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Janette Sadik-Khan replays her ‘Streetfights’ to a sold-out crowd

Posted by on March 24th, 2016 at 9:15 am


Sadik-Khan during her talk last night.
(Photos: J. Maus/BikePortland)

Janette Sadik-Khan brought her Streetfight book tour to Portland last night and provided her throngs of fans with a dose of transportation inspiration. The venue (McMenamin’s Mission Theater) was packed. Organizers from Metro said there was a line around the corner before they even opened the doors and when I rolled up the bike racks were at full capacity.

Sadik-Khan’s popularity isn’t surprising. She’s a rare figure in the transportation world with an equal mix of wonky credentials, street cred, political know-how, an unprecedented track record of successful projects, and the ability to market both her work and herself. “JSK” as she known to her fans, has managed to enthrall an amazing range of transportation reformers — from street-level activists to city hall power brokers.


City of Portland transportation staffer Timo Forsberg
has been an unabashed JSK fanboy for many years. He brought his son
and wife Esther Harlow to the event last night.

It’s a bit of a role reversal for Portland to seek inspiration on urban transportation planning from someone — and somewhere — else; but in the past few years it’s become inarguable that we’re no longer leaders. Even Metro Councilor Bob Stacey, who introduced Sadik-Khan last night, admitted it: “It’s not secret,” he said, “We may have lost our edge. So we need to learn everything we can about our peers.”

“Janette Sadik-Khan,” Stacey continued, “Has created a new standard for getting stuff done.”

“Every day was a fight to reclaim every inch of public space. We were fighting to change the culture of New York. To set New York in a new direction.”
— Janette Sadik-Khan

She has also created a new standard for DOT commissioners. Sadik-Khan is the biggest celebrity to come from that position since Robert Moses. And just like Moses was known for building highways, Sadik-Khan is known for building protected bikeways, public plazas, and express bus lanes. The title of her new book, “Streetfight,” isn’t just a title, it’s literally the way she did business as the director of the New York City Department of Transportation from 2007 to 2013.

“Every day was a fight to reclaim every inch of public space,” she said to the rapt crowd last night. “We were fighting to change the culture of New York. To set New York in a new direction.”

And Sadik-Khan won that fight. During her tenure the New York City Department of Transportation reclaimed 65,000 square feet of new public space.

Her key theme on Wednesday night was to just do it. She retold the story of how they first created the plaza in Times Square by setting up traffic cones and beach chairs that were bought on a whim at a local hardware store. “Once you adapt public space, people adopt it,” she said.

Then once you reclaim the space, be sure to measure the impact. Data was a major part of her success. In New York City, Sadik-Khan said, “We moved from streets governed by anecdote, to streets governed by analysis.”

Most of Sadik-Khan’s projects happened with just paint on the street to reclaim space. “We did it in a week,” she said of her first transformation — a plaza in DUMBO under the Brooklyn Bridge. (A plaza I saw myself in 2012, see below)

Sadik-Khan shared several other lessons last night — most of them distilled down to catchy phrases and soundbites (she does have both law and political science degrees after all). “Paint the city you want to see,” was one of them. “When you push the status quo, it pushes back hard,” was another.


During one part of her talk while she showed slides of protected bike lanes, Sadik-Khan exclaimed, “You’re seeing these all over the country!” To which someone in the crowd yelled, “Except Portland!” “Well, I think that’s why I’m here!” Sadik-Khan replied, without missing a beat.

Keeping to the title of her book, Sadik-Khan’s most impassioned moment came at the end of her presentation. Speaking about the need for bold projects and leaders who will enact them, she said, “You need to fight for them! You need to vote for them! You need to demand that more of them get built! It’s a fight, it’s a streetfight. It’s a fight we can win, a fight we must win. Because if we can change the street we can change the world.”

Below are some of the Tweets we shared live during the event:

Today Sadik-Khan will take a tour of the Portland waterfront and Tilikum Bridge with U.S. Congressman Earl Blumenauer and local transportation reform advocates. Then tonight she and Blumenauer will appear together for an event at Powell’s.

