New York City transit expert says Charlotte should drop its focus on cars

Pedestrians react as a motorist fails to yield, nearly striking the pair as they cross Stonewall Street at South Tryon Street in a 2012 file photo.
Pedestrians react as a motorist fails to yield, nearly striking the pair as they cross Stonewall Street at South Tryon Street in a 2012 file photo. THE CHARLOTTE OBSERVER

With the passion of a politician rallying supporters and the zeal of a preacher riling up the faithful, Janette Sadik-Khan told a crowd of hundreds in uptown Charlotte a simple message: It’s time to stop designing streets mostly for cars.

Sadik-Khan served as New York City’s transportation commissioner from 2007 to 2013, overseeing a major push to reduce traffic deaths and make the city friendlier for pedestrians and bicyclists. On her watch, the city closed Times Square to cars, built dozens of pedestrian plazas, put in protected bike lanes and started a bike-sharing program.

“It is a fight we can win,” said Sadik-Khan, speaking in McGlohon Theater. “It is a fight we must win, because when you change the street you change the world.”

While Charlotte is a car-dependent city, the talk and two-day visit by Sadik-Khan was the latest evidence that something is brewing:

▪ The city is considering its first ever protected bike lanes (where physical barriers separate cars and bikes), which would run through uptown.

▪ Advocates are gaining traction with a push to reduce traffic lanes on Central Avenue and The Plaza to slow traffic and make the area safer for pedestrians.

▪ And the Charlotte Area Transit System is preparing to open the Blue Line light rail extension to University City next year and mulling a rapid push to build up to $6 billion worth of new rail lines.

With traffic increasing and Charlotte’s population projected to grow for decades, fights over transportation are likely to continue and get even nastier (Exhibit A: The brawl over I-77 toll lanes). And Sadik-Khan pointed to another factor: The rising toll of pedestrian deaths, which spiked nationwide in 2016. Almost 6,000 pedestrians died nationwide in 2016, the most in more than two decades. In Charlotte, 20 pedestrians died. That’s nearly double the annual average from 2011 to 2015, according to city statistics that show 65 pedestrians were killed in that time.

“Our streets in many cities are sick,” Sadik-Khan told the Observer in an interview after her talk. “We built our cities around the car. We’re getting diminishing returns on that investment.”

Sadik-Khan is well-known in transportation circles, and she was introduced as both a “rock star” and a “goddess.” The event was part of a speaker series sponsored by Charlotte Center City Partners, the city of Charlotte and the Knight Foundation.

Here are four suggestions from Sadik-Khan on how to change Charlotte’s streets:

1. Move fast

One criticism an audience member brought up at Sadik-Khan’s presentation: Charlotte can move slowly with changes. With the protected bicycle lanes uptown, for example, stakeholder meetings began last summer, design work could start in late spring this year if approved by City Council and construction would take place when funding becomes available – whenever that is.

“Instead of just endlessly debating theoretical ideas and engineering drawings, try something and see what works,” said Sadik-Khan. If projects drag on for too long, “people sort of lose hope that anything can actually change in your lifetime,” she added.

In New York, she said, her department moved fast with new ideas. The first pedestrian plaza they created in Brooklyn, redoing a triangular patch of asphalt with new seating, umbrellas, planters and bright new paint, was done in a weekend. They put their first parking-protected bicycle lanes (where on-street parking is moved into a traffic lane, to create a protected zone for bikes) within months of seeing the idea in Europe.

One way to get people comfortable with new concepts like protected bicycle lanes, Sadik-Khan said, is to try them out as pilot programs and emphasize that they’ll go away if they don’t work or snarl traffic. That’s what she did when first closing Times Square to cars.

“You can try ideas out and see if they work,” said Sadik-Khan. “It really dramatically reduced anxiety.”

2. Be ready for backlash

The title of Sadik-Khan’s recently published book is “Streetfight.” Her changes in New York City were met with criticism in the press and even protesters holding signs demanding parking spaces be restored and bike lanes removed.

“When you change the status quo, the status quo pushes back,” said Sadik-Khan. “People tend to erupt.”

One particular point of consternation: Any plan that removes parking spaces. That would be one likely consequence of the city building a protected bicycle lane on Sixth Street. Sadik-Khan’s advice is to be ready and enlist the help of pro-transit, pro-bicycle and pro-pedestrian advocates.

“I think backlash is a sign that you’re doing something right,” she said. And much of the backlash dies down once something like a new bike lane is in place. “People calm down when they actually see it in fact.”

3. Start small, with existing materials

Sadik-Khan emphasized that unlike transit projects with billion-dollar budgets that require huge new right-of-ways, many streets can be modified with paint, lane striping and the common materials transportation departments have already.

“You can accomplish a lot just by using what you have on hand,” said Sadik-Khan. “It’s not rocket science.”

She pointed to Times Square, which New York blocked off with simple traffic barrels and initially filled with lounge chairs from a nearby hardware store.

“If you see something that you think might work on your street, try it out,” said Sadik-Khan.

4. See the possibilities in the asphalt

One factor in Charlotte that some might see as a disadvantage is actually an advantage: The city’s car-oriented framework, with wide streets designed to carry cars at relatively high speeds. That leaves plenty of “extra asphalt” that can be repurposed into things like bike lanes, wider sidewalks, new seating areas with benches and mini-parks or express bus lanes.

“If you take a new look at your streets, you can see the possibilities that are almost just trapped between the lanes,” said Sadik-Khan. “You guys have so much room to play with. It’s mouthwatering.”

And above all, she encouraged experimentation.

“I think you need to just get out and do it,” she said. “You have the bones.”

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo