of those events. Instead, she was unveiling the finalists in a competition to design a new official bike rack for the city of New York. Over 200 artists had entered the contest, from as nearby as Brooklyn and as far afield as Peru and Italy. The 10 finalist models had been affixed there in Astor Place, and Sadik-Khan playfully showed journalists her favorites. "This one doubles as a bench!" she exclaimed, hoisting herself upon a flat, S-curved rack and swinging her legs girlishly beneath her. Later, chatting with some women from the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum, the co-sponsor of the competition, Sadik-Khan flipped up her charcoal gray dress to reveal spandex bike shorts underneath. "Fashion forward!" she declared, laughing. A young-looking 48-year-old who sports a chic bob with bangs, Sadik-Khan is a bike commuter herself, traveling from her West Village home to her financial district office several days a week on a Specialized Globe.

Amid an economic crisis that threatens the state and city of New York with the loss of 120,000 jobs and $3.5 billion in tax revenues, an event to promote cycling could seem a small-bore distraction. But Sadik-Khan's initiatives are central to the larger Bloomberg agenda. She was appointed commissioner in April 2007, concurrent with the mayor's roll-out of PlaNYC 2030, a proposal to reduce New York's carbon footprint by 30 percent over two decades and make the city an international leader in sustainable urban growth.

The centerpiece of that effort, the congestion-pricing plan, dominated Sadik-Khan's first year in office. The city council approved the plan in a 30-20 vote in March, but Bloomberg and Sadik-Kahn were rebuffed at the state level, accused of attempting to strong-arm the legislature into supporting a policy that benefited Manhattan at the expense of the suburbs and outer boroughs. It certainly didn't help that Sadik-Khan's driver was pulled over and ticketed for illegally running the car's sirens and lights as he sped the commissioner to Albany to lobby for the congestion-pricing bill. (Yes, you can travel by train between New York City and Albany. It takes two-and-a-half hours each way and costs between $72 and $138 round-trip.)

For advocates, the failure of congestion pricing was heartbreaking. In round after round of negotiations, the plan had been tweaked and made less objectionable to the outer-borough and suburban legislators who viewed it skeptically. Suburban commuters would be able to deduct the tax from their daily toll charge, and taxis would have to pay only a $1 fee to enter the cordoned zone. Disabled drivers would be exempted. The major East and West Side highways would be free, as would be bridges and their approaches, even those in Midtown. After all the changes, it seemed that delivery trucks and drivers-by-choice would bear the brunt of the fee, along with the mostly affluent residents living within the pricing zone. After all, commuters had the option of driving to a subway or bus stop outside of the zone and hopping on.

The federal government promised New York City a sorely needed $354 million to support mass transit if the program were approved in Albany. Gov. David Paterson supported the plan, as did state Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, a Republican. Surprisingly, much of the opposition was Democratic. Some legislators claimed they couldn't support congestion pricing if it didn't include a sliding scale for income. Transit advocates suspected an attachment to car culture was the real stumbling block. Regardless, on April 7, state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat who represents Manhattan's Lower East Side, announced that support for the bill was so scarce he wasn't even putting it to a vote.

What happened? In part, Albany politics are just formulated differently than New York City's, where the council is relatively powerless and in thrall to the mayor. Jeff Klein, for example, the Bronx state senator who fought congestion pricing, represents a borough in which every single City Council member supported the plan. But Albany Democrats simply didn't trust Bloomberg and weren't in a mood to support his signature legislative priority. It was difficult for Dems to forget that the mayor was once a Republican when, earlier this year, he donated $500,000 to help state Senate Republicans retain their majority.

Politically, Bloomberg may have also made a mistake in selling congestion pricing primarily as a fix for the budget shortfall facing the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority, when it was really an environmental and public-health initiative. Had congestion pricing passed, the combination of the fees collected and the matching grants from the federal government would have covered only a fraction of the MTA's operating and capital needs, leaving the agency $9 billion in debt. "Congestion pricing was never a choice between a funded system and an unfunded system," says New York state Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, who represents parts of southern Westchester County and was a leading opponent of the proposal.

Whatever the motivations of congestion-pricing opponents, their success in blocking Bloomberg's plan put his national reputation as a can-do reformer in doubt.


