“Street Fight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution”

streetfight_328Janette Sadik-Khan served as transportation commissioner for the city of New York during Michael Bloomberg’s tenure as mayor. She was in charge of most of the streets, roads, bridges, tunnels, and ferries responsible for moving a population of over eight million people. As such, she was responsible for the maintenance and programming of more infrastructure than transportation commissioners in many U.S. states.

By all accounts, she did an excellent job. During her tenure, her agency brought all 788 of the city-owned bridges to a state of good repair or initiated multi-year rehabilitation programs on them. They also did a 175 Million-dollar rehabilitation of the Staten Island Ferry, initiated an asphalt recycling program that saved the city sixty million dollars, began converting the city’s streetlights to LEDs, and managed to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which destroyed or flooded significant portions of the city’s infrastructure.

But Sadik-Khan’s main achievement during her tenure was vastly expanding New York City’s bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. In six and a half years, she and the city added nearly four hundred miles of bike lanes and protected bikeways. They also added the largest bikeshare system in the United States and around sixty new pedestrian plazas, including a huge one in Times Square, the heart of New York City. What’s more, relative to the city’s road, bridge and ferry investments, Sadik-Khan did all these bicycle and pedestrian improvements for (as she says) “the budgetary equivalent of change found between the sofa cushions.”

Her book Street Fight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution details how she did it. It has important lessons for any city but particularly for Saint Paul, which faces numerous budgetary and political obstacles to implementing its bikeways plan. I’ll provide a brief summary of the book and a few ways in which Saint Paul could use some of its ideas.

DESIGN MANUALS

Sadik-Khan begins the book with a discussion of Jane Jacobs versus Robert Moses and the history of New York. For those familiar with this history (as I am), this part of the book was less interesting. She also discusses innovative, non-automotive approaches to urban transportation that have been implemented in various cities around the world. Many of these are well known to transportation activists and are even being used in the Twin Cities, but some are new and interesting. I found the book to be at its best when Sadik-Khan’s gets into the details of her own experiences implementing bikeways and pedestrian plazas in New York.

She begins by discussing what hasn’t worked and the impediments to better urban street design. These include the federal “Manual on Uniform Traffic  Control Devices” (MUTCD) and AASHTO’s “Green Book”. Dating back to 1935, the MUTCD “sets guidelines for how many cars over how long a period shall result in a stop sign, traffic signal or turn lane” …and establishes standards on street design features like lane widths, gradients, striping and signage.  As Sadik-Khan says, these (and state highway manuals):

“help city streets to operate more like highways and less like neighborhoods. In the MUTCD’s more than eight hundred pages of diagrams, human beings are conspicuously absent from any representations of the street.  …Traffic engineers say these documents tie their hands and (these manuals) smother innovation with their silence on modern pedestrian and bike-friendly treatments.”

“Within city transportation departments, most street design practices were standardized by traffic engineers long ago, with no tradition of innovation or experimentation. Transportation-as-usual in most of the world’s cities means building, expanding, repairing, or replacing as many roads as possible and brushing aside anything not tested or explicitly authorized. In this way, cities have tended to operate in much the same way that their cities have sprawled: by doing things the way they’ve always been done, by relying on out-of-date engineering manuals and deviating only when forced. …Transportation is one of the few professions where nearly 33,000 people can lose their lives in one year and no one in a position of responsibility is in danger of losing his or her job. People are rewarded for completing multi-billion dollar megaprojects that do little or nothing to improve congestion, safety or mobility. Those who do transportation-as-usual by focusing on the smoothness of city roads and futile road expansions tend to have jobs for life, even as traffic problems stagnate or worsen. In this job, those who fight against obsolete transportation ideas and work to create new choices, improve safety, and reduce congestion are the ones whose jobs are on the chopping block.”

Certainly I’ve seen this in Saint Paul where MnDOT or Ramsey County will block pedestrian crossing aids, signals or speed limit reductions using the MUTCD-based state highway manual and its need for “85th percentile studies” and various vehicle thresholds.

To counteract out of date manuals, Sadik-Khan used and further developed the Urban Street Design Guide put out by the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), a group she chaired. The manual has been endorsed by the federal government, nine states (including Minnesota), and 45 cities, including Minneapolis and Saint Paul. She also started the creation of New York City’s first ever street-design guide, something that Saint Paul has recently started as well.

PUBLIC OUTREACH

Sadik-Khan overhauled the city’s public outreach process. She created a DOT academy to improve how the agency presented themselves and information to the public and elected officials. When civic groups requested stop signs or traffic signals, instead of form letters saying “no” (based on outdated MUTCD guidelines), she had her agency respond by organizing community meetings around “what problem are we trying to solve.” They broke meetings into small groups moderated by transportation staffers, almost like design charrettes, so more timid members of the public felt free to speak up. They would then present participants with lots of options, including ones that communities didn’t necessarily know about or weren’t initially requested.

