street view

‘We Don’t Look Ready’

Janette Sadik-Khan is worried about getting congestion pricing right.

Janette Sadik-Khan, not in a car.
Janette Sadik-Khan, not in a car. Photo: Dolly Faibyshev
Janette Sadik-Khan, not in a car.
Janette Sadik-Khan, not in a car. Photo: Dolly Faibyshev

This summer, workers began installing the cashless tolling structures that will automatically charge drivers to enter Manhattan below 60th Street. Congestion pricing, already two decades old in London, is finally arriving in New York. For Janette Sadik-Khan, who was transportation commissioner when Mayor Michael Bloomberg first proposed the system in 2007 and is now at Bloomberg Associates, the development brings both vindication and anxiety. The program could be transformative, she believes, but there’s a lot to do before the first fee gets rung up. I spoke to her about the opportunity for reinventing New York’s streets and the dangers of getting it wrong.

Sixteen years in, drivers are finally going to pay for access to midtown and lower Manhattan.
It’s exciting, but people don’t have a good idea what they’re getting, because they hear about the toll but not the benefits. And congestion pricing … Could you pick two more annoying words stuck together into one tiny phrase?

It sounds like you’re paying for a sinus infection, right? Still, you’ve said it’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity. To do what, exactly?
To reap a huge street dividend. Congestion pricing is projected to reduce traffic by 20 percent. That means one in five cars will disappear. So there’s an opening for the city to innovate and create separate lanes for e-bikes, scooters, and mopeds that don’t belong in regular bike lanes or mixed in with traffic.

In addition to regular bike lanes? That’s an idea I haven’t heard before. 
Yes! And New York could be leading the nation in how to do that.

Would those ideally be protected lanes? Bikers hate painted lanes and sharrows. Some experts say those make riding less safe than not having any lanes at all.
They should be physically separate, yes. You could build them alongside existing bike lanes, or on the opposite curb, so you allow for clear separation and channel e-bike traffic to discourage speeding. You’d be doubling a street’s carrying capacity.

E-bikes engender so much hostility and fear from pedestrians. Wouldn’t creating dedicated lanes bring more of them, and so more dangers?
Safety is at the heart of everything we do. The city has to create and enforce rules to govern faster e-vehicles. When I first saw those toll-collection gantries this summer my heart skipped a beat because I saw it’s finally here. But my heart sinks when you see that it’s still a daily street fight, with everyone going every which way. The rise of riding has moved faster than street design. We weren’t ready for e-bikes, and we don’t look ready for congestion pricing.

How do you balance more rules and more robust enforcement with the recognition that these are the vehicles of choice for low-income and new immigrant workers? 
When I was commissioner, we put the burden on restaurants to equip delivery people with safe bikes, lights, and reflective vests, and we held the businesses liable for violations. We did outreach to virtually every individual restaurant in every neighborhood. There was very high compliance — everywhere you looked you saw delivery workers wearing high-visibility vests and helmets, and complaints went down. It can be done.

So what happened after that? These days many delivery riders don’t even have lights on their bikes, so at night they’re practically invisible. Did those rules go away or are they just not being enforced? 
Well, the program’s still there, but the city could reinvigorate it. They need to make sure that delivery-app companies provide safe batteries and speed regulators, and that they don’t incentivize delivery people to bend rules.

Like riding the wrong way or on the sidewalk so they can hand a customer their Szechuan noodles three seconds sooner. I wonder, though, about creating all these rules that place new demands on enforcement. 
Ideally you use correct design so you don’t need a huge emphasis on enforcement. It’s not hard to calm the speed of e-bikes using rumble strips and channelizing dividers.

In theory, but our experience in the city has been that plenty of people undermine design, by blocking bike lanes, for instance. The reality is we all face the daily street fight you mentioned. How do you even get the NYPD onboard with tackling that? 
When we were developing a congestion-pricing plan back in the Bloomberg years, we had an administration-wide approach. We had weekly 7 a.m. meetings that then–Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff chaired, and we’d focus on tactics and coordination. That’s how we wound up getting so much support in the city, because it focused attention on what we were going to do and how. [The State Legislature killed congestion pricing in 2008, before resuscitating it 11 years later.] If we don’t have that, this will be a lost once-in-a-generation opportunity.

So the opportunity comes with a deadline? 
What’s key is being ready when the system goes live.

You know better than anyone how long these things can take. What if we blow that deadline? Will it be too late?
You don’t want to launch a program that’s all stick and no carrot. If congestion pricing does in fact remove 20 percent of the traffic and you just wind up with underused car lanes, it’s an invitation for motorists to fill them up again. It will harm the program’s credibility irreparably.

So you think that without a street overhaul, congestion pricing is just a temporary fix? Traffic goes down for a little while then bounces back up again? 
We’ve seen that happen again and again.

