Vladan Šír
The future of Prague is written in its streets, says former New York City Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan

In just six years, Janette Sadik-Khan managed to fundamentally change the way New Yorkers get from point A to point B. As transportation commissioner, she introduced new fast bus lanes, cycle lanes, and a bike-share system. Moreover, she has transformed once busy places full of traffic, such as Broadway or Times Square, into welcoming pedestrian zones with tables and chairs. Prague was inspired by similar interventions, as is the case in the square Mariánské náměstí. Janette Sadik-Khan was a guest speaker at the Walk the City fall conference held at CAMP on October 12–13th, 2023.

When visiting Prague, the Štvanice footbridge caught your attention. You said it was the Charles Bridge of the 21st century. Do you really think so?

Yes, I think it's incredible. What you build on your streets is your future. And this is a really clear message that the future is about walking, cycling and getting around easily. I really believe that the future of Prague is written in its streets. For me, the Štvanice footbridge is an example of how to give the streets and cities back to the people.

You were New York's transportation commissioner for six years. What vision did you come to the City Hall with?

In 2007, I went to City Hall for an interview with Mayor Michael Bloomberg and all of his deputies. I presented to them my vision of building the city's bicycle transport backbone and developing rapid bus transportation, which didn't exist in the city at the time, or charging cars to enter certain parts of the city, which was a revolutionary idea. It was absolutely key for me to focus on pedestrians and safety.

Janette Sadik-Khan was a guest at the Walk the City fall conference.

Author: Jan Malý , Source: IPR Praha

Was it hard to change something as typically American as car culture in New York?

I wasn't so much trying to change the car culture. That wasn't my job. My job was to set a vision for the city. It was all related to the PlaNYC strategic plan, which Mayor Bloomberg presented to the public in 2007. The new vision for New York City included more bus lanes, more cycle lanes, more pedestrian areas, and improved transit traffic. This vision, of course, influenced the way we divided the space on the streets. We segmented it in such a way as to give people a wider range of options. That was a key change. We weren't anti-car. Not at all. We were just trying to make it easier and safer for people to get around the city.

What challenges and resistance did you have to overcome? There have been lawsuits, haven't there?

There was a really big outcry, there was name-calling, there were negative press articles, and there was a big lawsuit over the cycle lane we built in Prospect Park West in Brooklyn. At one point, I went to the mayor with my resignation ready. Despite facing considerable criticism, he told me: Just keep going. So we continued. Neither lawsuit was successful. The people won.

In Prague and Berlin, we have seen activists demonstrating to slow down traffic by blocking major arteries in the city in recent months. What do you think of these strategies?

You know, there's a strong tradition of protest and a strong tradition of community activism. I am not surprised that activism is appearing on both sides. You've got people protesting; they want lower speed; they want limits on the speed of life. They take to the streets, which makes people angry and they react to it. But it's great that people are passionate about their streets. I love that they have such a strong relationship with their streets. I also feel a strong connection to my street. It's about channeling that energy, showing what's possible, and listening. It is not about imposing change.

You wrote the book Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution. What was the motivation for its creation?

A big part of our work at the City Hall was about articulating our mission in the language of change, communicating over and over again the message of what we do, why we do it, who we do it for. We wanted to share our experience and inspire other cities to do the same.

At the end of the book, you say: If it works in New York, it will work anywhere.

That's right! I believe that change is not a technical issue but a question of imagination. Every city is different and has specific problems. But in reality, we face the same challenges. I hope the book can help people think about how to make changes in their own city. That was my goal from the beginning: to inspire, motivate and encourage.

She cycled around Prague with the First Deputy Mayor of Prague Zdeněk Hřib.

Author: Jan Malý , Source: IPR Praha

Do you have any tips on how to convince politicians that the city needs pedestrian areas and cycle paths?

Again, it's about having a vision and a plan. It's not just about putting one cycle lane here and one bus lane somewhere else. These steps must be part of a broader vision of where you want your city to go.

What strategies would you recommend for cities with narrow streets and a historic center like Prague?

Well, I've only been here a short time. You're expanding the tram network, that's a huge benefit to the city, a really great value. I actually envy the streetcar network, it's transit nirvana in action. I wanted to catch a tram, but they told me not to run, that another one would be coming soon. That's fantastic. Or the metro line D, that's an example of a really strong investment in transport.

She also visited the new Štvanice footbridge with experts from IPR Prague.

Author: Jan Malý , Source: IPR Praha

What is the future of urban transport in the light of new technologies?

The future will not be saved by flying taxis or automatic cars. That won't build a great city. We don’t need more cars in cities or cars that are powered differently. Automation does a great job of connecting areas outside the city. We can move freight more efficiently by creating places where we concentrate freight traffic, and then letting smaller vehicles bring goods and services to cities. I think that's a really strong strategy. Again, satellite technology could help with targeted pricing for entering certain areas, which I think is also interesting. But the future is largely made up of something we already know, and that is: How do we make it easier for people to get around on foot, by bike, and by tram? I believe this is where the future of successful cities lies. And that's why you see mayors of all the major cities around the world trying to step up in this area. They don't say: We want to create a city of autonomous vehicles. They say: We want to create a city of cyclists, a city of pedestrians, a city where you don't need a car to get around. I think that's the future.


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