FOLLOWING THE LEADER: Lessons from NYC’s Janette Sadik-Khan

Former New York City Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan recently gave a talk at the Harvard Book Store to promote her inspiring new book, Street Fight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution. While Sadik-Khan was clear that the campaigns were a group effort involving her entire staff and several other departments as well, it’s clear that her leadership made a difference.  Despite the gentrifying implications of the Bloomberg Administration’s efforts to revitalize much of the city, transportation reform had city-wide effects that made things better for nearly everyone.   Some of the lessons she described: the power of positive and inclusion framing of program innovations, the importance of turning top-down innovations into bottom-up requests, the need to move quickly and cheaply when opportunities arise, and the way that the collection of new types of data can reshape the public debate.

FRAMING THE MESSAGE: Positives for All

Bicyclists have been at the visible front of many recent fights about street design.  But they are also a small minority of the populations.  So one danger facing Transportation Advocates is getting pegged as a “bicycle group” which, accurately or not, is often seen as being militantly anti-car and primarily interested in taking away already-congested street and parking spaces from drivers.  In reality, most transportation groups these days, including most bicycle-based groups, spend as much or more time pushing for improved transit and pedestrian facilities as for bike facilities, and urban bicyclists are as likely to be low-income and non-white as professional and white.  But given people’s frustration with growing congestion it is understandable that car-dependent people see bike lanes as the most infuriating manifestation of their perceived reduction in status and quality of life.   And the more protected the bike lane the more space it takes and the more visible it’s insulting presence. 

So one of the core rules of transportation advocacy is finding ways to present changes in street design and use as about something other than – or at least more than -- bicycles. Sadik-Khan was very conscious about labeling.  She said part of what killed Mayor Bloomberg’s push for Congestion Pricing was that both words were instant negatives.  (The currently revived effort is being called “Move New York”.) The defeat of congestion pricing by a combination of outer-borough and suburban forces led to the creation of the PLANyc that Sadik-Khan was hired to implement.

Congestion pricing was a center piece of Michael Bloomberg’s first term agenda – a strategy to aggressively remake the city to attract and support the incoming businesses, entrepreneurs, and professionals in the financial services, digital media, and other “new economy” sectors as a replacement for the “old economy’s” dying manufacturing.   While she didn’t mention it, one of the push-backs to PLANyc was its obvious relationship to the revitalization plan’s focus on high-end development with its resulting gentrification.  In reality, the transportation components provided wider benefits to a broader range of neighborhoods and populations than many other parts of the Bloomberg program.  But, aided by widespread media attacks, it was very likely that public opinion would lump the bike lanes, plazas, and bus priority reforms in with the more flagrantly upscaling overall thrust. 

Fortunately for Sadik-Khan, the transportation advocacy community, most notable the Transportation Alternatives group, understood that the changes Sadik-Khan was implementing – things the Advocates had spent years fighting for – could be easily removed by a subsequent mayor running against Bloomberg’s elitism.   The framing had to change in order to politically separate the street program from the Administration’s larger agenda.  Within the advocacy world, the policy language had already changed from Bike Friendly (re-making streets for bikes) to Traffic Calming (slowing cars) to Complete Streets (infrastructure for all) to Vision Zero (livability and safety for everyone).  Picking up on this positive, universalizing trend, New York transportation advocates began describing transportation reform as a campaign for a city-wide commitment to improved mobility (a real issue in traffic-clogged New York where pedestrians move faster than drivers across mid-Manhattan), safety for all (a headline issue given the huge number of injuries and fatalities suffered by drivers, passengers, walkers, and street workers in such a large city), and giving people outdoor places to socialize and enjoy (which appeals both to families wanting safe space for their children as well as adults looking for someplace to sit down). 