— Jonathan Maus, (503) 706-8804 –

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NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

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    Allan Rudwick March 24, 2016 at 10:03 am

    a) New Yorkers are desperate for public space
    b) Having political courage behind you, you can accomplish great things.
    c) Data-driven government FTW
    d) sad michael isn’t running for president
    e) don’t have to make everyone happy

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      wsbob March 24, 2016 at 12:00 pm

      “…a) New Yorkers are desperate for public space …” rudwick

      Probably true, and NYC streets and sidewalks being far more busy and congested than those of Portland, likely were part of the catalyst that allowed Sadik-Kahn to be a major force in helping to start turning around the functionality of the city’s streets for people foot and on bikes. Doubtful she could have done it if the mayor, and many people from the neighborhoods weren’t favorably disposed to the ideas she proposed.

      Still, she’s got good energy and great ideas. The idea that some changes thought of, can be implemented very quickly using temporary materials for an experimental introduction, rather than taking months and who knows how long…even years…is one of those ideas, it seems. Change, though it may hold the potential for great improvement, can be very difficult for some people when they’ve done the same thing for so long, even if that thing is bad.

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      Pete March 24, 2016 at 4:21 pm

      “sad Michael isn’t running for president”

      Ditto, assuming you mean MB, but unfortunately if he ran as independent we’d be throwing away our votes, which is akin to voting for a front-runner.

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    Bob March 24, 2016 at 10:20 am

    ““Once you adapt public space, people adopt it,” she said.”

    Waterfront Park, Pioneer Square, the transit mall…all proof that this is correct.

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      Nick Falbo March 24, 2016 at 11:16 am

      Eugene’s pedestrian mall, the little ‘plaza’ at 92nd & Foster, O’bryant Square, Those 70’s era office building ‘public spaces’ show that it’s not that simple.

      Plazas and carfree spaces need to go in the right place.

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        Eugene Mauled March 25, 2016 at 12:41 pm

        Eugene’s pedestrian mall wasn’t a failure. Downtown Eugene was failing BEFORE the pedestrian mall, when the city allowed a massive mall on farmland across the river and built a huge freeway to serve it.

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        wsbob March 25, 2016 at 12:43 pm

        My feeling is that part of Sadik-Kahn’s inspired realization is that the potential of some places in the city can readily be recognized as likely great spaces, and places that can function more effectively when support for walking and biking is provided; recognition followed up by rapid transformation.

        Realizing to completion, those public space projects you list, took years to plan, and cost tons of money. And some of them, like O’Bryant Sq, didn’t work out…at all. That block’s potential is one that may have been far more effectively realized, it its considered use as a public park, had been a low cost, experimental installation allowing for temporary existence, rather than the long term blight it succumbed to.

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      paikiala March 24, 2016 at 4:16 pm

      evidence is not proof.

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      • Adam H.
        Adam H. March 24, 2016 at 4:22 pm

        You can’t actually prove anything. You can only get as close as showing overwhelmingly strong evidence (or lack of evidence) for something.

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    David March 24, 2016 at 10:21 am

    Michael/Jonathan — was it Michael who asked the question about the economic impact data from 9th Ave being possibly inaccurate? (I was in the back of the balcony so I couldn’t really see that well, apologies if it was somebody else.)

    It seemed that there was some backstory to the question that I was missing, but I’m curious to know what the root of that question was, or if there was some context you could give here?

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      maccoinnich March 24, 2016 at 10:47 am

      I’m curious about this too.

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      Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) March 24, 2016 at 12:34 pm

      Yep that was Michael. He was referring to the data JSK and NYC DOT used in their economic impact report that came out in October 2012. That report showed very favorable before/after numbers for retail/real estate values for businesses adjacent to new protected bike lanes and plazas.

      I covered the report the day it came out. Below is the excerpt from the story:

      Putting a real-world exclamation point on Cortright’s analysis was Eric Lee, President of the management consulting company Bennett Midland and former policy advisory for New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Lee’s firm helped NYCDOT analyze how their recent transportation projects that have reclaimed traffic lanes for public plazas and dedicated space for bike and transit lanes, have impacted retail sales of adjacent businesses.

      Using sales tax data, the analysis (contained in Measuring the Street: New Metrics for 21st Century Streets (PDF)) showed major retail sales increases adjacent to these street improvement projects.

      Retail sales went up 49% at businesses along the new protected bike lanes on 8th and 9th Avenues in Manhattan (compared to 3% borough-wide).
      At Union Square North, where NYCDOT expanded sidewalks, installed a protected bike lane and did other intersection improvements, commercial vacancies are down 49% (compared with to 5% borough-wide).
      A seating area installed in a former curb lane in Manhattan on Pearl Street resulted in a 14% increase in sales at adjacent businesses.

