Walk into the middle of one of New York City's biggest, oldest and busiest streets and you'll see something unusual. On Broadway, at Madison Square just above 23rd Street, people are sitting at cafe tables, eating lunch in the middle of the road.
Janette Sadik-Khan, commissioner of transportation for the city of New York, has been transforming the idea of what you can do with a busy street. She has established plazas, striped off sections for bike lanes, improved conditions for bus service and put in new street furniture. In the process, she is redefining the very mission of local Department of Transportation commissioners.
Traditionally, a municipal DOT is charged with moving as many vehicles past a given point as quickly as possible, plus fixing potholes. Sadik-Khan, a thin, tall woman who speaks with a quick wit, starts with a more elemental question: What is the purpose of city streets, particularly those in a busy, dense place such as New York? What if quality of life were improved by making streets serve as places for walking or hanging out and for fast, efficient mass transit? What if funneling more cars were the last priority, rather than the first?
That's the experiment New York is living under right now. For better or for worse -- personally, I think it's for the better -- Sadik-Khan is showing that streets (there are 6,000 miles of them in the city, making up 80 percent of public space) can serve many masters, not just the automobile. Streets, says Sadik-Khan, are "some of the most valuable real estate we have."
It's not just her philosophy that's making this native New Yorker more of a public figure than most DOT commissioners. It's that she is bringing change to the street scene practically overnight.
She has a relatively free hand. When it comes to streets, cities often can do pretty much whatever they want, if they actually own them. They can put in a bike lane, take out or put in parking spaces, charge what they want for parking and even put chairs and tables in the middle of them. The only thing required is political will and some imagination.
"These things don't require huge capital programs," Sadik-Khan says. "You can do a lot with a can of paint and a paintbrush."
In New York City, streets are contested things. Drivers, bikers, walkers, skaters, bus riders and even scooter riders vie for a chunk of precious street space. So, the swiftness of Sadik-Khan's changes is both startling and refreshing, and sometimes less disruptive than one might think.
There's an irony here. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Sadik-Khan's boss, spent more than a year of effort and a big dose of political capital trying to implement something called congestion pricing -- that is, charging people who choose to drive into New York City at certain busy hours. Turns out, he needed state permission to charge drivers to enter the city. He didn't get it.
But Sadik-Khan needs no permission to try out market-rate parking charges, something which, in effect, can reduce traffic in ways comparable to congestion pricing. It also is something that can be contentious.
The lesson for small towns and for big cities, even if they are not as dense as New York, is that their streets can be places for experimentation, for exploring the different possibilities for this vital public property.
Not all cities will have this option. In a few states -- North Carolina is one example -- the state owns almost all roads, even a city's main streets, thus denying localities the freedom of action Sadik-Khan has. But they are the minority.
Sadik-Khan is active beyond New York City itself and planting her ideas in other places. She has been a deputy administrator of the Federal Transit Administration, and a former vice president at Parsons Brinckerhoff, the major infrastructure construction firm. Currently, as president of the National Association of City Transportation Officials, she is working to change the priorities of the next federal transportation bill. She wants it to be easier for cities to get money quickly for transit. The federal funding process, she says, should be mode-neutral between highways and transit. She also wants cities to get funding for street projects beyond those that are automobile-centric.
If Bloomberg succeeds in winning a third term in 2009, then Sadik-Khan would have four more years there. That would give her plenty of time to put sidewalk cafes in the middle of streets all over her city.