PlaNYC is premised on the idea that with New York City's population expected to grow by 1 million over the next two decades, aggressive steps must be taken to increase access to green space and affordable housing, improve public health, preserve and retrofit historic buildings, and fight global warming. Bloomberg introduced the agenda, which contains 127 sustainability initiatives, on April 22, 2007. In the words of City Councilman John Liu, chair of the council's transportation committee, "The mayor became an environmentalist rather suddenly on Earth Day 2007, at a time when there was fevered speculation that he was going to launch a presidential bid."

Indeed, PlaNYC represented an about-face. When Bloomberg was elected mayor in 2001, transportation reformers had high hopes that he would replace Rudy Giuliani's transportation commissioner, veteran New York City bureaucrat Iris Weinshall, with Sadik-Khan -- or someone a lot like her. But Bloomberg, then a Republican, chose to keep Weinshall in place. The decision was widely viewed as an attempt to reach out across party lines to Weinshall's husband, Sen. Chuck Schumer. Though advocates say Weinshall was a competent manager, they accuse her of being uninterested in transportation policy and of deferring major decisions to reactionary community boards and traffic specialists, whose primary goals were to move more cars through the streets faster.

Bloomberg's own record on public spaces was far from stellar. An expert hired to direct the Transportation Department's cycling program, Andrew Vesselinovitch, quit in 2006, claiming that Weinshall and Bloomberg rejected most of his ideas and were insufficiently committed to reforming the streetscape. Under the influence of former Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Dan Doctoroff, another Wall Street veteran, the Bloomberg administration had been pushing unpopular proposals to construct massive sports stadiums and apartment towers, replete with thousands of parking spaces, on the far West Side of Manhattan and in downtown Brooklyn. "Here we have the most transit-oriented city in America, and many of Bloomberg's most treasured development plans, at that point, were tied to 750-spot parking lagoons, as if this were the suburbs," says Aaron Naparstek, editor of Streetsblog, which lobbies for "livable streets."

When Weinshall announced her departure from the agency in January 2007, Transportation Alternatives urged Bloomberg to look for a new commissioner in London, which had instituted congestion pricing in 2003. That plan is seen as a qualified success. City carbon emissions were cut by 16 percent. Cycling within the zone increased by a third, bus ridership increased by 14 percent, and for the first time in decades, ridership on the Underground, London's subway system, increased rather than decreased. Though revenues from congestion pricing were less than expected, the tax raised about £100 million annually for London's transit system.

The New York press reported, however, that Bloomberg was not looking overseas. He was choosing between Sadik-Khan and Michael Horodniceanu, both American engineering-firm executives who had served in government. While Sadik-Khan was known as a reformer with a focus on mass transit, Horodniceanu was a former city traffic commissioner who boasted of having managed the largest parking system in the United States. Bloomberg's decision would signal exactly how serious he was about embracing the environmentalist mantle. He ended up appointing Sadik-Khan, of course, and transportation reformers rejoiced.

Sadik-Khan grew up in the New York metropolitan area, the daughter of divorced parents. Her father was a managing director at the brokerage Paine-Webber, and her mother was a writer who covered City Hall for the New York Post. She describes herself as having always been fascinated by the life of cities. After college at Occidental in Los Angeles (where she temporarily took up vegetarianism), law school at Columbia (where she met her husband Mark Geistfeld, now a New York University law professor), and a stint as a corporate attorney, Sadik-Khan decided to go into public service. "I wanted to do something that really touched people's lives every day," she explains. "I was joking with my mom, and she was like, 'Well, there are two choices then. There's transportation or sanitation.' So you know, I decided to focus on transportation."

Sadik-Khan climbed the ranks of the Dinkins administration in the early 1990s, serving as the mayor's principal adviser on mass transit. After a failed attempt to institute light-rail service across 42nd Street, she learned that the Metropolitan Transit Authority and community groups would fight the construction of a surface-level train. (Now she sees dedicated bus lanes as a sort of back-door step toward light rail, mentioning that cities like Bogotá, Colombia, and Curitiba, Brazil, are working toward light rail by reclaiming auto space in this way.)

After Dinkins lost his re-election bid to Rudy Giuliani in 1993, Sadik-Khan hightailed it to Washington, D.C., where she worked for Bill Clinton's Department of Transportation, reforming the bus-manufacturing industry and creating a popular art-in-transit program. She became the Federal Transit Authority's chief financial officer, responsible for a $4 billion capital construction budget. At the close of the Clinton years, Sadik-Khan re-entered the private sector as a senior vice president at the international engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff, where she worked until she was tapped by Bloomberg.

