NYT Essay On Sadik-Khan Misses Forest For Trees

Ian Sacs's picture

Working for a small municipality - regardless of its location - has all the isolating properties of a far-away fiefdom.  So it has been with great consternation that, despite being nary a narrow river's width from that island, I have been yet so far removed from the industry-insider privileges of working on transportation projects in Manhattan.  I am, admittedly, all but entirely absorbed by work in the New York City satellite of Hoboken, NJ, and while aware of progress as reported by the media, have nonetheless lost granular touch with the revolutionary day-to-day goings-on in my career's former epicenter.  From this side of the Hudson I read the broad character essay in the March 4, 2011 edition of the New York Times on New York City Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan that summarily says she's made a lot of pivotal transportation changes she believes in and infuriated a lot of people by doing so.  If I were still there, perhaps I might have something tangible and lucid to contribute; instead, what I have to offer is merely opinionated, outsider commentary.

All heads are inimitably strong in New York City, and one can imagine that the tussling is never more intense than at the precipitous, jagged peaks of that city's governmental heights.  So, invoking of such a rapid philosophical revolution at NYCDOT and blazing to center stage in humanizing the city's most abundant yet inequitably used public space, the city street, coupled with the worldwide attention garnered for doing so, is seemingly more likely the true point of contention than any of Ms. Sadik-Khan's unmeditated reactions or lightening implementations.  Yet, the force deemed necessary and enacted to effect such changes is under fire.  Some have even capitalized on the emotions associated with these changes to incite when insight is rather what is needed when change is abundant.  For certain, change is one of man's greatest fears - and effect always so difficult to ascertain when too near to cause - but the tumultuous emotional aftershocks of Ms. Sadik-Khan's actions in the short term are no certain judgment of her lasting impact on urbanity.

What I will say about the bedazzling transgression from twentieth-century auto-think that has occurred in New York City during Ms. Sadik-Khan's brief tenure there is that it is not to be measured by the stopwatch of ephemeral, political opinions in this time; rather, it is to be weighed on the scholarly scales of pivotal moments in American history.  I thank her, with all my transportation engineering-impassioned heart, a thousand times over again for demonstrating and motivating every one of us who strives for delivering to our neighbors an urban life that does not involve constant risk of personal annihilation by rocketing ground-level machines nor an unstoppable usurping of precious public space to the exclusive use of automobiles, that it can be done, and well.  Her accomplishments and successes in transforming the American urban transportation landscape are, I believe, very far from being fully realized, and to characterize her impact on our society by the fleeting comments of those embroiled with the immediate demands of high-stakes politics is missing the forest for the trees.  Her work, in time, will be seen as the fulcrum about which Americans of all ages and abilities once again regained their right to heedlessly enjoy the streets of their city after a sad, extended episode where cars ruled the right-of-way. 

The intense criticism fielded by the seemingly humble (or perhaps humbled) Sadik-Khan, who replied to questions about her goal-focused-at-risk-of-losing-friends manner in the NYT interview by saying ""I can do a better job.  I think I've made some mistakes in that arena. We're working on that; I'm certainly working on that.", is mostly characterized in terms of some risk of success with her local, political contemporaries.  While certainly fallings out of this sort can bog down progress, if she's not remembered for her political acumen or diplomacy, it in the least begs the question "who cares"?

Janette Sadik-Khan has accomplished more in her time to change the American urban transportation landscape - in perhaps the world's toughest city to do so - since Robert Moses (albeit to opposite effect), and with that change she has empowered millions of politicians, professionals, advocates, and students across the country and beyond to embrace a profound and inspirational confidence obtained by knowing that if the car-king can be conquered in New York City, it can be tamed in every auto-centric urban center of our nation, as well as all those other countries where our lifestyle and popular-cultural trends have a heavy-handed, even if unintended, influence.  She has injected a sanity to urban transportation policy that righteously, and rightly, prioritizes human life over driver convenience by introducing a brilliant menu of safety-oriented solutions capable of simultaneously mitigating risk, chipping away at VMT, reducing capital project cost, and shrinking implementation time.  We will one day feel honored to have had her focus her dynamism on mounds of lackluster car-focused transportation policy if not her plows on momentary snow piles.  Rock on, Janette!

Philosophical Tangent: One official was quoted as saying of her, "She has an absolute certainty that she's correct.  I guess it's nice to go through life with that kind of certainty, but I don't know if it's appropriate in government."  Admittedly, there are a rare few of us who are blessed in their way to possess such certainty - if that is in fact the state of mind at play here - but I would submit that the last word in that remark would more fittingly be "politics" rather than "government".  If properly checked, absolute certainty is an immeasurably useful tool in government.  I for one would aspire to achieve absolute certainty in my work, knowing that while I seek the highest and best solution to technical problems, I am yet still subservient to a democratically elected political official with the empathy and contemplative nature that is found in the greatest of all leaders and critical to the business of managing human societies.  Perhaps the very reason representative democracies have so far avoided morphing into technocracies is because we instinctively understand that a technocrat, if given ultimate control, may in fact be too unwilling to compromise on the best technical solution to a problem, whereas an elected official must more carefully balance the technical merits of policy with the popular opinion of the constituency and therefore deliver a more compassionate result.

Ian Sacs, P.E. is a worldwide transportation solutions consultant based in Finland.



Robert Moses vs Janette Sadik-Khan

Robert Moses damaged a great number of people by destroying their homes and businesses. Janette Sadik-Khan improved life for a great majority of people by making it easier to get around by walking and biking. A small elite minority found it slightly less convient to drive their automobiles.

Sadik-Khan is also spending

Sadik-Khan is also spending several orders of magnitude less money than Moses did and isn't bankrupting NYC while doing it.

Ian Sacs's picture

Ian Sacs Replies

To clarify, my comparison above of Sadik-Khan to Moses was one of individuals having effecting sweeping change - good or bad -that is generally considered next to impossible in New York City. My next sentence comments that the two made such changes "to opposite effect", by which I meant to indicate that, as my post is in support of Sadik-Khan's good work, I conversely condemn many of the actions taken by Robert Moses and consider their effects to have been deleterious, or, opposite those we are currently so fortunate to be amidst.

Just one little quibble

"... if the car-king can be conquered in New York City, it can be tamed in every auto-centric urban center of our nation ..."

That's the only sentence that I might quibble with in this piece. While biking might seem like a foreign activity to a lot of old school Noo Yawkahs, walking, taking transit and using public space are not, even to those who don't practice them regularly. So JSK or others who are making a case for humanizing the streets of Gotham can draw from a deep well of urban(e) culture that is still strong in New York City, one that has ran totally dry decades ago in most other places in the US. It's a lot easier to appeal to the inherent culture of a place than it is to propose totally unfamiliar and new practices.

In like fashion, Enrique Peñalosa could plausibly claim that to facilitate car use in Bogotá was to enable the playthings of the wealthy. That claim can't be made in, say, Kansas City or Phoenix -- or, for that matter, Pound Ridge. When reformers can be portrayed as out-of-touch elitists, the politics get immeasurably more difficult.

So I think that the political lifting needed to get to livable streets will be much harder in most places than it has been in New York (or Portland or Boulder or San Francisco).

But still, you've gotta start somewhere, and JSK's accomplishments are without a doubt remarkable, as Ian ably reminds us, and worthy of our praise. New York is without a doubt the trendsetter for the livable streets movement, as it is in so many other aspects of our national life.

Jake Wegmann

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