The former NYC Transportation Commissioner discusses why installing bike lanes is easier than you might think, why stealing good ideas is important, and why Old Louisville is simply “mouthwatering”

Mayor Greg Fischer and Janette Sadik-Khan speaking at the Mayor’s Land Use and Development Forum on Friday at the Henry Clay.

Janette Sadik-Khan was the keynote speaker last Friday at Mayor Greg Fischer’s Land Use and Development Forum. Sadik-Khan is the former Commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation under Michael Bloomberg from 2007 to 2013.

Currently, she is a principal at Bloomberg Associates, where “she works with mayors around the world to re-imagine and redesign their cities with innovative projects that can be developed quickly and inexpensively.”

Sadik-Khan is often described as equal parts Jane Jacobs — the author of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” — and Robert Moses — the New York state transportation czar whose projects dominate, for better and for worse, the public space of New York to this day.

Among transportation engineers and advocates, she is known for the bold reconfigurations of city plazas and streets that occurred during her tenure with NYC DOT, including the implementation of seven bus rapid transit routes, 400 miles of bike lanes, 60 pedestrian plazas — most notably the redesign of Times Square.

While she was in Louisville for the conference, I sat down with her for an interview. What follows is a lightly edited version of our conversation.

Thanks so much for taking the time to chat. It’s my understanding you went on a bike ride through Louisville. Where did you all go and what your impressions of the city?

We had a great ride along the river, through Waterfront Park and then to Cherokee Park. One of the things that was really a surprise about Louisville was to see the beautiful parks, the Frederick Law Olmsted parks that are designed here. It’s such a green treasure. It’s such a beautiful city.

Yeah, Cherokee Park is amazing. Just a world class park, as far as I’m concerned. And you went through Old Louisville as well?

Yeah, you felt like you were back in time. You might as well be biking through the 19th century. The old lanterns and the beautifully designed gardens and the housing stock is just extraordinary. I mean, it really is a jewel to see such a variety of such architectural beauty. And so accessible.

I agree. The mix of housing and the parks in Old Louisville are great. It feels like it brings in a lot of New Urbanist ideas into this traditional, classic neighborhood.

Yeah. It’s a very unusual mix. The jigsaw puzzle that is Louisville is really exciting to see. And you can see the potential that’s hidden in plain sight right there. Whether you’re looking at all the excess asphalt you have to play with so you can design these safe, livable, walkable streets and neighborhoods. Or you look at the housing stock and you see the potential there is endless. And connecting it all together, it’s almost mouthwatering. I felt like, “OK, I need to move to Louisville.”

Janette Sadik-Khan biking in Old Louisville on Thursday with Gretchen Milliken, Rolf Eisinger, and Kate Holwerk of Louisville Metro Government.

It’s great to hear you say “the excess pavement.” I don’t know that a lot of local people feel that we have the room to spare for bike lanes and the like.

A lot of that is, people have been taught that this is the way our streets need to be. And it’s been that way for 60 years. Streets are for moving cars and cars should go as fast as possible. That’s been the cultural norm. The idea that our streets can be used for more than that — they can invite people to use to the street differently — is huge.

You have a quarter of the city’s space, basically, for streets. And so repurposing that, re-engineering that and making a more effective use of that asset for a city is extremely important. These aren’t just cooky ideas that Portland has. These are mainstream ideas that have been recognized by the U.S. Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration as a better way to design our streets so that they work better for everyone.

One innovation that you’re credited with is the parking protected bike lane. Can you talk a little about where that idea came from?

I took a trip shortly after I was appointed [as New York City Transportation Commissioner] to Copenhagen, and we went to see what they were up to. We saw these bike lanes that were protected by parked cars. So, the only thing you had to do was move the parking lane away from the curb and those parked cars became this physical barrier to create a safe lane at basically no cost. That you create a lane quickly and preserve the parking, was a total home run.

So, in short order, we brought it immediately back to New York City. And we implemented the first parking protected lane in North America, and now it’s been implemented everywhere. I think the point is that you can take ideas from other cities and bring them home.

Tailor what works and what doesn’t. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We borrowed this idea from Copenhagen, and people have come to New York City and borrowed ideas from New York City with parks and plazas. So it’s exciting to see mayors from around the world and civic leaders around the world saying, “We can do this and we can do this fast and it doesn’t have to cost a lot of money.”

A protected bike lane in New York City, with parking moved away from the curb and serving as a buffer for cyclists and moving vehicles.

There are a number of transportation innovations being talked about these days — whether it’s bus rapid transit [BRT], autonomous vehicles, electric bicycles, scooters. What do you see as having the potential to last?

I think the question is, “What do you want your city to be?” I think it’s really important to figure out what is the vision you have for your city and work back from that. You heard some of the speakers this morning talking about, “Autonomous vehicles are going to be here and going to be 30 percent of the market, and therefore we need to do x-y-z.” That’s not the way to look at the equation.

The equation is, “What do we want?” And then, “What are the tools and techniques and strategies that we can use to help us accomplish that goal?”

If we’re not careful with autonomous vehicles, and we’re just accepting that we need to engineer everyone else out of the street to prioritize these robot cars that can’t be interfered with, we’re going to go back to creating the same mistakes we just recovered from, where you’re doing car-oriented development instead of people-oriented development.

That’s not to say they’re not great technologies that we can use to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our city, with freight deliveries and all the rest. But we have to be very careful that we set the rules of the game right so that we make sure our streets are healthy and vibrant and fun to be in and easy to get around in.

And that’s not just creating robot cars. That’s creating a suite of options for people. And that’s what you’re seeing — people all over the world voting with their feet and moving to cities where you’ve got a lot of choices to get around without actually having to own a car.

And that’s actually really profound because owning, operating, maintaining a car is expensive. And that’s $12,000 that can be used for a mortgage, education, child care, health care. So, we can do a better job of how it is we’re laying down our transportation options on our streets.

We don’t have to wait for an autonomous revolution to do that. We can do that right now. And I think that’s one of the exciting strategies and approaches we’re seeing.

When people talk about autonomous vehicles, there’s often this argument about how we could all get from point A to point B without having to think about it, we could just be taken there. When I hear that, I think: “I don’t know that that’s how I want to get around. I like enjoying my surroundings.” There’s a tension, I think, when you talk about place making on one hand and then when you talk about autonomous transportation where the place doesn’t matter at all, you just arrive.

And that is the mistake. That is exactly that 1950s mistake of just get from point A to point B as fast as possible and that’s all that matters, that’s all the street can be used for. I do think there are some cities that are actually making some interesting investments on this autonomous mobility future.

You look at a city like Helsinki — which has got this idea of mobility as a service. It’s like you have this subscription to a private car, transit, bike share, and you have it on your phone. A monthly subscription and you have all these pieces and you’re subscribing to it. The thing that’s really interesting is they’re designing their city around that.

And with that, they’re making it much easier to bike, much easier to walk, much easier to use shared vehicles. That’s the kind of thing that I find Scandinavians and North Europeans tend to be like ten years ahead of us on. So, if you want to see the future, starting on the streets of Helsinki is the way to do it.

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