News / Ottawa

New York transportation guru drawing large crowds in Ottawa

Janette Sadik-Khan, former transportation commissioner for New York City, is in for an enthusiastic welcome to her speaking event in April.

No city in the world has more quickly and prominently transformed its streetscape to encourage pedestrians and cyclists to reclaim road space than New York City did under former mayor Michael Bloomberg and his transportation czar, Janette Sadik-Kahn.

Jason DeCrow/THE CANADIAN PRES file photo

No city in the world has more quickly and prominently transformed its streetscape to encourage pedestrians and cyclists to reclaim road space than New York City did under former mayor Michael Bloomberg and his transportation czar, Janette Sadik-Kahn.

Ecology Ottawa may have to find a larger venue after more than 650 people signed up to hear from New York’s cycling and pedestrian goddess.

Janette Sadik-Khan, former New York City transportation commissioner, is coming to Ottawa's Horticulture Building April 27, although that may change if interest continues to grow.

Without even advertising, hundreds of people have already RSVPed to Ecology Ottawa’s free event, which is part of Sadik-Khan’s North American book tour promoting Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution.

“Its great to see such interest in Ottawa for reimagining our city and improving our public spaces,” said Liz Bernstein, event organizer and co-founder of the environmental non-profit group.

There’s a reason Sadik-Khan is creating such a buzz.

She’s a household name among urban planning wonks, largely because she’s credited with transforming New York City’s notoriously jam-packed Manhattan streets into inviting spaces for pedestrians and cyclists.

Beginning in 2007, she used low-cost solutions like paint, signs and planters to reclaim road space for cyclists and pedestrians, while at the same time improving bottom lines for local businesses and, miraculously, reducing gridlock.

And the changes happened fast.

With the support of former mayor Michael Bloomberg, Sadik-Khan and her team more than doubled the miles of bike lanes and sharrows on New York streets. By the time she left in 2013, that count had multiplied tenfold.

But the transformation of Broadway Street and Times Square into a pedestrian safe haven is considered her true miracle work. Using paint to remove car lanes and limit turning, she “produced pedestrian space and breathed new life into neighbourhoods,” Sadik-Khan wrote in Streetfight. Once the benefits were proven, the city made the changes permanent.

And parts of the road were closed to traffic entirely, including at Times Square, operating on the theory that the pedestrian plazas would actually reduce congestion.  

It worked.

“Overnight, centuries-old roads turned into pedestrian oases atop space that had been there all along, hidden in plain sight,” Sadik-Khan wrote. “New York City proved to itself, the nation, and the world that almost everything that was assumed about how urban streets operate was wrong.”

In Ottawa, the same kind of “urban revolution” is slow-going, Bernstein said.

Cycling and pedestrian infrastructure, while growing, should get more space in the city’s budget, Bernstein argued.

The city’s cycling plan is worth about $70 million, for example, and will be funded over the course of 15 years. But a road widening project can cost that much in a single go, Bernstein said.

“Fifteen years is a long time to ask cyclists and pedestrians to wait,” she said.

Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney contended that Ottawa is a leader in Canada when it comes to cycling infrastructure. But she said more work needs to be done to reallocate road space to all modes of transit.

"If we can think of a road as public space, the whole thing from property line to property line, what do we need for pedestrians, for cyclists, for transit? Whats fair?" McKenney said.

Bernstein hopes Sadik-Khan’s visit will inspire faster, more creative investment in Ottawa’s active transportation network.

“She was able to do a lot with a little,” Bernstein said. “If they can do it in New York, why can’t we do it in Ottawa?”

To RSVP, visit ecologyottawa.ca.

Streetfighter

So, what did Sadik-Khan accomplish as commissioner of transportation in New York?

  • Under her watch, the miles of bike lanes and sharrows on city streets doubled in a year from 29 miles in 2006 to 63 in 2007. By 2013, another 254 had been added to the network.  
  • She introduced the Neighbourhood Slow Zone program, which reduced speed limits from 30 miles per hour to 20 mph, to more than a dozen New York neighbourhoods. Pedestrians have a 95 per cent chance of survival if hit at 20 mph, Sadik-Khan said.
  • She made Times Square pedestrian friendly with broad plazas along Broadway Street between 42nd and 47th Streets. The change reduced gridlock and improved foot traffic to local businesses.
  • More than 150 wayfinding signs and maps have been installed around New York, to help pedestrians find their way around.