Reviewed by Todd Jersey, AIA
Written primarily for urban activists, Janette Sadik-Kahn and Seth Solomonow’s Streetfight documents the now well-copied street improvement initiatives implemented during her six-year tenure as transportation commissioner in New York City. Sadik-Khan/Solomonow’s mission was to “claw back” the public realm from the 100-year onslaught of auto-centricity and to, in her words, “rebalance” our streets to more equitably serve pedestrians and bicyclists and more effectively accommodate other forms of mobility.1
Fortunately for all of us, she was wildly successful. Her methods were smart and simple: 1. study the street in order to extract true data and gain insight to have a more complete understanding of the current situation; 2. design and implement ideas that are simple and start small-scale; and 3. use inexpensive materials that all cities have plenty of: paint boulders and concrete elements from road and bridge projects, and concrete planters and bollards.
She deployed these simple methods in her first project, which was focused on reclaiming a triangular “leftover” piece of roadway along Interstate 990 in the DUMBO neighborhood that had given over to parking cars. The cars were removed, the asphalt was painted green, granite blocks and concrete planters were placed to protect people, and tables and chairs were set up. The project took less than two weeks to create and cost almost no money.
The effect of this reclamation was sudden and transformative. On day one, pedestrians (re)occupied the space. Then came food trucks, which in turn led to more people, etc. All of this activity rapidly resulted in significant increases in economic activity for local businesses, including the opening of new cafes. This small-scale success empowered Sadik-Khan and her team to try similar methods in larger scale projects—the most notable of these: the partial closing of Broadway to create a 60,000-square foot pedestrian plaza in New York City’s Times Square.2
Sadik-Khan saved her most important efforts as commissioner for the redesign of the streets themselves to make them safe for bicycles and pedestrians.3 During her term, New York City became the pioneer of designs for protected bike lanes, which are now being implemented across the nation. From careful study— what she calls reading the street—her colleagues determined the 12-foot wide traffic lanes on major New York City arteries were oversized. They determined a far safer width was 10 feet, and not only was it safer, the narrower lanes proved to have no negative impact on traffic flow. 4
Narrowing the traffic and parking lanes is now commonly referred to as putting streets on a road diet, where vehicular travel lanes are narrowed and/or reduced to create space for bike lanes. This road diet created enough room for a new bike lane without physically changing the street. Further thought led to moving the parking lane away from the curb and placing the bike lane in a new protected zone between the parking lane and the curb, which required no structural changes to the street. As a result of good design and nothing more than paint, urban bicyclists typically subjected to intense risk of injury from cars were now protected in this bike lane from vehicular traffic, including cars parked between the traffic and the sidewalk. The affordability and ease by which these solutions were implemented allowed for rapid creation of an astonishing 200-mile network of safe bike lanes during Sadik-Khan’s reign as commissioner—about as many miles as New York City is from Boston.
Perhaps the most valuable and interesting parts of the book are the detailed descriptions of the staggering amount of political resistance (hence the title Streetfight) Sadik-Khan and her colleagues had to deal with regarding even the smallest and most affordable efforts to “rebalance” the streets. Unfortunately, as those of us in the trenches of reclaiming the public realm from car dominance know, the loudest voices of resistance are owners of street-facing (mostly) small businesses. Sadly, these business owners cling to the old idea that shoppers come by car and that any changes to how cars move and park have a negative impact on sales. The book tells a different and important story (which Sadik-Khan /Solomonow counsel we must know well in order to educate others). That is, contrary to the decades-old popular belief, it’s pedestrians (and now bicyclists in increasing numbers) that drive sales to street-level businesses, not drivers of cars. There is now an ever-increasing amount of research that demonstrates conclusively that changes to our streets which support bike and pedestrian activity have a profoundly positive impact on street-level businesses.5
This is a feel-great read for those of us who love cities, especially as pedestrians and bicyclists. Along with local efforts, the book contains wonderful examples of national and global reclamation projects. The good news comes in daily as examples of successful street rebalancing projects continue to mount from all over the world, and advocacy groups that push for these changes grow and strengthen.6 We are admonished, however, to never think reclaiming territory from the “king car” will be easy. We need relentless and fierce advocacy to create the positive changes for our streets, and once we are victorious, and our street sights have won, we will need increasing vigilance to ensure our hard-won changes persevere.
1As mentioned in the book, for the last half century, traffic engineers have designed urban streets more like highways for cars than places for bikes and human beings. Following a 50-year-old street design guideline (the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices or MUTCD), these engineers have wielded enormous power to carve out our public domain for use by cars over every other use. Sadly, a majority of traffic engineers continue to use the MUTCD often as a way to resist alternative street design, stubbornly adhering to its outmoded design specifications. The continued prevalence of traffic designers clinging to the MUTCD as a street-design bible creates a serious impediment to efforts to rebalance the streets for more equitable use.
2Ironically, before this stunning reclamation of vehicular space for pedestrians, Times Square was a square in name only. That has changed with this project as the square can now host tens of thousands of pedestrians in a safe functional public plaza. If you have been to New York recently, you have no doubt enjoyed this now pedestrian-friendly Times Square as the new heart of the city.
3Traffic Violence is the term used in the book to describe what Sadik-Khan /Solomonow describe as a global health crisis. The numbers are truly staggering. In New York City alone, a pedestrian is killed by a vehicle everyday, on average. The situation globally is much worse: According to the World Health Organization, more than 270,000 pedestrians are killed on roads each year. To address this issue, Sadik-Khan created a new culture in the Department of Transportation (DOT). Safety became the agency’s primary directive. The DOT resolved to cut annual traffic fatalities in half to 135 by 2030.
4A narrower roadway (driving on just part of the street) is safer because the narrowing inherently slows the traffic. Drivers drive more slowly in tighter situations because of a phenomenon she calls friction, and it is friction—not speed limits—that determine how fast we drive in any situation. Width, as in roadway space, encourages us to drive faster. Narrow the roadway and that informs the need to drive at a slower speed. This slower speed is critical to pedestrian and bike safety. On page 218, Sadik-Khan /Solomonow state: “If you’re hit by a car moving 40 miles per hour, there’s a 70 percent chance you’ll be killed; if you’re hit by a car moving 30 miles per hour, there’s an 80 percent chance you’ll live. The difference of just 10 miles per hour is literally the difference between life and death.”
5“What we found is not unique to New York. New evidence worldwide shows that pedestrians are the predominant customers for ground-floor retail stores. In many cities, those who drive to shops spend less than others. Merchants consistently overestimate their value and undervalue those who walk, bike, or take public transportation.”(p.257; emphasis mine)
6The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO at www.nacto.org) is arguably our most important advocacy organization. Based in New York City, NACTO is “committed to raising the state and practice for street design and transportation.” NACTO has developed three design guides— Urban Street Design Guide, Transit Street Design Guide and Urban Bikeway Design Guide— for advocates, policymakers, practitioners, etc. to help replace the mistaken and outdated MUTCD.