Saturday, 16 January 2016
Advance Book Review: Streetfight by Janette Sadik-Khan and Seth Solomonow
While his mayoral reign was by no means perfect, Michael Bloomberg did some cool things over his three terms as Mayor of New York City. Many of these aforementioned low-temperature initiatives made lives easier for pedestrians (car-free plazas and curb islands in busy intersections), bikers (tons of designated bike lanes and a huge bike-sharing program) and even bus riders (select bus service). Janette Sadik-Khan, commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation from 2007 to 2013, was the major architect behind such projects. In her (and co-author Seth Solomonow's) new book Streetfight, Sadik-Khan chronicles her tenure in the Bloomberg administration and offers a practical guide to implementing her sustainable and human-scale planning initiatives in other cities.
Streetfight is equal parts memoir and overview of major topics in planning. The book is structured thematically, with each chapter touching upon an aspect of transportation planning, including bike lanes, bike-sharing, and infrastructure maintenance. It begins with some background on transportation planning in New York City and a primer on the theories of urban planners such as Jane Jacobs. Streetfight draws its ideas from around the world, looking at innovative programs in other cities and countries and including a passage on how New York's Summer Streets program was inspired by a similar program in Colombian cities. Sadik-Khan is remarkably fair in her analysis throughout, which is refreshing given that some urban planning books exhibit a decent amount of intellectual inflexibility. Streetfight has no agenda to ban all cars from the island of Manhattan or lead some kind of cycler/pedestrian uprising. The book's assertions are largely driven by data, and she shares some fascinating studies from New York City and the rest of the world, including research from London showing that shoppers arriving from non-car modes of transportation considerably outspend those coming by automobile. At the same time, she understands that regardless of what the data and academics say that these ideas need to be politically appetizing in order to succeed. A considerable portion of Streetfight details how Sadik-Khan brokered political compromises such as removing portions of a bike lane in a Hasidic part of Brooklyn to help win a new larger path on a major thoroughfare and the book also recounts the endless public hearings around her policy proposals. Such political concessions are vital to getting policy wins in today's governing environment, and sometimes even public support isn't enough, as was the case with Sadik-Khan's ill-fated congestion charge proposal for parts of Manhattan.
The strongest parts of Streetfight are when Sadik-Khan goes into detail on methods she used to improve biker/rider/walker and yes, even driver (some of her fixes improved traffic flow and/or got other cars off the road and onto other modes of transportation) welfare. Streetfight is filled with diagrams and pictures illustrating concepts and some jarring before-and-afters of how the city brought about some substantial changes with little more than a can of paint and some chairs. The authors are able to present these concepts in a coherent fashion an clearly outline how solutions such as how pedestrian curb refuges function and help calm car traffic. Moreover, while the book offers practical solutions, it is geared towards a general audience and anyone interested on the general subject can take away a lot from reading it.
Transportation policy may no sound like the sexiest topic in the world (and admittedly it isn't), but Streetfight is a remarkably readable volume that manages to provide practical transportation solutions for cities as well as a peek inside the data-heavy and orthodoxy-eschewing Bloomberg administration. There is some repetition and occasionally the largely triumphalist tone (albeit mostly deserved) got grating, but these are both small nits. Overall, Streetfight is an informative and illuminating look at major street transportation-related developments in New York City over the last several years and any reader looking to learn more about how cities work should give Streetfight a look, regardless of whether they are New Yorkers or not.
8 / 10