Transforming cities through cycling

Radical changes to the way we move around big cities can be brought about quickly and inexpensively.

New York’s not-so-mean streets

This is the somewhat startling message of a new book, Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution, by Janette Sadik-Khan who served as New York’s transport commissioner from 2007-2013. During that time she oversaw historic changes to the City’s streets, closing Broadway to cars in Times Square, building nearly 400 miles of bike lanes, introducing a bike hire scheme and creating more than 60 plazas citywide.


New York – the most cycle friendly large city in the US

This will come as quite a surprise to anyone who last visited NYC before this revolution took place. When I last cycled there in 2006 it was intimidating to say the least, unsurprisingly given that for most of the previous century the city had been built around the car. The lesson seems to be that if these changes can be achieved in New York, they can be achieved just about anywhere.

So how did Sadik-Khan make it happen? The key lies in rethinking how streets are designed, and, crucially, who they are designed for. Urban transport is, she argues, amid a “Copernican revolution” in which streets are remodelled around human beings, whether walking, cycling or on buses, rather than sitting alone inside a metal box.

New Yorkers took time to come round

The changes made in New York were not universally popular. In fact they faced vociferous opposition from myriad local groups, but polls conducted at the end of Michael Bloomberg’s term as mayor in 2013 show a strong majority of New Yorker’s approved of the transport measures. What’s more, Department of Transport statistics show that there has been an 82% decrease in the risk of serious injury to cyclists over the past decade.

Rethinking the streets helped residents to rediscover that New York City had been ideally suited to walking and cycling all along. The city’s dense design means many trips are short. 10% of car journeys are under half a mile, and 56% are under three miles – distances that can easily be covered on foot or on a bike.

Sadik-Khan also emphasises that transport policy should be measured by more than just how fast traffic is going.  “Our streets have been in this kind of suspended animation. They’re seen as there for all time. The result is that you’ve got dangerous, congested, economically under-performing streets. That strikes at the heart of the liveability and competitiveness of a city.”

And it didn’t cost the earth…

The really revolutionary idea contained in Streetfight is that these improvements don’t require massive budgets, nor decades to implement, nor even a visionary leader. You can make streets safer, more livable, more economically productive by simply adapting the existing space. She urges city planners to be bold, and to try things by making changes which can be quickly put in place and easily reversed if they don’t work out.

For lots more information on this inspiring work see Janette Sadik-Khan’s website, or watch the TED talk below.


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