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

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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