As New York City transportation commissioner, Sadik-Khan presides over 6,000 miles of road, 12,000 miles of sidewalk, and the Staten Island ferry, which transports 65,000 people each day. (The MTA manages New York's subways, trains, and buses, and often works in partnership with the Department of Transportation.) She administers a budget of more than half a billion dollars a year. It isn't difficult to imagine Sadik-Khan returning to D.C. -- she's wonky. If you ask her a question about transportation, she is likely to answer it in the form of a 10-minute policy brief and cap it all off with a press release. ("We're improving the quality of life, improving the business quality here, and also doing a lot for the environment!") Naparstek of Streetsblog calls Sadik-Khan "a total geek about transportation."

Unsurprisingly, the other geeks adore her. Naparstek, who wrote Honku, a book of haikus decrying car traffic, says, "I know a lot of people who are like, God, that would be a mistake if Janette went back to Washington. We need her to keep doing these things in New York. She could have more of an impact here." Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, cycled to the bike-rack unveiling wearing a tie adorned with a silk-screened bike logo. He told the press that since Sadik-Khan's appointment, "there really isn't much left for [us] advocates to say." Later he says, "A lot of problems we thought were intractable. She has proven otherwise."


Stuck in a holding pattern on big-picture transportation reform, Sadik-Khan's Department of Transportation has shifted gears. The Bloomberg administration plans to revisit congestion pricing, but in the meantime, the mayor has given his transportation commissioner wide latitude in enacting a host of incremental street reforms. Sadik-Khan's department has reclaimed two car lanes on Broadway, one of Manhattan's most clogged thoroughfares, and turned them into "Broadway Boulevard," an artery of public plazas where pedestrians can lunch or just relax right in the middle of the street -- if they find it relaxing to be surrounded by frantic traffic. On Ninth Avenue along Manhattan's West Side, the Transportation Department has instituted New York's first experiment in "complete streets," an idea Sadik-Khan imported from Copenhagen; a new bike lane there is protected from parked cars and traffic by plastic bollards and a buffer zone.

These reappropriations of auto lanes have been called radical and elitist, proving that even in America's largest and densest city, car culture holds powerful sway. In September, the New York Post dubbed Bloomberg "Mike the road hog" and predicted the Broadway Boulevard plazas would go unused during the winter months. In Chelsea and the meatpacking district, where metered parking spaces and an auto lane were lost to the Ninth Avenue bike-lane project, local community boards complained that they were informed of the changes just a week before construction began. Liu, the city councilman, tells me that Sadik-Khan and Bloomberg adhere to a "new, anti-car religion" that will alienate outer-borough residents unless mass transit service is significantly improved and expanded before restrictions are placed on car use.

In actuality, that's exactly what the Department of Transportation is doing. New York City is unlike any other place in America, Sadik-Khan points out; more than half of its residents do not own a car. Of the 28 percent of trips in the city that are made by automobile, most are less than three miles in length. Transportation reformers contend that politicians who oppose congestion pricing, like Jeff Klein, are unduly influenced by their own experience as affluent drivers. The Kleins of the world claim to speak on behalf of the working class, but in truth, advocates say, the neediest New Yorkers don't own cars. They rely almost exclusively on mass transit and live in neighborhoods where auto congestion seriously impacts public health. It is the children of the car-less poor who are diagnosed with asthma at epidemic rates.

"I'm radically pro-choice," Sadik-Khan told me during an interview in her expansive 10th-floor office on Worth Street, where a clock counts down the days left in Bloomberg's second term. "I'm pro-all modes of transportation, not one mode elevated above all others, which I think has been the case in the past. We're really just trying to rebalance our system, bring some acupuncture to what has been a sick body."

Sadik-Khan sees the initial rejection of congestion pricing as an opportunity. "You know, no big idea happens in New York the first time around," she says. "It is almost a benefit that congestion pricing didn't pass, because now we are able to get all these pieces in place prior to the start of pricing."

