«The future is bikes, not flying cars»

Janette Sadik-Khan pedestrianized the iconic Times Square. It decongested the “center of the world.” As mobility commissioner in New York, she created 650 kilometers of bike lanes, implemented the largest bike-sharing system in the country, and converted 60 plazas into seating spaces. It was not easy: along the way she faced harsh criticism and even legal reactions. Experiences like that are part of Fighting for the streetsa book co-written with journalist Seth Solomonow that Capitán Swing has just published in Spain.

As Commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation from 2007 to 2013, and under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, she launched a series of profound transformations that changed the heartbeat of the city: she promoted the Citi Bike public bicycle rental system – today an essential pillar of the city’s mobility – a total of 72 hectares

of New York’s roads were cleared for bicycles and pedestrians, and during his years in office, the number of cyclists in the city doubled. Today he advises mayors from all over the

world in urban redesign to help improve the quality of life of citizens.

They say that “Madrid is not made for bikes.”

When I became New York’s transportation commissioner in 2007, they said our streets were too dangerous. «New York is not Amsterdam! “Nobody wants to ride a bike.” But there is no ‘bad city’ for cycling, but rather bad infrastructure. With protected lanes, secure bike parking, key connections between busy neighborhoods, and a large-scale bike-sharing program, New York now sees 610,000 bike trips a day. That’s more people than driving on our busiest roads. Today, when I travel to other cities, they tell me: “We are not New York.” So it’s not enough to become a great cycling city, you have to build it. This brings enormous benefits. Our streets have never been safer, with the lowest number of traffic deaths and injuries in a century. This is the direct result of investments made over years to make bicycles a comfortable, obvious and popular choice. After all the controversies, reactions and lawsuits, a New York Times poll at the end of the Bloomberg Administration revealed 73% support for bike sharing, 72% for plazas and 66% for lanes bike. If bikes had been on the ballot, they would have been elected mayor.

When you visit Spain, what strikes you about our transportation or urban architecture?

Last year I visited Barcelona and Madrid. Barcelona has made a good start in making it possible to travel from neighbourhood to neighbourhood on foot and by bike; it is a model that other Spanish cities should look to. Madrid still has a lot of work ahead of it to create a connected network of cycle lanes. Bicycle symbols painted on the road for cars are not enough.

And why are there cyclists who prefer to ride on the road?

There is no one answer to bike lane design, but segregated lanes are the gold standard in many cities. The thing is that cycling and safety never depend on the quality of a single bike lane. They need to connect to others; they need to get people to their destination. They need to be safe and easy to navigate for someone 8 or 80 years old. In my city, there were Mad Max riders who didn’t like protected bike lanes because they preferred the chaos of old New York. But they don’t just bring order to the street – they can attract new people who would never have considered cycling because it was too intimidating… We were told we were “too New York” when we built our first protected bike lanes; that they weren’t for everyone. Today, there are 3,000 km of bike lanes; more than 1,000 are protected lanes, and it’s one of the most convenient ways to get around the city.

What about people who say that the bike lane takes away parking spaces for cars?

Every year, 1.2 million people around the world die from traffic and hundreds of cities are suffocating. The problem is not that there is not enough parking. Freedom is not having a parking space and a car, but being able to move freely around your city without one. Redesigning streets is a matter of justice. In most cities, the number of people who travel by public transport, on foot or by bicycle far exceeds those who drive, and yet street space is almost entirely dominated by cars. But it is not just a question of proportional representation: streets that are easier to reach without a car are safer and better for business. Moreover, freedom is not having a parking space, and freedom is not having a car, but being able to move around without one.

How do you convince financial groups to support projects that are contrary to their interests?

It’s common for businesses to overestimate the percentage of shoppers and income from customers who drive. Studies have shown that people who walk or bike visit stores more often and spend more in the long run. Our key strategy wasn’t to convince skeptics to launch a project. We launched the project to convince skeptics. Starting with a pilot, we were able to collect data. We showed that streets with bike lanes, bus lanes, and pedestrian space generate more retail sales. On the street where we implemented the first protected bike lane in North America, sales increased by 49%. By the time we left office, many of our loudest opponents in the business community had become our biggest supporters.

A Glovo rider died in April, in Madrid. What do you propose regarding the increase in this home delivery model?

Delivery cyclists require special attention: New York City recently created a department dedicated just to that. When I was a commissioner, we worked with restaurants to make sure their bikes were in good shape. Cities must collaborate with delivery apps to ensure that their workers travel safely and that all road users are safe. Some cities are considering even wider protected lanes to account for the increase in e-bike deliveries. We will soon reach the time when electric bikes need dedicated lanes on urban streets.

What will the future hold for us in about 25 years, by 2050?

The future will not be the space age, with flying cars or remote-controlled taxis. In the last decade, the real revolution in transport has not been electric cars, but streets reclaimed for people in cities like Paris, Milan, London, Bogota and New York. I look forward to a future where you don’t need to get into a car to do everyday activities, where streets are attractive, safe, walkable and bikeable; where public transport is not trapped in car traffic. I have seen the future of transport, and it’s on an electric bike!