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When you change the street you change the world, Reflections on Urban Innovation & Design

Craig Zelizer

October 31, 2016

For the third day of the World Summit of Local and Regional Governments I attended a fascinating session Streetfight and Global Design featuring two leading urban design practitioners, Janette Sadik-Khan  (twitter @jsadikkhan) and Skye Duncan(twitter @skyejduncan). Mayor Enrique PenaLosa also gave provided introductory comments, given the two designers have both contributed to the urban transformation of Bogota and around the world.

Janette is the former Commissioner for Transportation in New York City, during the tenure of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. She currently is a Principal at Bloomberg Associates. Skye is the Director of the Global Designing Cities Initiative, at the National Association of City Transportation Officials. Her program is funded by the Bloomberg Philanthropies.

Both speakers have recently released amazing books on urban street design and talked about their lessons learned. In the introduction Mayor Penalosa who has worked closely with both authors how the books will have a significant impact on the further urban innovation in Bogota and making the city more liveable for all. He said that during her tenure as the commission she lead a transformation in making NY a much more pedestrian and bicycle friendly city, which was not an easy feat. This is the reason her book is called Street Fight, as it takes a lot of vision, building strong alliances and grit to foster systematic change.

The central question of both books as mayor Penalosa said is how can we distribute the most valuable spaces in cities and share or divide between pedestrians, public transport, and drivers. This not an  easy task but it is essential to build more liveable and human cities. Mayor Penalosa talked about many reasons for putting people at the center of design. One key fact is that each year over 600 pedestrians and bicyclists are unfortunately killed each year by cars.  This is a tragedy and something that human centered design can radically change. He also emphasized a refrain I've been fortunate to hear several times from the mayor this week, that a bus which can transport 100 people or more, compared to a car transporting a single driver should have 100 times more space. That all citizens of a society should have the right to public spaces and equitable, secure and efficient means of transporation.

Many people may not think about the design of streets within cities. But the speakers emphasized that the cities of today are often operating on an outdated car centric model that is no longer relevant for building 21st people centered and sustainable cities. The cost of car centered cities is staggering with1.2 million pedestrians/cyclists killed every in accidents around the world. Think about that number again. That means every thirty seconds one person is killed by car.IMG_4747 Janette emphasized that this is a tragedy that has become accepted as a fact of life by policymakers and citizens. However the movement for human centered, sustainable and multi-model transport can and is radically improving safety and quality of life.

How many of us experience frustration as citizens of cities when trying to cross roads that don't have usable intersections, or as bicyclists when there is no safe route on a road, or challenges in getting around via transport systems. Or it may seem normal that so much urban space is given over to parking lot, and cars having priority. The clear story for this panel is that there is a much better way of developing or rebuilding cities that is taking place around the world, and having amazing impacts, is smart policy, leading to improved quality of life, more efficient mobility, and strong economic and environmental impacts.

The speakers were careful to say adopting a more human centered approach doesn't mean that they are anti-car, but that cities need to develop integrated transport systems that provide a modality of transport options to first support people, to have safe systems, to foster creative participation and ownership of public spaces for all citizens.

Apart from the many amazing examples the speakers offered from their own experience and from cities around the world, there are few key points/lessons I would like to highlight.

1) Innovation is happening everywhere - There is a global movement to transform infrastructure in societies and foster improved mobility for all. When Janette started in the NYC government one of the first trips she made was to Bogota to learn from the experience the city had creating the Transmilenio high speed bus system (one of the world's largest urban transport systems) and the ciclovia (bike routes) of over 400 km that the city had built. This combined with many other innovative approaches has led to radical improvements in life in the city (of course many, many challenges remain and traffic is a constant complaint of almost all in Bogota. As his second term is beginning he is seeking to expand the transmilenio system, add 200 km of bike paths, start a cable car system and other improvements). As Mayor Penalosa commented when during his first term he started to talk about creating a bikeable city many people thought he and his team were crazy. But today there are over 600,000 bike trips a day in the city, which is 6% of all traffic in the city (they hope to increase this to 10% within a few years). Janette used the lessons of Bogota (and other cities) to undertake similar efforts in NY.

2) Citizens can and are reclaiming urban spaces - Janette commented we don't have to stay stuck in a car centered design. Streets are how get from place to place but they are destinations in themselves. As she said,  "For too long we have looked at our streets and designed them just for the car. We've forgotten all the ways they can be used. There are all sorts of signs on our streets of how people have fallen through the cracks. When we look at streets, it looks like people have almost given up the fight. We've forgotten that our streets can be used for anything else. That the only limitation we have is our imagination about how we can vision, reclaim and design our streets. The old model put cars at the center." The new model puts people first and restores the role of the street as the lifeblood of our communities. IMG_4751

3)  Follow the People and build Alliances - Both speakers stressed the importance of putting people first and designing systems, urban parks and plazas, bike lanes, etc. based on how people use spaces. In NY they also had communities apply for support to implement projects (based on the local context) from the city.IMG_4754 Thus watching how people might be using existing spaces, building ties with communities is key and not just developing plans sitting in an office. Almost all good design involves intensive interaction with communities and the users of system.  Skye talked about 10 key principles of good design as outlined in the photo.


4) Experiment and be Data Driven - Janette discussed her experience in NY doing experimentation and pilots. There are a few key reasons for doing this. First many powerful interests may be opposed to this type of urban innovation (and many drivers as well as they may see this as a threat to getting around). However, starting off with pilots and building a track record of impact can help a lot. Moreover, for some of their lager projects, such as transforming Times Square from a mess of traffic and chaos into a true urban center, they started off with pilot steps such as painting street to deliniate  spaces, using cones and making clear if it didn't work they could stop and go to the way things were. Eventually things went so well they implement a radical transformation of Time Square that lead to many positive outcomes including:

  • 80% fewer people walking in the road
  • Pedestrian injuries down 35%
  • Motorist injuries down 63%
  • Travel times improved up to 17% 

There were also huge economic benefits such as six new flagship stores opened, 100,000 additional visitors per day, not to mention the incredible quality of life as New Yorkers and visitors could come out one of their key urban spaces and sit, have coffee, enjoy the vibe of the city and more.

5) Leadership is key - To advance human centered projects often takes political leadership. Janette talked about when she approached Mayor Bloomberg with the idea of redoing Times Square, many of his advisors were opposed as it was close to an election and they were concerned with the potential negative political opposition. But Bloomberg said I don't ask my advisors to do the right thing according to the political calender, but do to the right think regardless.

6) Got Involved and do Something - Mayor Penalosa, Janette and Skye are part of a global movement to make cities more liveable and just for all citizens. They urged people to get involve by using their materials, working as a citizen or local government official to advocate for start design, to gather data and become part of this growing effort. Often it doesn't take large resources to start, sometimes a beginning can be made by painting streets, using chalk, cones or other simple approaches to rearrange how mobility happens.


What type of urban innovation are you seeing in your cities? What are your greatest frustrations? 

IMG_4762 IMG_4764


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