In an effort to improve transit access and convince legislators that their constituents won't be underserved if they are pushed out of their cars by congestion pricing, Sadik-Khan's department is developing East River ferry service between Manhattan and the exploding North Brooklyn neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Greenpoint. The department is also placing a new focus on improving bus service, creating a dedicated bus lane on 34th Street in Manhattan and instituting select bus service cutting east-west through the Bronx. That route, the first of its kind in New York, features bus lanes, curbside fare collection, and more buses making fewer stops. Currently, New York City has the largest public bus fleet in North America but some of the slowest bus routes. During rush hour in Midtown Manhattan, one can walk from the Hudson River to the East River and beat the cross-town bus. "I can't wish people onto a bus that's moving at two miles per hour," Sadik-Khan admits. "I have to give them service that encourages them to do it."

Transportation reformers believe, perhaps naively, that drivers will change their habits en masse if given the proper service improvements and disincentives (like the congestion tax). One of their goals is to demonstrate just how enjoyable, cheap, and easy life without cars can be. They point to the popularity of Summer Streets, another one of Sadik-Khan's innovations, in which seven miles of East Side roads were closed to cars on three consecutive Saturdays in August. Sure enough, the streets were overtaken by elated pedestrians and cyclists. Smaller-scale road closings took place over the summer in Brooklyn and Queens as well, and Sadik-Khan believes these will become regular features of New York City life, regardless of who succeeds her and Bloomberg.

"I think along with the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and the marathon, Summer Streets is going to be one of those iconic events going forward," she says. Of course, those events, too, involve clearing the streets of cars and reclaiming them for pedestrians.


But environmental priorities haven't completely overtaken Bloomberg's penchant for big-box development. Just a few weeks after Sadik-Khan's appointment and the PlaNYC rollout, the mayor was in court defending the city's right to construct 20,000 new parking spaces in Hell's Kitchen. Sadik-Khan, for her part, avoids speaking about the elements of the Bloomberg agenda that clearly contradict her own stated goals. "I feel very strongly that he put his money where his mouth is," she says of Bloomberg's transportation record.

Much of the Bloomberg administration's energy these days is focused on winning the mayor a third term. If congestion pricing is revisited, it will likely be after the mayoral election of November 2009. And for that effort to be successful, Bloomberg and Sadik-Khan will have to overcome the cultural antagonism between the outer-boroughs and Manhattan, and between the city and its suburbs. They will also have to do a better job of wooing Democratic state legislators.

Sadik-Khan is optimistic, pointing to opinion polls that found 60 percent of New Yorkers support congestion pricing, provided that the funds are used to improve mass transit. "The other piece of messaging that we found works is that people are concerned about obesity, they're concerned about asthma, and they're concerned about their ability to get around," Sadik-Khan says. "And not owning a car will save you $6,000 a year. That's a lot of money!"

Sadik-Khan believes the public, especially since this year's rise in gas prices, is far ahead of its elected representatives on understanding the need to reduce dependency on cars. "I do think congestion pricing is a matter of when, not if," she says. The fact remains that Sadik-Khan's public plazas, bike lanes, and road closing are hardly making a dent in the city's car use; they are more of an inconvenience for drivers than a routine-altering incentive. But there has been some good news; a recent Transportation Department report found that commuter cycling in the city rose 35 percent between 2007 and 2008.

There's little doubt that despite her stated commitment to stay on in a third Bloomberg term, Sadik-Khan is intrigued by the notion of getting back into the transit game at the federal level. She says she likes Obama's transportation agenda (he supports congestion pricing, for example) and will do whatever she can to help his administration. She is already drafting a new national transportation policy as president of the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), a coalition of transportation czars representing 13 of the nation's largest cities. A key priority is enabling the federal government to directly fund transportation projects in large cities, instead of requiring the money to pass through state capitals like Albany, which often don't prioritize urban interests. Currently, highways are eligible for a greater percentage of federal funding than is mass transit; NACTO would like to change that, as well.

The story of congestion pricing and piecemeal reforms in New York, at least thus far, doesn't provide much in the way of a model for creating a transformative national transportation policy. Still, under Sadik-Khan, New York City transit geeks are feeling better about their movement than they have since Jane Jacobs was organizing the West Village. "So congestion pricing didn't pass, that's true," Sadik-Khan says. "But one of the things it allowed us to do was underscore to the public the importance of looking at our streets differently. There have been lots of things that have changed in New York City in the last 20 to 30 years. Our streets are not one of them. Our streets have really been designed as more utilitarian corridors to get cars as quickly as possible from point A to point B. Now there's a recognition that we can't keep doing that."

And for now, that's progress.

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