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Critic's Notebook: New York has the edge in learning to share the road

March 25, 2010 |  5:45 am

Timesquare It was the sort of itinerary typically reserved for a well-known architect or a novelist on a high-profile book tour, not a visiting bureaucrat.

When Janette Sadik-Khan, who oversees New York City's department of transportation, swept through Los Angeles last week, her stops included a packed lecture at Occidental College, her alma mater, and an audience with Larry Mantle on his public-radio show "AirTalk."

The welcome was hardly surprising given Sadik-Khan's reputation among planners, architects, mass-transit advocates and those of us who write about cities. In those circles she has won high praise for the innovative changes she's made to the streetscape in New York, including banning car traffic from Times Square and carving out more than 3,000 miles of new bike lanes.

She has also closed many big Manhattan streets to traffic on a handful of summer Sundays, organized a design competition for new bike racks and turned underused parking lots and pockets of space on roadways into pedestrian plazas, often simply by setting out some orange cones and plastic chairs and changing the color of the asphalt.

"You can do a lot with a paintbrush and a paint can," she said at Occidental.

But in the wake of her visit, we're left asking the usual questions about Los Angeles: Is there anything to be done to lessen the power that the automobile holds over the shape of the city? Could an approach like Sadik-Khan's ever take root in a city where our Department of Transportation and its little-known general manager, Rita Robinson, tend to resist urban-design innovation rather than fight for it?

As Robert Gottlieb, director of Occidental's Urban & Environmental Policy Institute, pointed out in introducing Sadik-Khan last week, the car has not just been treated like the king of the public realm in Los Angeles. Our DOT and other city agencies have allowed it to behave like "a land-use dictator." Decisions about the shape of sidewalks and streets in L.A. are nearly always made with a single goal in mind: to allow cars and other vehicles to move from point A to point B as efficiently as possible.

And if you think those priorities have no effect on the built environment of Los Angeles, well, just look around. The unlovely public realm we inhabit here -- the charmless sidewalks, the shadeless bus stops -- is a direct result of the political power and the public money we continue to devote to the car.

In fact, we have entirely lost sight of the fact that a department of transportation can play a central role -- as Sadik-Khan's has done -- in improving a city's civic design and its quality of life. In one of her most controversial initiatives, she moved to ban cars outright from parts of Times Square and Herald Square -- and elsewhere in the city -- and also fought a losing battle in favor of a congestion pricing policy, which would have charged drivers for entering parts of Manhattan during rush hour.

In truth, however, her goal has not been to demonize the car but to restore a sense of balance when it comes to the competing needs of drivers, pedestrians, cyclists and commuters. Perhaps the best example of that effort is the design for new bike lanes that Sadik-Khan has borrowed from Copenhagen and other European cities and begun to implement in New York.

The design essentially flips the bike lane and the parking lane, so bikes flow in a protected zone between the sidewalk and rows of parked cars. The result benefits pedestrians, cyclists and drivers alike.

In her most striking comment at Occidental, Sadik-Khan said that because her department controls more than 12,000 miles of city sidewalk, she thinks of herself as "the leading real estate developer in New York."

That notion has profound political as well as architectural implications for cities like Los Angeles, where we have for too long thought of our boulevards solely as conduits for car traffic. But as more people choose to live along those boulevards as the city grows denser -- and as pedestrians and cyclists began to take back sections of them for their own use -- we are realizing that along the edges of those traffic arteries is a significant collection of public land waiting to be rediscovered, re-inhabited and redesigned.

For all her drive and creativity, Sadik-Khan has been able to effect change in New York only because her boss, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has proved a consistent ally. In Los Angeles, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has sent his DOT a collection of mixed signals, working to boost walkability and mass transit but also championing road-widening efforts that are not only hugely expensive but come at the expense of cyclists and pedestrians.

Bloomberg, on the other hand, could hardly be more supportive.

At a news conference last month to announce that he'd decided to make permanent the car-free plazas in Times Square and elsewhere, he faced a handful of dubious questions from reporters. He responded with language that might have been scripted by Sadik-Khan herself.

“Are the roads for multiple uses -- everybody, pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorists?” Bloomberg asked. "Or are they just for motorists?”

-- Christopher Hawthorne

Above: A view of Broadway closed to traffic at Herald Square in New York. Credit: Bebeto Matthews / Associated Press


 

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