‘You can’t accommodate Delhi’s growth with cars’:  Former NYC transport commissioner

Janette Sadik-Khan served as New York City’s transportation commissioner from 2007 to 2013 under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. In these six years, she was responsible for removing cars from Times Square, building 400 miles of bike lanes and expanding the bus rapid transit (BRT) system.“Cities around the world are changing their mobility playbooks,” she says, adding there is no reason why Delhi can’t do the same. Excerpts from an interview:

When New York City decided to ban cars from Times Square, there was widespread scepticism. How did you overcome this hurdle?

Times Square was a problem, which was hidden in plain sight for 50 years. Generations of traffic engineers tried to fix it but it didn’t work because it was a bunch of traditional engineers trying to find traditional solutions.

So we pulled out all our tools from the toolbox. And we did it in stages. We told people we were doing it on a temporary basis and if it didn’t work, we would put it (the cars) back.

We were playing with big players – key industry, theatres and hotels. Everyone predicted that it was going to be a disaster and I would get kicked out of office. The surprise is that it worked. The traffic moved better because we organised the network. It was safe because we gave the place back to pedestrians. It gave a big boost to local businesses. It showed the potential of the streets.

By any measure — safety, mobility, business development and pollution – it was a total home run. When we made it (the results) public, Mayor Bloomberg decided we would make the plan permanent. You don’t need decades of planning or design. You can change your streets in real-time.

Can Delhi replicate the Times Square experiment?

I was in Connaught Place (recently) and was drooling at its potential. If you have a car-crossed street that is dangerous to walk, filled with noise and pollution, nobody would want to be there. But if you create an inviting place, people will come. That is certainly the story of NYC.

Connaught Place is the perfect example where if you can get cars out, it would be a huge, incredible space.

Cities around the world are changing their playbook. Los Angeles – the most car-centric city in the United States – is building miles of mass transit. You have got almost 330 km of Metro. Now you need the same kind of investment for streets. Design it for better mobility, which makes it faster for the bus. Bike lanes, bus lanes and pedestrian zones are not just good things to have. These are economic development strategies. People don’t want to own cars. They can use the same money for education, healthcare, childcare or making the down payment on a house.

Delhi’s efforts to pedestrianise Connaught Place failed because of resistance from traders. How did you convince the local community to come on board?

It is very important to tell people the ‘why’ behind what you are doing. People don’t think of possibilities not because they are not smart. It is because it is never really presented to them. There is nothing more powerful than the proof of the possible.

When we were pedestrianising Union Square, the big restaurants were against it. They said all our people drive. But we were able to show through surveys we did with engaging students that 86% of people came there on foot or by transit. Showing the proof of the possible and measuring it is the key.

What can Delhi do to improve mobility?

I think that having some goals of what you are trying to accomplish is really important — whether they are economic development goals, whether they are climate goals, whether they are safety goals.

You are growing fast and you can’t accommodate that growth with cars. In Connaught Place, for instance, you have beautiful buildings, an incredible history and a great real estate. If you make it easy for people to get in and out, they would want to go there more. You need to look at your streets differently.

Delhi did not accept the concept of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) but New York City’s own version — the Select Bus Service — has been fairly successful. How did you make it work?

I am told that Delhi’s BRT had design and station issues and you had to rip it out. In NYC, we planned it in areas of the city that were underserved by the mass transit. It was not a full-blown, five gold-star BRT. But we showed that it was possible, with small changes, to make our bus network better.

We took fare collection machines from the mass transit to the streets…Almost 25% of the delay (in bus service) is because people search their bags for money to pay the fare. Just a small intervention improved the travel time.

It wasn’t a high-end BRT with low-floor buses and fancy bus stations. But now, we are upgrading it. When people see a bus go by and they are stuck in traffic (in their cars), it makes for a really compelling proof of concept.

While you are doing great work on Metro, it would be exciting to see a BRT in Delhi. You can look at roads as rails for your buses. You can have high-quality surface metro, just with some simple interventions.

First Published: Dec 04, 2018 11:58 IST

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