To her credit, Sadik-Khan saw the power of this packaging and quickly revamped the way transportation reform was described.  New York was one of the first USA cities to adopt a Vision Zero policy.  At her talk, Sadik-Khan presented her transportation agenda as being about making streets better for people.   Over time, as data was collected showing that retail businesses on improved streets actually had a measurable increase, the Transportation Department was able to add promoting local business to its framing options.

Transportation reform was transformed into a series of quality of life issues that affect everyone.  Looked at through from that perspective, bicyclists are just a part of the general public.  The transformation of street life was described as a response to everyone’s problems and as a step towards everyone’s wellbeing.  Although Sadik-Khan didn’t talk enough about how she did it or give enough credit to the outside Advocates who championed a Vision Zero strategy, it was clear that a major theme of the New York story is the ability of the Transportation Department – with the hugely significant help of Transportation Alternatives other advocacy groups – to eventually adopt and then keep bringing attention back to a good framing message.



Another way New York succeeded was in their strategy for overcoming fear of the unknown.  It is reasonable for people to be wary about any proposal to change the conditions that they have figured out how to manage, especially those whose lives are already stressed. Furthermore, government is supposed to represent the will of the people – who these days are increasingly dubious about the government’s ability to do things.   Traffic is bad and dangerous enough already, why risk letting the government make it even worse?  Especially if the changes are seem as giving special privileges to either the small number of bicyclists or in-coming professionals at the expense of “ordinary” working people.   Who needs this kind of social engineering that seems to be imposing a vision of the future on people who don’t see how it will do anything other than inconvenience or even harm them?

Change advocates and implementers need a way to help people see past the worrisome uncertainty and mistrust – a problem made more difficult by the reality that the process of change is likely to have unexpected glitches that cause additional nervousness and disruption before the improvements have their full effect.  The trick is to find ways to show people that the end result is worthwhile and provides benefits for everyone.

Sadik-Khan’s strategy was to take advantage of the years of community-based transportation advocacy that had preceded her appointment.  These local and city-wide campaigns had not only created the political space and public awareness that was part of the foundation for her own efforts, they had also led community leaders in several parts of the city to want exactly the transformative transportation innovations she wanted to implement.   So those neighborhoods became the first places where bike lanes were installed, street-closing plazas set up, intersections redesigned, and bus priority lanes added.   To further deflect opposition, these were all done with paint and other non-permanent features, reducing the implementation cost and problems and allowing Sadik-Khan to present them as pilots or experiments able to be removed if they didn’t work out.

But, as the advocates predicted, most of the installations proved to be widely popular once they were put in place.  As usual, once the rave reviews started rolling in, rather than complaining about Nanny State intrusions, other neighborhoods starting complaining about being left out.  The Transportation Department responded by creating a Project Request process requiring buy in from local planning, civic, and administrative bodies – turning the campaign into a customer service program rather than a top-down imposition.  Despite a vicious anti-change media barrage and a couple of high-profile lawsuits, public support quickly grew.

NY DOT kept the pot boiling by continuing to roll out innovations, using what the high tech world calls “rapid prototyping” to create things quickly, cheaply, and before fear of the new could crystalize into organized opposition.  Although she didn’t mention this, the huge size of New York’s bureaucracy was probably an advantage – despite budget constraints the department was big enough that resources could be assembled to permit the quick response strategy.  (In contrast, Boston has fewer transportation planners than Cambridge, and DCR doesn’t even have enough staff to keep up with road maintenance.)


NEW DATA AND HARD FACTS:  Going Beyond Traffic Delays

Two reasons that traditional, car-centric road designs continue to be made and used is the centrality of Level of Service (LOS) metrics in roadway evaluation and the role of the Federal Highway Administration’s car-focused Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) as the legitimizing authority for “professional standards.”

