On Monday, Torontonians watched with bated breath as the City’s Public Works and Infrastructure Committee considered the highly-anticipated Bloor bike lane pilot project. In a fit of “analysis-paralysis”, the deadlocked PWIC kicked the report down the road to City Council without recommendation.
So it was timely that on that same day, the Ryerson City Building Institute welcomed Janette Sadik-Khan, former New York City Transportation Commissioner and “Queen of the Pilot Project”, to present to a sold-out crowd of city builders. After watching the morning’s Bloor bike lane debate unfold, the packed audience was hungry to hear how Janette made it all happen in NYC.
While serving as Transportation Commissioner, Janette Sadik-Kahn reimagined and redesigned New York City’s streets as places for people – not just for cars. She led the shift towards innovative street design and transportation service delivery, including the creation of dozens of pedestrian plazas in underused intersections, the roll-out of a hugely popular (and hotly contested) city-wide bike share program, the introduction of miles of new bus rapid transit routes, and a massive expansion of the city’s bike lane network.
In her presentation, Janette talked about her brand new book, Streetfight: Handbook for an urban revolution, and shared drool-worthy photos of the changes she accomplished in NYC. Prompted by some tough questions from Toronto Star architecture critic Christopher Hume, she also gave us a glimpse of the strategy, analysis, and political will that made it all happen.
Many of the street design changes that Janette introduced began as pilot projects: temporary interventions, constructed using inexpensive materials and fully reversible. Painted bike lanes and pedestrian plazas allowed the public to see, touch, and experience these spaces before investing in expensive construction. Pilots introduce incremental changes that allows the public to acclimate to new street designs, building the public acceptance and political support to make them permanent.
On Bloor Street, we need to remember that it’s just a pilot. The protected bike lane is a light touch test-run that is adjustable (and even reversible). We must muster up the courage to try a proof of concept.
Janette worked for the famously data-obsessed former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose mantra was, “In God we trust. Everyone else, bring data.” Throughout all her projects, Janette collected, analyzed, and publicly reported on data to inform reconfigurations, next iterations, and to build a case for each project. The pilot projects showed the public how to use a new space, and the data showed the the decision-makers how well it was working. In NYC, retail sales increased by 50% on streets with bike lanes.
Here in Toronto, the Bloor Annex and Korea Town BIAs, with the support of the Metcalf Foundation, recently took data collection into their own hands, tracking business impacts along Bloor Street to set a baseline for comparison when the new bike lane pilot is in place. They stress that without data, businesses are relying on anecdotal evidence to determine the shopping and travel patterns of their patrons. They support the pilot project to generate the evidence needed to take a final position on the bike lanes.
Janette focused on traffic safety as a key lever to drive street improvements. This is especially relevant here in Toronto, where traffic injuries and fatalities continue to plague our roadways, leaving us to ask, “Why is the convenience of motorists holding sway over the lives and safety of others?” Janette argues that injuries and fatalities on our roads amount to a public health crisis, and ought to be addressed accordingly.
As we saw in the Bloor bike lane debate, the interests of drivers were pitted the interests of cyclists, but Janette Sadik-Khan’s experience demonstrates that this conflict does not have to be so. Complete streets are safer for everyone – cyclists, pedestrians, and drivers alike – and interventions like separated bike lanes, curb extensions, and pedestrian plazas can drastically reduce traffic injuries and fatalities while also improving traffic flow and freeing up public space. It’s a win-win.
There was so much excitement around Janette Sadik-Khan’s visit to our city — it seemed to tap into all the anticipation, frustration, and hope that Torontonians hold for the future of our streets. But armed with new copies of her book, Toronto is now ready to win the streetfight.