I’m sure you’ve heard the critique that rather than slice and dice the streets to keep different modes of transportation from interacting, we should design shared streets that encourage them to mix safely and at low speeds.
You have to bring a tailored approach. We have a big city and a street grid, so you can’t treat New York like Copenhagen. But we should build on the success of the Open Streets program on slower residential blocks. 

Build on it how? 
By thinking bigger and greener for people on foot, who make up the overwhelming majority of people on the street. We could create a pedestrian boulevard that stretches from the Port Authority to Grand Central Terminal and connects to a linear park going up Park Avenue all the way to 57th Street. We could even have dedicated walkways and cycle lanes on the viaduct around Grand Central.

That’s even more ambitious than pedestrianizing Times Square. 
These aren’t outrageous ideas — they’re common practice in other big cities. We could even pedestrianize lower Manhattan.

That’s a big one!
The city of London is virtually free of private cars today. During the Bloomberg administration, we did propose a pedestrianization of the Financial District, and that’s an idea whose time has come. You could prioritize pedestrians and invite cars in as guests, depending on time of day and delivery hours. The streets don’t have to be used the same way all the time.

One persuasive argument I’ve heard against making driving too difficult or expensive is that it discriminates against older people, or those with limited mobility. Is there a way around that?
Congestion pricing will make life easier for them. Part of the commission’s challenge is to craft a program that is equitable and reflects the needs of a variety of people. The MTA is considering discounts for drivers with disabilities, and they can also invest the money from the congestion charge in better, more accessible transit and Access-a-Ride services. Also, if you get cars out of the way, people who do have to drive will find it a lot easier to get to their doctor’s appointments.

Since the pandemic, bike lanes effectively go through the middle of restaurants, which have sidewalk seating on one side of the raceway and covered shed seating on the other side. 
It’s not ideal, but New Yorkers are so adaptive.

True, servers have perfected the deer crossing leap. But is there a better way to mitigate those conflicts? 
Outdoor dining is a great addition, and the city will continue to make adjustments, but you can’t have streets frozen in time. When we put in parking-protected bike lanes, people said drivers are going to be dooring bikers. When we created Citibike, they said there would be blood on the pavement. When we pedestrianized Times Square, there was going to be carmageddon. None of that happened.

We’ve been focused on the bike and pedestrian experience, but the money from the new tolls is supposed to go largely towards improving transit. You’re a great champion of buses … 
I could talk all day about buses! When London enacted congestion pricing, they already had a lot of new buses and lanes in place. Car traffic fell, but bus ridership increased by 30 percent. We need 14th Street–style transitways on corridors like 23rd, 34th, 42nd and 57th Streets, and on the avenues.

Those all fall within the congestion zone. But isn’t it arguably more urgent to provide faster and more frequent bus service to areas in the outer boroughs that aren’t well served by the subway?
Sure. A lot of possibilities start in Manhattan and then provide inspiration for changes in other boroughs.

When I think back to when you were transportation commissioner, I remember being optimistic that more bike lanes and more cyclists of different ages and experience levels would eventually change the culture of public space usage in New York City. I hoped that just getting around would become less competitive and confrontational. But the opposite has happened—some days it feels like just crossing the street is an extreme sport. Has the culture changed in the wrong way?

Photo: Dolly Faibyshev

In some ways, we’re in a more adverse position today than we were back when we first proposed congestion pricing. Car traffic is up and subway and bus riderships are down. We’re having the wrong recovery from the pandemic. In other ways, we’re better positioned, because we have hundreds of miles of bike lanes that weren’t there before. People take half a million bike trips every day, and the Select Bus Service carries 250,000 riders every day. So we have plenty to build on. But if congestion pricing isn’t accompanied by new amenities, it will betray the promise that was made. And if we’re not ready for it, we’ll be looking at a historic unforced error.

Even without congestion pricing, Paris is being held up as the model of the post-pandemic retooling of public space. What have they done well that we haven’t? 
It’s extraordinary to see what they’ve done there. Paris has become a city of cyclists. They’ve created a whole network of garden streets and school streets with swinging gates that close to traffic during pickup and drop-off. People, not cars, are now at the top of the pyramid.

It’s not just a few showcase projects here and there in the fancy zones? 
Not at all, it’s everywhere. And the city and the region are also investing in transit.

So it’s a good model for New York?
You know, they’re using the 2024 Olympics to achieve a better city — which is exactly what Mike Bloomberg and Dan Doctoroff did back before I joined the administration. But I think that’s a perfect assignment for you: Go spend some time in Paris and report back on whether they’re really achieving a greener, more pedestrian-friendly city.

I agree. It feels like it would take a three-week stay to answer that question, don’t you think?
At a minimum.

Janette Sadik-Khan on Getting Congestion Pricing Right