Sadik-Khan took on both challenges.  LOS is essentially a measurement of how long it takes for a car to get through a specified distance (usually an intersection) during the peak 15 minutes of the day.  Graded from A to F, for traffic engineers an LOS of F is a professional embarrassment needing explanation.  But 15 minutes is a very short time – LOS doesn’t take into account what’s going on during the remaining 23 hours and 45 minutes of the day.  Furthermore, LOS doesn’t factor in the number of cars involved, only the amount of delay.   Even more fundamentally, LOS doesn’t deal with the number of people involved – a bus carrying 50 people has no more importance than a Single Occupancy Car, and the dozens of people who are walking across the intersection are simple irrelevant.

Rather than allowing her changes to be attacked as ruining traffic flow, Sadik-Khan began collecting other kinds of data – how many people were getting through an intersection rather than how many vehicles, how many injuries occurred in an area rather than how fast cars went, how adjacent retail business customer numbers and sales volumes changed rather than how many parking places were in front of each store, and more.  The new types of data were not only internally useful in the data-obsessed Bloomberg Administration but also became the basis for an effective counter-attack to the “bike-lash” effort to derail her program.

Simultaneously, Sadik-Khan reached out to similarly-minded leaders in other cities and revitalized the National Association of City Transportation Officers. NACTO began developing and publishing a series of new, state-of-the-art Design Guides for urban bikeways, transit systems, and streets.  Suddenly, there was an alternative authoritative source for progressive transportation designers to learn from and be able to cite to avoid being held liable for not following “standard practice”.  NACTO’s Guides have contributed to a powerful counter-trend in the transportation engineering profession, previously dominated by the highway-focused American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), creating space for new ideas, a more multi-modal vision, and an understanding that what’s good for the Interstate is often disastrous in town.



Sadik-Khan was asked how her efforts responded to the growing fear in low-income neighborhoods that transportation or nearly any other improvement in their area will trigger real estate speculation, an influx of higher-income people, a reshaping of the local market towards the higher-spending newcomers, and eventual displacement of the former residents.  “Bikes are for white people” may be totally inaccurate, but it is the defensive cry of some older and more established leaders of the African-American community.  Sadik-Khan dismissed the issue, saying that New York installed improvements across the city in every type of neighborhood – meaning that there was no discrimination in the distribution of investment and perhaps also referencing the argument that investing everywhere reduces the chance that you’re making any one place stand out.

But, of course, the street changes were happening in the context of Mayor Bloomberg’s larger efforts to improve government operations and increase the city’s livability and attractiveness – particularly to the growing numbers of professionals and businesspeople that most mayors see as the agents of economic growth.    In this larger context of upscaling, the impact of street design – while highly visible and hotly contested – wasn’t nearly as significant as the Administration’s promotion of massive amounts of new, higher-end development.  This – combined with the re-labeling of the program around city-wide safety described above, and the fact that  Sadik-Khan’s reforms depended more on using existing resources differently than on a vast expansion of the budget  –  created enough political space and public approval for the Transportation department to avoid being seen as the cutting edge of potential gentrification.  

Having a brilliant, autocratic billionaire as your boss certainly helped.  But Sadik-Khan would not have gotten as much done as she did without her own bold and assertive leadership – and some strategies that we can all learn from.


Thanks to David Loutzenheiser and Megan Ramey for ideas and feedback.  All opinions and remaining errors are, of course, my responsibility.


Related previous posts:

MOVING BEYOND CAR LEVEL OF SERVICE (LOS): Measurable and Meaningful Criteria for Transportation Investments, Project Designs, and Development Mitigation

AVOIDING “NIMBY” – Navigating Between Fear and Greed

SHAPING TRAVEL CHOICES: The Four C’s of the Behavioral Context

MODE SHIFT AMPLIFIERS: The Importance of the Out-of-Vehicle Experience

STABILIZING EQUITABLE COMMUNITIES: Gentrification, Displacement, and Markets


VULNERABLE ROAD USERS (VRU) PROTECTION LAWS: “Whoever Can Do The Most Damage Has To Be The Most Careful”

REFRAMING ISSUES TO UNITE US: A Transportation Platform for Local Use

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