Book Review – Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution

Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution
By Janette Sadik-Khan and Seth Solomonow
New York: Penguin Random House, 2016
On sale March 8th, $28.00

If you haven’t heard of former New York City Department of Transportation (NYCDOT) Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, then you may know some of her projects: the protected bike lanes in Manhattan, the Citibike bikeshare program launched in 2013, or the redesign of Times Square in 2009. Three years after her tenure, she and co-author Seth Solomonow (her former press director) have released a new book, Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution. This continues the pace set forth by former transportation officials Sam Schwartz and Gabe Klein, who both published books last year.

The book draws from her experience as Commissioner from 2007 to 2013 under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, weaving together New York City transportation history, street design, her past work with the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), and her current work at the consultancy Bloomberg Associates. It also continues her mission: changings streets changes cities. The book’s preface states this belief clearly: “As our cities grow, leaders and the people they serve cannot accept dysfunctional streets; they must fight to change them.” Sadik-Khan also encourages this paradigm shift for the reader, claiming that the “book deconstructs, reassembles, and reinvents the street,” inviting the reader “to review something you experience every day in ways that might never have imagined.”

While the book’s subtitle would suggest its intention as a guide for budding urban visionaries, it is far more compelling as a behind-the-scenes look at some of her most prominent – and controversial — projects.

(Ed. Note: this book review’s author lived in New York City from 2007 to 2013.)

Originally an aspiring social justice lawyer, Sadik-Khan found a greater interest in politics. She began working under former Mayor David Dinkins: first in NYCDOT as special counsel for state and federal affairs, and then as director of the mayor’s Office of Transportation. Afterwards, she worked in the Federal Transit Administration and then moved to Parsons Brinckerhoff before becoming Commissioner.

Besides her most prominent projects, she also touches upon other ventures that she was a part of, such as the revamping of traffic signaling in Midtown; the Park Smart program for dynamic parking pricing; and a freight trucking pilot program. However, the book shines when Sadik-Khan talks about her most controversial endeavors: the Prospect Park West (PPW) bike lanes in Brooklyn, Citibike (and for that matter, bikes in general), and the Times Square redesign. Any lessons to be gleaned take a backseat to the unfolding drama that began behind the scenes at DOT and spilled onto the streets. The fierce community opposition, political adversaries, and passionate supporters make for a convincing case that none of the projects were easy.

She continues to stand firmly by her position, reinforced by intense language in the book. Just as she piles on the praise for her allies, she directs critical words at her adversaries. Regarding the PPW bike lanes dispute, she addresses the opposing community groups’ alternate proposal by calling it a “capitulation, not compromise.” When addressing the controversy in the media, she states that the “newspapers and local blogs ginned up the drama with claims and counterclaims by local residents,” while applauding Streetsblog and Streetsfilm for providing “the most illuminating coverage during the period.”

The book delves into her most notable projects in the realm of pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, but other transportation issues feel like an afterthought. After an energetic pacing that began with pedestrian plazas and continued full force through the chapters about Times Square, bike lanes, Citibike, and traffic safety, the intensity lulls once she talks about data collection (under the famously data-oriented Bloomberg). The book ambles through a chapter that cobbles together roads, parking, and freight before concluding with the final chapter.

In defense of this cobbled penultimate chapter, it could be argued that bike and pedestrian planning have arguably been maligned with the ascent of the personal automobile. Sadik-Khan immediately mentions this issue of planning history into her first chapter, diving into the classic urban planning duel between Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs in the 1960s. In her eyes, Moses was “a public works tyrant who answered to no authority but his own as he force engineered a car-based future onto New York.” Meanwhile, Jacobs “gave voice to the alternative” and “envisioned a future built to a human scale instead of one designed to move as many cars as possible.” However, the substantial difference between a traditionally designed road and a complete street begs for an equally different approach towards other concerns like freight logistics. In this respect, the book leaves much to be desired.

(Ed. Note: Speaking of Robert Moses, the author of the seminal book on Moses, Robert Caro, gave a fascinating interview to the Gothamist blog last week reflecting on Moses’ legacy and the power that urban planners can acquire and use.)

The book’s text is very accessible, but the reader’s enrichment does depend on her familiarity with the city’s streets. For a former New Yorker, the book can feel nostalgic and provides new eyes on old stomping grounds. In one chapter, Sadik-Khan lists well-known neighborhood thoroughfares: “Fordham Road in the Bronx, Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn, Victory Boulevard on Staten Island, Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, or the warren of narrow streets in Manhattan’s Chinatown and Little Italy.” For those less familiar, these streets may feel like a distant acquaintance: aware of their existence, but lacking the emotional impact.

For any urban planner, transportation professional, or other person intensely interested in transportation, nothing in the book will be of surprise. Her fans will certainly soak it up; likewise, the book could continue alienating her adversaries. For an urban resident outside of transportation, her dissection of the urban street through NACTO diagrams and highly compelling behind-the-scenes stories could be a persuasive read. Although Sadik-Khan intends for the reader to reimagine streets, the book has a strongly urban focus, with little or no appeal beyond that audience. Reaching beyond the urban realm may not have been her intention, but it also may not tap into potential readers beyond those residing in cities with abbreviations like NYC, SF, LA, or PDX.

With that said, it should not diminish her accomplishments. Regardless of whether or not one agrees with Sadik-Khan’s opinions, there is no denying she has accomplished a great deal and the book fully fleshes out those merits.

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