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Street fight: handbook for an urban revolution

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I just finished the book that Janette Sadik-Khan wrote about her experience as NYC’s transportation commissioner.  And quite an experience that was: she managed to push through an unprecedented number of bike lanes, fast buses, and pedestrian plazas, culminating into turning Time Square into a walking mall.

One of the great things about the book is that it is lavishly illustrated, with a great many before-and-after pictures, which are more eloquent than any description or statistics could be.  Here’s an example, Brooklyn Pearl Street Plaza, the first place-marking project.  All that was needed was paint, chairs, tables, and umbrellas.  Wildly popular, it became a model for sixty similar plazas installed throughout New York.  After New Yorkers got a taste of what it’s like to reclaim the streets, there was no going back.

Pearl Street Plaza in Brooklyn, before and after.

Pearl Street Plaza in Brooklyn, before and after.

One of the many chuckles in the book are the mentions of Toronto and Vancouver, as examples of what not to do.  Sadik-Khan deplores the way the transit referendum took place in Vancouver (as you read the lines, you can picture her rolling her eyes) but saves her polite sarcasm for Rob Ford’s decision to remove existing bike lanes in Toronto.  She lambasts Ford’s notion that cycling in the city streets is inherently dangerous, saying the issue is with the design of the streets: “the fault is not in our cyclists, but in our streets”.

But New Yorkers are certainly no less cynical than Torontonians or Vancouverites; so, how on Earth did she manage to push the changes through?  Part of the reason is how the city decided to hold its public meetings, and it’s worth quoting at length.

At typical public meetings, city officials lecture community members for twenty minutes, then take questions.  This format works against general public participation and in favour of the few who feel passionate enough to declare an opinion before a room of people – often the most extreme opinions, which frequently result in a polarized room.  People with moderate opinions remain silent and stay out of the conflict, which means decision makers don’t hear a full range of views.  To encourage participation and also provide a better gauge of public wishes and sentiment in programs like our rapid bus projects, we arranged planning meetings that would seat participants at individual tables in groups of ten or even fewer, each one moderated by transportation staffers who jotted down ideas  and provided details of proposed projects.  Each individual – a resident, a business owner, a representative from a local institution – now had a chance to have his say, civilly, and resolve differences among themselves.

Certainly wish we’d do a bit more of that ourselves, we of the “no towers” signs and refusals to trust TransLink. 51szrwu7sul-_sx326_bo1204203200_

But maybe there was something else in the mix, too: NYC, and everything about it, including bike share programs, is constantly in the public eye.  So when the Wall Street Journal’s Dorothy Rabinowitz appeared in a video entitled “Death by Bicycle”, which included such chestnuts as “a city whose best neighbourhoods are absolutely begrimed by these blazing blue Citibank bikes” or “the bike lobby is an all-powerful enterprise”, there was a Jon Stewart who could blurt out on the Daily Show “They’re just f**king bikes, lady!”, or Stephen Colbert add “Begrimed! Befouled! Be-dirtied! Now, as you’re ambulating about the historic West Village, a gaudy blue rack of bikes will take away from the simple beauty of the Cherry Boxx discount dildo shop!”

The book is a real gem, a lot of fun even if urban transportation issues are the last thing on your mind.

Sadik-Khan, Janette 2016. Street fight: handbook for an urban revolution.  New York: Viking.

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Written by enviropaul

September 17, 2016 at 2:46 pm

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