Brian Williams Doesn’t Get How Streets Work. Will His Four Million Viewers?

Here’s the profile of New York City Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan that aired on “Rock Center with Brian Williams” last night. The show reaches more than four million people, which isn’t enough to win its time slot but adds up to a lot more eyeballs than the print circulation of any NYC daily paper. In all likelihood, it reached a bigger American audience than any other piece of media content about reclaiming city streets for public space and more efficient modes of transportation. So how did NBC’s Harry Smith and his producers do with the assignment?

Well, in a lot of ways they made the same mistakes that Marcia Kramer and her producers at CBS2 tend to make when the subject turns to pedestrian plazas and bike lanes.

For the people-on-the-street quotes, they turned to motorists, not the people enjoying the plazas or the cyclists riding in the new lanes. They put Sadik-Khan and Michael Bloomberg on the defensive for her “brash,” “imperious” style, never acknowledging the ample public demand for safer street designs or the community board votes in favor of them. They gave airtime to Louise Hainline’s discredited bike counts on Prospect Park West. They never mentioned the fact that most New Yorkers don’t own cars, or that bikes and buses can move the same amount of people as automobiles while consuming much less space.

Still, the piece had a few things going for it.

  1. Broadway at Times Square looks great without cars.
  2. They gave Sadik-Khan time to speak. I’m sure a lot of material ended up on the cutting room floor, but the DOT commissioner makes a clear, compelling case on camera for redesigning congested city streets.
  3. Bloomberg provided a choice quote about why it makes sense to give people more transportation options.
  4. I’m speculating here, but the average person watching at home probably came away thinking that training a spy camera on a bike lane from your apartment is not the behavior of a well-adjusted adult.
  5. The one-two punch from Gridlock Sam and Sadik-Khan at the end said it pretty clearly: A hundred years of car-centric design have not made streets function any better; we need to do things differently.

But then came anchor Brian Williams, blithely dismissing the case for change that Smith’s piece had been building toward. An avid horsepower aficionado, Williams seemed to revel in his ignorance of how traffic works (“Those cars, they’re not going to stay home!”) and almost openly rooted for bike lanes to be torn up. The larger truth — that traffic will only get worse unless you give people better options for getting around — apparently escaped him.