      Here’s the report PDF.

      I’ll let Michael explain his curiousity, which I think boils down to questions about the underlying methodology and whether it’s solid or if it was framed in a way to make NYC DOT projects look great.

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        David March 24, 2016 at 1:48 pm

        The framing issue is important, and of course NYC DOT wanted to make their projects look successful.

        I think the application for us here in Portland is less about the specific numbers that retail sales increased. Business owners seem to be scared of losing parking out of fear that sales will stall or stop. The important lesson from NYC, at least for me, is that not only did sales not go down, they actually went up and possibly by quite a bit. Was the methodology perfect? Probably not, but perfection is impossible.

        Curious to hear more from Michael.

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      • Michael Andersen (News Editor)
        Michael Andersen (News Editor) March 25, 2016 at 3:45 pm

        Sorry, I just saw this thread. I think there’s actually a small error in Jonathan’s coverage from a few years back – as you can see on p. 4 of the PDF he links to, the 49 percent data is only for 9th Avenue from 23rd St. to 31st St., not for 8th Avenue.

        For some reason, NYCDOT’s widely circulated report includes no sales tax data for:
        – 9th Avenue from 16th to 23rd
        – 8th Avenue from 14th-23rd
        – 8th Avenue from Bank to 14th.

        I believe those segments also included protected bike lanes. Why aren’t they mentioned?

        Maybe it has something to do with this PDF that I found on the Alliance for Biking and Walking’s website, a slideshow seemingly created by the economists behind this study. It describes the upper 9th Avenue area as a “very strong performer” but the upper 8th and lower 9th Avenue areas as “poor performers.” (The lower 8th was a “strong performer.”)

        Another very important thing to note from the slideshow on the Alliance site: “Eight of the eleven improvement sites were classified as strong performers or very strong performers.”

        So in general, making streets less auto oriented was good for retail sales. Makes sense! But do protected bike lanes typically cause retail sales to leap 49 percent? (A figure Sadik-Khan described in her talk, if I heard it right, as “more than 50 percent”?) No. Of course they don’t.

        My conclusion from all of this: It would have been possible to use real numbers to make the case her office wanted to make. But they preferred to use the best numbers to make protected bike lanes sound like magic pixie dust.

        I think protected bike lanes are great and JSK is a hero and a visionary. My question Wednesday was whether she saw a political risk to overstating her data. As far as I’m concerned, her answer (“I never overstate data”) wasn’t true, but it answered my question: It’s only a risk if you get caught.

        I can respect that, though I don’t like to do things that way myself.

        I should say that I could be interpreting this wrong somehow and I’d love to be corrected by someone who knows better.

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    RH March 24, 2016 at 10:44 am

    So which of our PDX mayoral candidates shares the same thoughts and passion as JSK?

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    Kathryn March 24, 2016 at 11:02 am

    Let’s ask Bike Walk Vote? Who did they just endorse?

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    soren March 24, 2016 at 12:11 pm

    NYC is a progressive city with broad support for government services and a massive tax base:

    Sales tax: 7% – 8.875%
    Property tax: 1.5% average effective rate.
    Gas tax: 45.09 cents per gallon.
    Diesel tax: 46.28 cents per gallon.
    Income Tax: 3.591%-3.876% for people who earn more than $45,000/

    Portland is a miserly city with strong anti-government sentiment and a pathetically small tax base:

    $35 arts tax (that many residents refuse to pay).
    Property tax: 1.1% average effective rate.

    Any relatively well off Portland resident who says that they want better infrastructure but is unwilling to support a large increase in taxes is delusional (I’d use much stronger language in person).

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      dwk March 24, 2016 at 12:40 pm

      Three of those taxes are very regressive but carry on…..

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        maccoinnich March 24, 2016 at 12:54 pm

        Is it progressive to underfund public services out of a concern that new taxes might be regressive?

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          dwk March 24, 2016 at 1:01 pm

          We are not funding services with progressive taxes for some reason.
          The property tax is a good progressive tax and all the new development in the last 5 years should have been a windfall for the city. Someone should look into where the money is going. I know a business owner on Division that has had the taxes on his improved property quadruple in the last few years (as they should).
          Lots of new development along Williams with very little new infrastructure.
          Where is the money going?

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            soren March 24, 2016 at 1:31 pm

            The property tax is a good progressive tax and all the new development in the last 5 years should have been a windfall for the city.


