Janette Sadik-Khan: Why The Pandemic Represents A Historic Opportunity For NYC Streets

During her time as New York City’s transformative transportation commissioner from 2007 to 2013, Janette Sadik-Khan once referred to herself as “basically the largest real-estate developer in New York City.” The remark, while maybe somewhat tongue-in-cheek, reflected the sweeping scope and power in which she approached her job. Rather than simply manage the city’s automobile-focused streets, Sadik-Khan sought to change that biased transportation premise, by adding 400 miles of bike lanes and turning notoriously congested intersections like Times Square into pedestrian plazas. Her policies rankled businesses and car-owning New Yorkers used to casually driving into Manhattan and finding a pre-dinner parking spot. But for a generation of cyclists and urbanists, she became a vanguard whose ideas, once seen as radical, have now become de rigeur in urban planning circles.

Today, Sadik-Khan works as a transportation consultant for Bloomberg Associates, where she advises cities across the world. Not surprisingly, during the pandemic, she has been outspoken about the integral role New York City streets will play in its recovery. — Elizabeth Kim

The below is part of our New York City Tomorrow series, where we’re asking New Yorkers — given that this is an opportunity for real change — to share their utopian (but often realistic) ideas of how the city could look in the future. For her contribution, Sadik-Khan submitted this essay.

For more than a decade, New York City was a global leader in transforming streets from traffic-dominated hellscapes into safer, people-friendly, transit-prioritized places.

The strategies that powered these roadway reclamations—acting fast and using lightweight materials—resulted in rapid changes that many thought were impossible: New York quickly vaulted past 1,000 miles of bike paths, launched the nation’s largest bike share system, converted former road space into 70 neighborhood plazas and into hundreds of car-free street events, and established 20 rapid bus routes at negligible cost and creating the safest streets in history.

These actions, once considered “radical,” are now the principal weapon for cities around the world responding to the health and economic crisis. New York can again become a leader during the global transportation recovery. For most of the spring, we were spectators as other cities executed large-scale street transformations using the same tactics that New York pioneered a decade ago:

  • Milan Mayor Giuseppe Sala converted 22 miles of car lanes into space for people to walk and bike.
  • Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo is closing main roads like the Rue de Rivoli to cars and launching a 450-mile bike lane plan to connect the city with residential towns.
  • London Mayor Sadiq Khan is mapping out one of the largest systematic transfers of car space to buses and people biking and walking of any global capital, and already has sectioned off temporary bike lanes using inexpensive barriers and markings
  • Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan is permanently closing 20 miles of streets to all but local vehicle traffic. Open street programs in Oakland, Denver, Chicago and Minneapolis have reprogrammed hundreds of miles of streets for people to walk as well as local car traffic—temporary interventions that could become permanent changes.

It will take New York aggressive steps merely to avoid reverting back to the same congested, dangerous free-for-all that existed pre-pandemic. The City of New York has to date implemented approximately 67 miles of open streets and protected bike lanes, where pedestrians, bikes and cars can mingle safely, and officials have permitted outdoor restaurant seating in parking lanes on 47 blocks citywide. But in a city with 6,300 miles of streets, we have 6,300 miles of possibilities. We’ve seen that there is so much need, and we know from experience that we are capable of accomplishing so much more.

New York’s transportation recovery strategy—its vision—must be equal to the immense scale of our challenges, and now is the historic moment to act, not with half measures, but with decisive action to adapt New York City’s streets not just for the pandemic response, but for the new New York that awaits in the recovery.

With one million New Yorkers now out of work, vehicle traffic is down around 40{d758473eadf0b692d331aa823300cffd0ef21fd1fd535177f3429dd328b70b5d} at rush hour, according to traffic data company TomTom. Transit passengers may take months to return to subways and buses. Until that happens, the empty traffic lanes contain the bright chalk lines of the extended bike network, expanded pedestrian zones and interconnected bus lane networks that we need to build now for the supermajority of New Yorkers who do not drive. While many New Yorkers rely on cars to get around, most do not—two-thirds of essential workers commute on subways, buses, walking and biking, many commuting right through the pandemic.

an empty Times Square


Times Square, May 2020.

Scott Heins / Gothamist

New Yorkers can walk and bike and socially distance at the same time—but only if we design our streets that way. Open streets that support people walking and biking aren’t amenities but investments in the citywide economy, giving safe passage for essential workers returning to their jobs and giving people room for safe activity within neighborhoods.

As municipal budgets are strained and billions of dollars in expected tax revenues evaporate, roads are a vast asset. Transit and active transportation infrastructure can be installed in days or weeks and at pennies on the capital dollar that it costs just to build and maintain new roads.

Streets that provide access for people walking and biking also support local stores, markets and restaurants. Streets can be adapted to be auxiliary space for school classrooms and exercise and assembly space. There is more than enough room on our overbuilt streets or sidewalks for safe, socially distant mobility, for store queues, for pickup zones and for roadbed or sidewalk seating adjacent to the restaurants, cafes and bars citywide that are the engine of the city’s economy. So much of what we think is impossible is merely hidden by the enormous footprint that parking imposes on our communities.

New York’s recovery won’t be demonstrated by restoring the city to peak car traffic. Peak traffic never reflected New York’s full potential before the pandemic, it limited it. A car-based recovery would suck the oxygen out of the city and suffocate the city. Normal in New York is founded on the principle of independent transportation and the freedom of not needing a car to live and work in the city.

We know how to make that possible—the answer is already written in our streets.

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