Q&A With Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan

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Streetsblog interviewed DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan at 40 Worth St., Monday, June 18

Janette Sadik-Khan: Four days.

Streetsblog: Left in the legislative session?

JSK: Yeah, well, maybe four days left, maybe more days. August in Albany. What can be better?

SB: (Laughing) So, let's start with something other than congestion pricing. How was your trip to Copenhagen to meet with Jan Gehl? Had you ever been before?

JSK: Never been.

SB: What did you think?

JSK: I thought it was spectacular. The experience of riding a bicycle in a city in which the car is not the priority was really inspiring. One piece that was a bit of a surprise was how well behaved people were in Copenhagen. I didn't see a single person break a single traffic law while I was there which is certainly a little different than the experience that we have here.

SB: I noticed the same thing when I was there last fall but every Copenhagener I asked insisted they were just as rude and unruly as New Yorkers.

JSK: Gehl went through the historic trajectory of how they've reclaimed public space bit by bit, one street at a time. Today, they've reached a tipping point where 36 percent of the people commuting to work are on bike and they're looking to get that mode share up to 40 percent.

The other thing that amazed me is that there are all of these bikes parked all over the place and it appears that none of them are locked. They all have these small black handcuffs on the rear wheel. You turn the key and this steel rod comes through and locks it up. How long do you think that would last on the streets of New York City? Ten minutes?

So, there are definite cultural elements that make Copenhagen Copenhagen and need to be adapted to work in New York. But the design of the streets and their approach to the streets are really interesting and I'm hoping to bring Gehl over at the end of next month to help us work on a pedestrian and public space strategy much like what he did for London.

SB: Would you have him work in a specific location or citywide?

JSK: We need to be able to show what can be done in all five boroughs with a variety of different techniques. But not everything needs to be a massive capital project. I'm looking to see what we can do on a shorter term basis to have some immediate impact in reclaiming streets and coming up with different designs for roadways and sidewalks.

SB: Are you looking at reclaiming on-street parking space for other uses?

JSK: That is something we're looking at. In fact, we're talking about removing a lane of parking on Broadway next to City Hall. Deputy Commissioner Michael Primeggia has been really great about looking for ways to reclaim street space. He's been helping me identify where these different places can be. The other question is once we reclaim it what do we do with it? You have to do it in a way that leaves a meaningful public space.

SB: So, let's talk about congestion pricing. There are a lot of negative signals coming out of Albany and Sheldon Silver. What's the status?

JSK: We're very hopeful. It's a heavy lift, certainly. The Mayor's working very hard and all of us are working very hard to see the legislation and authorization come through by Thursday, which is when the session ends. The Senate has been terrific. Bruno's been really good. The Assembly is open and we continue to do briefings. The governor has been very supportive, so that's a big help. We'll see what happens when the chips fall on Thursday.

SB: If congestion pricing doesn't pass do you have a Plan B? Are there traffic reduction measures that the city can implement if this plan falls through?

JSK: Everyone is shooting for Thursday but the promise of a special legislative session later this summer is still out there. So, Plan B is the special session. We are not giving up hope at all. We are fully committed. We need to get this legislation passed. It needs to pass now. It would be ridiculous to throw away hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds. That's our plan and when the plan passes we're looking to institute a series of immediate short term improvements before the switch is flipped on congestion pricing, including increased express bus service, ferry service and a variety of other initiatives. So, our emphasis is on making sure this congestion pricing program passes. On the transportation side, we don't think there's anything more important for the future of New York than getting this plan through.

SB: Is it a given at this point that no new "SMART" authority will be created and the MTA will administer the congestion pricing program?

JSK: That is still in negotiation. On the governance side I think that they are looking at a model that includes both the city and the state much along the lines of the Capital Program Review Board which handles the MTA's money. There are four votes on the CPRB: the City, the State, the Assembly and the Senate. Four people in a room. It takes a unanimous vote of the CPRB to pass the MTA's capital program. So, I think people are moving towards that kind of a governance model. But the negotiations continue.

SB: The City's proposed Bus Rapid Transit system will be dependent on camera-based enforcement of the bus lanes. Is the legislature going to give us the cameras? Is that sort of issue even on the radar in Albany right now?

JSK: It's definitely on the radar. It's part of our plan. We're hoping it is also addressed in the next four days. Keep those phone calls going to your legislators.

SB: The Hudson Yards rezoning on the west side of Manhattan requires developers to include over 20,000 new parking spaces. We recently did a story about this on the blog that generated a lot of response. People don't understand how these parking requirements fit with the Mayor's long-term sustainability and traffic reduction goals of PlaNYC.

JSK: In Copenhagen I was joined by City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden. We spent a lot of time talking about the success of cities like Portland and Chicago that have revised their zoning codes with lower parking ratios and how that has led, in a lot of instances, to a renaissance for pedestrian space and transit without any apparent downside.

SB: Towards the end of his private consulting career, your new Deputy Commissioner Bruce Schaller put forward a study suggesting that pedestrianizing Prince Street in SoHo, say, on weekends, might be doable and even desirable. Can we expect to see you move on this type of project?

JSK: We're looking at all sorts of treatments to improve the streets of New York. Bruce being here is going to help us. A lot of people have interesting ideas. It will be exciting to have Jan Gehl here because he will help us identify some of the places where we can do urban acupuncture and specific interventions, much as he's done in other cities.

As important as it is to do these interventions, it is also important to ensure that we have policies and programs in place that will set the direction for the agency for years to come.