Getting It Done in NYC

If you're reading this, you might already be aware that Translink just brought Janette Sadik-Khan to Vancouver for a bit of an information exchange and a few public discussions. The current NYC Transportation Commissioner, she has overseen some amazing traffic-calming, pedestrian- and bike-friendly infrastructure changes made in that city. The pace at which ideas become places there is phenomenal.

Stephen Rees has written up a thorough summary of her presentation, part of the SFU City Program, given at Canada Place the other night, so check out his posting for more detail than I'll provide here.

The major points I took from her presentation were:

(1) You can move from idea to implementation very quickly - it is truly possible to do so;
(2) It's not just about the environment: I was impressed with how refreshingly rarely she used the 's' word. Instead of talking about nebulous planetary goals, she seems to be more genuinely focused on pedestrian and cyclist safety (reducing injuries and deaths), easing congestion, and building a city you can 'feel good' in. The end goals go hand in hand, but people better understand the immediately tangible impacts of these changes rather than the more 'removed' global environmental goals so often reached for. I got the feeling she's using the current cultural climate as a means to achieve her own goals, which definitely coincide with fighting climate change. She's not doing so in a cynical manner - she does believe that dense urban living is the best way to face the future, and said as much.
(3) Transit can be financed well if it is seen as an integral part of land use strategy, and used as a tool for economic development.

This was the most heavily attended of the SFU city lectures I've seen so far (the 800-ish capacity room was packed, and they turned a lot of people away), perhaps because the Resilient Cities conference, going on this week at the same location, likely dumped a lot of people in the room. As an aside, that looks like an interesting conference.. it would be great to not have daytime employment but still have $400 to register with!

Anyways, JSK quickly and skillfully moved through some good material - and a bit of a good discussion ensued at the end of it. Some of what I thought were the most interesting points, and perhaps the most useful for us in the GVRD:

- 3 acres of pedestrian-oriented public space has been carved out of Manhattan, mostly within the 'squares' areas.
- They've built out more than 200 miles of bike lanes (separated and not) in the last few years. Image of a well-designed separated lane here.. it is a lot like many bicycle lanes in Montreal.
- Bicycle ridership has doubled since 2003, they plan to double it again by 2020 and again by 2030.
- Found that a perception of safety and the lack of indoor bicycle parking were two major barriers to increasing the number of cyclists
- To get changes implemented quickly, they put together a 'rapid implementation team', whose focus was to get projects rolled out as soon as possible.
- This often meant simplifying projects, and not choosing intense-construction kinds of designs. They've mostly used paint, potted plants, and signage to create the public spaces. Low budget, high impact.
- Rolled out a rapid bus system, with 98% current ridership satisfaction. Rapid bus systems can be deployed much quicker than rail.

In addition to that nitty-gritty, I really liked the lengths the DOT has gone to show that "better streets mean better business", meaning the new pedestrian-friendly areas have been a huge boom to local business.

I am sure Translink has spent several hours discussing options for funding transit with her - in NYC they use a very interesting form of finding revenue to finance projects: they sell bonds financed by capturing some of the increased property taxes taken when transit and public space initiatives increase the property values of the places around them. The Translink board must be all ears when it comes to this, as they are definitely looking at moving to a development-based revenue model. As I believe they should.

It was also interesting to hear how she believed we, in the GVRD, are 'ahead of the game' in some respects. Having a unified, regional transportation body (with a single-ticket system she referred to as the 'golden ticket') is important, and something they would love to have in the New York area. She has found inspiration in Portland in particular, as she said "the regional growth strategy there has teeth" - something the GVRD should probably be looking at.

>> photo by Sean_Marshall