Visualizing the future of cities with New York's ex-transportation chief

Janette Sadik-Khan says we're not ready for the technology that's coming

Janette Sadik-Khan, New York City transportation commissioner from 2007 to 2013, oversaw what may have been the most turbulent period for the nation’s biggest city in decades. She built over 400 miles of bike lanes and transformed some of the most congested pockets of the city into pedestrian plazas. But arguably, with the rise of ride-sharing and automated vehicles, the radical transformation of the next decade may trump the last.

In her new book Street Fight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution (which she wrote along with her former aide Seth Solomonow), Sadik-Khan ponders what the streets of the future will look like. She spoke to The Verge recently about the pace of technology, the declining need for parking, and Finland’s futuristic transportation model.

Andrew J. Hawkins: What do you see as being some of the most significant changes that are happening now and that will change how cities look?

Janette Sadik-Khan: I think a lot of people don’t realize how close we are to seeing autonomous vehicles on the street. I think that it’s five or ten year technology horizon. It’s like one of those objects in the rearview mirror that’s closer than it appears ... I think that we need to be really smart about transition and integration of technology and I think the important thing is that for us to adapt our cities to the opportunities that are offered by technology, not the other way around. But as new technologies come up on us I think cities have been consistently flat-footed.

How quickly do you think cities will adapt to autonomous vehicles and electric vehicles?

Well, I think it remains to be seen. I think we need to protect what makes cities great and make places function in the first place and not repeat the mistake of giving up our city centers to an ever-expanding number of cars. But the technology is there and I think in some ways the real challenge is political more than anything else. And technology’s funny in transportation. When you think about it, technology is what changed so many aspects of our lives, but when you look at our transportation network and the public realm it’s still early 20th-century stuff. And you’ve got Uber and Lyft and Zipcar, but what we need is a fundamental change of the entire network. It’s not just about what’s on our smartphones, which is what everyone’s focused on, but it’s also about what’s on our streets.

As someone who’s been a regulator, you know that government can move slowly at times. Is this something we’ll see starting in cities then spreading across the country? Or will it come from DC and move from the top down?

The last great transportation idea we had from Washington was the Interstate Highway system, and that was 1956. And now we are in 2016 and I think what you’re starting to see is the innovation is really coming at the city level and it’s kind of bottom-up. And I think that cities are really at the frontline of the future of our streets. The federal government can certainly help and I think we need real leadership. The problem is with mass transit and regulatory policies in place that turn [autonomous vehicles] and [transportation network companies] into first- and last-mile solutions, rather than the whole business. And we need to learn to love bigger and denser cities because that’s [how] transit will compete with [autonomous vehicles built by] Google and Tesla and everything that comes after. I think we can reuse parking. You think about the space that’s sort of trapped between lanes in cities — 50 to 85 percent of real estate could be repurposed. I mean think about that: that’s a whole city that you could use for affordable housing, you could use for better walking, cycling, and more efficient, safer use of our streets. I think it’s a really golden moment.

So you think parking is losing its relevance?

I don’t think we need to build to build any more parking lots, and maybe we don’t need to build any more roadway expansions. And so the transformation that I think people are only getting a glimpse of right now — it’s actually going to make railroads of the 19th century and the highways of the 20th century look like a very subtle shift by comparison. I’m a city champion and I think that that’s where a lot of these solutions lie. The sort of regulatory regimes that we fear are, in some senses, the private sector has been much further along than the public sector on this. But whether it’s [congestion] pricing, whether it’s data ... I think for all of this we need to start planning now because we stepped back a while ago while people sold us on Futurama, and our cities and people suffered for it. And that’s I think why we have to get to work on this right now … otherwise we’re not planning for the future we want and we’re going to be scrambling and reacting to the one that happens to us.

Can you talk a little about pedestrian plazas and public plazas? Is the sky the limit on these things, or will there always have to be space for cars?

I think it’s about building in choices for people, that’s really what it’s about. What kind of choices do people have for for getting around. I think a lot of people in cities say, "Well, we drive." They don’t take a bus, walk, or bike, but the demographics tell a very different story. You take a look at the number of young people getting their driver’s license, it’s significantly down. If you take a look at the numbers of people that even want a car, it’s significantly down. We can see the numbers of the incredible increases in the market share for Uber and Lyft. People are really into the shared economy on all sorts of levels. I think that is the wave of the future and that’s the new mobility genie and it’s not going back in the bottle no matter how many people want to push it away.

At the same time you talk about how the private sector is spurring these changes and the cities have to plan for that. Do you think there needs to be a better understanding between cities and these companies, given the pugnacious relationship we've seen with Uber?

Yeah, I think it gets back to that notion of what’s the city that you want to be in, right? And what does that transportation network look like in five or ten years. I think also the rise of Uber and Lyft wasn’t some kind of historical quirk, right? They came of age during a resurgence of city centers and their popularity shows that there was a lot of demand that traditional taxis and transit operators weren’t meeting. And I think the future’s gonna be a lot less hand hailing and a lot more demand in your hand. But we don’t seem to be getting there without a lot of hand-wringing. And ride services raise as many questions as they answer and I think there are a lot of details that these companies and planners haven’t figured out, that the market hasn’t figured out. But you can’t shrug your shoulders and say, "Oh but it goes away," I think. Uber and Lyft and other TNCs [transportation network companies] have great benefits for cities and anything that can get people out of their cars and keep them from drinking and driving could be a force for good.

What was your take on the fight Bill de Blasio got in with Uber?

No comment.

Well I mean it’s not something you were unfamiliar with; Bloomberg had his share of fights with the taxi industry.

Maybe this was lost in translation, but no comment.

Your book is called Street Fight, and policy conflicts is obviously something you’ve thought a lot about. Do you think it’s likely we’ll see more of these types of policy fights?

Yeah, I mean, I think every city is facing the same challenges and the same fight and I think we have to find ways to get to "yes," and provide new choices and make our streets safer — full stop.

You wrote about Helsinki and the unique policies they were putting into place. Could you describe that and whether or not that would work here?

I think Helsinki is an incredible model. I mean, one way to build choice into a transit mix is to develop true mobility and service and not just automobiles and service. Otherwise we’re using cutting-edge, 21st-century technology to figure out 20th-century problems. So in Helsinki, the plan is to sell people this bundle transportation package, and I love that. It’s got transit and car and van service, carshare and bikeshare and all the rest. It’s not about the mode, and it’s certainly not about the car, but it’s just about whatever gets you from point A to point B. And that city is complementing the strategy with complete redesigns of their city, which basically negates the need for private cars altogether. Unfortunately that’s the exception and not the rule. Here, most of the companies have the end goal of getting you into a car for at least part of your journey, right? I mean, even Google Maps on the transit section part says "Or get an Uber" after showing you their options. So I think the other problem is that for the most part these apps are far from one-stop shops. They just link you to other apps or sites where you have to buy those fares on your own. True integration is missing.

How do you think people 20 years in the future are going to look back and remember the extreme battles that occurred over bike lanes and Citi Bike stations and everything that would take away parking?

I think probably like ancient history, if they will remember it at all. I think you’re seeing it even right now. People sort of forget what the old status quo used to be.