            Property taxes in this city are absurdly regressive. For example, a millionaire living in a multi-million dollar house in Irvington typically pays a lower effective property tax rate than a low income home owner in outer East Portland.


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              dwk March 24, 2016 at 1:38 pm

              The tax is designed to be progressive, the fact that it is not being implemented as it should is the problem. Still better than sales taxes.
              All new development should be taxed appropriately.
              The taxes on residential property were capped by the public through the voting process, you have a better idea?

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                J_R March 24, 2016 at 2:21 pm

                But the tax on residences were NOT capped. If you improved it and got a building permit, your assessed value went up accordingly. If you didn’t improve (or at least didn’t get a permit), your tax was frozen. Then there’s the whole issue of “compression” that is too hard to understand, much less explain.

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            Pete March 24, 2016 at 4:14 pm

            “Where is the money going?”

            I don’t know about Multnomah, but the property tax breakdown in Hood River County shows more than 70% going to schools and the cc there, FWIW.

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            Sigma March 24, 2016 at 4:38 pm

            Well, about 25% of it goes to PDC, for things like parking garages and streetcars.

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          soren March 24, 2016 at 4:57 pm

          And if Portlanders wonder how Seattle can possibly afford all of the new protected bike lanes and greenways being installed and/or funded it’s because Seattle voters approved a billion dollar transportation levy.

          Proposition 1 funded:

          *150 blocks of new sidewalks
          *750 intersection safety improvements
          *60 miles of neighborhood greenways
          *50 miles of protected bike lanes

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        soren March 24, 2016 at 1:26 pm

        I note that you are unwilling to address my point — the phenomenal difference in tax base.

        I also think it’s fair to say that I’m the number one critic of Portland’s absurdly regressive taxes/fees on Bike Portland (our property taxes, in particular, are truly pathetic in their inequity).

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    Keviniano March 24, 2016 at 1:13 pm

    “During her tenure the New York City Department of Transportation reclaimed 65,000 square feet of new public space.”

    I’m confused about this part.

    From the way this is written, this sounds like the scale is supposed to indicate a big triumph, but this is about 1.5 acres, or 1.5 inner SE square blocks. For all five boroughs of NYC. That doesn’t sound like much.

    And what does “reclaimed” mean? Does it mean private property that was made public, or already public land that was repurposed? If the latter, from what into what? Parklets, widened sidewalks, bike lanes?

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      Todd Boulanger March 24, 2016 at 2:05 pm

      Good question…likely it is way more…though have you ever priced an acre in Manhattan? 😉

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      AJ_Bikes March 25, 2016 at 8:26 am

      I was at last night’s event at Powell’s. The 65,000 square feet was referring to a single project (Madison Square, I believe, by the Flatiron Building). NYC has definitely reclaimed significantly more space than that for plazas alone.

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    Todd Boulanger March 24, 2016 at 2:11 pm

    I thoroughly enjoyed last night’s talk.

    It is truly amazing what has been collectively done in NYC in so few years…the NYC I grew up knowing and then volunteering with TA in the early 90s I could have never dreamed that NYCDoT would leap as far and boldly to do what they have done. NYC was soooo far behind Portland (and Seattle) as recently as 10 years ago but no more.

    The question for Portland is now…can its leadership (and neighbourhoods) effectively undertake a moonshot for “urbane streets”? And to do so now go back into the “copy” mode vs the leadership mode? Otherwise its time to revise the 2030/2035 modal goals…and go back to sleep.

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      soren March 24, 2016 at 5:04 pm

      The good news is that we are on track to achieve the 2030 bike plan modal goal in 2124. And that is assuming that our 7% print last year is not a statistical anomaly.

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    Todd Boulanger March 24, 2016 at 2:17 pm

    I am also proud one of our city councillors from Vancouver (WA) was in the audience and was very energized with bubbling design ideas for some of our over wide/ over capacity / and underused streets that still exist. Stay tuned as the transportation benefit fee revenue starts to come in and the council/ staff start to seek public advise as to how to fulfill the newly adopted City’s complete streets outcome.

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    Todd Boulanger March 24, 2016 at 5:05 pm

    I went to look up JSKs book at Powells but it was not listed for sale yet. I was surprised at all the books with similar names (anime too!). One of the more relevant books is about mobility in San Francisco…a book I was not aware of.

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