She also improved how the Department of Transportation rolled out projects and worked with politicians businesses, community groups, advocacy groups and the press. The Department created partnerships with local businesses and celebrities and they tried to work more closely with other agencies, using an inter-agency collective approach to city government that Mayor Bloomberg promoted.

She points out, there was often loud public and political opposition to any kind of street programming change in New York, often the same lines we hear from opponents in Saint Paul:

“We’re not Amsterdam! We’re not Copenhagen! Our streets are too hilly, too spread out. We drive. Nobody bikes. It’s too dangerous. It’s too hot. It’s too cold. It will cause traffic. It will hurt businesses. It’s just not our culture. We’re different and we pride ourselves on not being like those fruity Europeans.”

…But her agency worked to placate those voices and, when they were the minority, tried to prevent them from dominating public meetings, politics and the press. This is also something that Saint Paul could do better, though we’ve improved greatly over the years.

CHEAP MATERIALS

By far her biggest innovation and lesson for Saint Paul is she did things quickly with very inexpensive materials– paint, concrete jersey barriers, planters, folding chairs and signs. The idea was to quickly get something established on the ground, that people could experience. By doing things on the cheap, proposals could be sold as temporary “tests” of street programming ideas, making them less intimidating to the public or politicians and easy to implement. This is how they were able to close off traffic on a section of Broadway and put in a huge pedestrian plaza in Time Square. The idea was to get people used to changes and then make them more beautiful and permanent later, when funding became available.

She quickly made long, major protected bikeways or pedestrian plazas with cheap planters or old concrete jersey barriers. She got arts groups and preexisting arts grants to paint them up in colorful, interesting designs.

This is something Saint Paul could do with the downtown loop (now called the “Capital City Bikeway”) and its various neighborhood connection spurs. If we wait for funding to completely rebuild all the streets like we did with Jackson Street, it might take 20 years or more and cost untold millions of dollars. But if we just take the proposed outside lane on Saint Peter Street (for example) and protect it with jersey barriers from John Ireland all the way to Kellogg, we’d instantly have a great new protected bikeway into downtown for almost no cost. Like New York, Saint Paul has numerous arts groups and grant programs that could be used to decorate them. Public Works even has its own “Artist in Residence”. We could do the same thing with 10th Street and even parts of Kellogg Boulevard.

Where parking wasn’t being removed, Sadik-Khan used parked cars to protect bike lanes– something else that Saint Paul could do on numerous streets, including some of its existing bikeways like Summit Avenue.

SAFETY

She helped to make “safety” a New York DOT priority, instead of the typical DOT priority of increasing “Level of Service” for cars. In New York, that meant setting targets for reducing crashes involving pedestrians and cyclists, and reducing the severity of those crashes once they occurred. This meant reducing motor vehicle speeds by redesigning streets, shortening pedestrian crossing distances, narrowing lanes, changing signal timings, and many other measures.

In Saint Paul, Ramsey County and the city’s Public Works Department often continue to prioritize automobile speed and mobility. They propose widening streets or adjusting signal timings to push more cars through a given intersection, or MnDOT and the county refuse to lower speed limits on their various city boulevards like Snelling or Cleveland Avenues. Meanwhile, 314 cyclists and pedestrians were hit by cars in Saint Paul last year, and pedestrian deaths in the state of Minnesota were the highest they’ve been in 25 years.
The city, county and state should stop trying to build their way out of congestion, scrap “Level of Service” as a standard for street design, and make “Safety” their number one priority– safety of pedestrians, bicyclists and car drivers.

DATA

Another major innovation is how Sadik-Khan and New York City’s transportation department started collecting and using data in new, innovative ways. They collected more detailed bike/ped crash and count data and looked for patterns, not just at intersections but along corridors, and tried to use this data to guide street redesign projects. They collected data before and after implementing projects to see what kind of impact the projects were having. In the process, they came up with interesting and unexpected discoveries that guided their street redesigns and helped improve safety.

They collected data from transponders in city taxicabs to measure exactly how long it was taking vehicles to get through particular intersections or across certain streets at certain times. Using this data they were able to actually see what effect street changes had on motor vehicle traffic and they were able to prove that some of their changes, like the pedestrian plaza in Times Square, actually improved motor vehicle traffic and reduced the amount of time it was taking cars to get through the intersections.

Working with the city Department of Finance, they analyzed city business tax data to see whether bike lanes and pedestrian plazas on particular streets helped or hurt business profitability. By looking at reported income before and after projects, they found and were able to prove that these projects actually increased retail business profitability. They produced a report called “Measuring the Street” and were able to use it to help sell new bike and pedestrian projects in other neighborhoods.

Sadik-Khan and the transportation department used all this data to counter many of the bogus claims of street redesign opponents. Using data, she also demolished the idea of bike helmet laws, pedestrian bridges, crossing flags (which she calls “surrender flags”), the idea that bicyclists are a safety menace to pedestrians, that parking removal or metering hurts business, and many other things that I see used, advocated for and/or said at public meetings in Saint Paul.

Saint Paul is doing more and better parking utilization studies and bringing these to public meetings and project websites when they roll out street redesign proposals. We have also begun to collect and map bicycle and pedestrian crash data and post these results on line. This is an important first step. The posted data includes approximate crash location, time of day, a brief synopsis, the age and genders of the perpetrators and victims and something about injury severity. But adding two or three more data points that police or EMTs can enter at the crash scene (and adding these data points to the maps) would make this data even more useful. Specifically, it would be nice to know the exact location of the victim within the street or intersection and their direction of travel (noting if there were traffic lights), and the direction of travel of the vehicle that hit them.  Having pedestrian count data at points of recurring crashes or along crash corridors would also be helpful in determining how dangerous, per-crossing, a given spot actually is. The fruit of all this data is that it can help us to redesign streets to reduce crashes and save lives. During Sadik-Khan’s tenure, New York had the seven lowest years of annual traffic fatalities since records started being kept in 1910. If people had died at the same rate as 2001, 1,113 more people would have died. Data and intelligent street redesigns saved 1,113 lives and thousands more severe injuries.

CONCLUSION

Among other topics, Sadik-khan also discusses the city’s attempt to get “congestion pricing”, the largely media-and-politician-manufactured “Bicycle Backlash” and how they dealt with it, and she talks about NYC efforts to use parking policy as a tool for development and livability. The book is full of excellent before and after photographs and diagrams explaining different projects and aspects of street design.

It’s a great book with lots of great ideas for both laypeople and experienced engineers, planners and advocates. I highly recommend it to all of Saint Paul’s mayoral candidates, council members and city staff, and to Ramsey County Commissioners, their staffs, and anyone else who is interested in urban street design and transportation.

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6 Responses to “Street Fight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution”

  1. Tom Quinn March 23, 2017 at 10:29 am #

    This is a well done review. Thank you.

  2. Jason Brisson
    Jason Brisson March 23, 2017 at 10:44 am #

    Andy- great review. I am currently working my way through her book and have been impatiently waiting for this post to be published since I saw it pending in the queue. Sadik-Kahn’s book is interesting because I feel like the ideas discussed in her book are the same ideas that I hear over and over in so many podcasts and articles lately. I’m sure there is some best-practice sharing going on, but I also think it’s interesting to note that so much of what is covered in her book are being implemented in so many cities. It seems as if though all of her content is extremely relevant.

    In addition to your review, I felt the wayfinding maps she described would make a huge impact in Minneapolis with regard to tourist accessibility of our city and promoting public spaces, service, and private businesses. If they are not working on that now, they are missing out on a huge opportunity.

    I feel that you are spot-on about St. Paul. I believe that downtown St. Paul is a number of years behind Minneapolis in bike infrastructure and even though the recent separated cycle track on Jackson and 7th Pl is exciting for St. Paul, much work remains to be done. Repurposing some of the road space we have in St. Paul is a great way to create safe spaces to bike while we wait to piggyback onto other projects for complete redesign.

  3. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke March 23, 2017 at 2:13 pm #

    Good thing Saint Paul is broke and we can do these things!

  4. Scott March 23, 2017 at 3:59 pm #

    Nice post. I read this book awhile back and really enjoyed it. I’ve also read “”Walkable City:, “Happy City”, and other books which have similar themes and thought it would be fun to discuss them with others in a book group. Also, It would be interesting to get local policy makers and/or public works staff to read these books and discuss them with the public.

  5. ronp March 23, 2017 at 6:46 pm #

    Great review!

  6. Walker Angell
    Walker Angell March 27, 2017 at 7:59 am #

    Great review Andy. I’ve browsed through this book but not read it cover to cover. JSK has possibly done more to advance better and safer transportation in the U.S. than anyone. I spend a bit of time in NYC every year and have seen her changes first hand. From not being able to ride a bicycle at all 10 years ago to that being my primary mode of transport today is quite remarkable. I really do need to read through this completely and after reading your review I think I will.

    I am working my way through NACTO’s new Global Street Design Guide. It’s a huge leap forward over the Urban Street Design Guide. The USDG included a lot of infrastructure that was roundly criticized as inappropriate for anyone but the most daring 1% of bicycle riders and pedestrians. The USDG was aimed at being relatively palatable to traffic engineers who are focused on LOS with little or no regard for safety and to placating vehicular cycling / bicycle driving folk who don’t want protected bikeways.

    The GSDG unabashedly puts people and safety ahead of LOS. It has removed some of the worst of the more unacceptable stuff, footnoted others as last resort if you can’t do something better, and is overall much more bicycle and pedestrian friendly. It still falls short of CROW standards but is much closer.

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