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Podcast: How Data Can Solve Our Most Vexing Transportation Problems

“Forget about the data. Forget about the project — that we’d closed Times Square to cars. The only thing people could talk about was the beach chairs.”


If you’re an urban planner, it’s likely that you have two voices sitting on your shoulder. In one ear, Robert Moses, king of the highway and champion of cars. In the other, Jane Jacobs, patron saint of safe streets and community sidewalks. The story of urban planning is in many ways the story of trying to reconcile those two visions.

During Janette Sadik-Khan’s tenure as the New York City transportation commissioner in the Bloomberg administration, New York’s streetscape altered dramatically, with the arrival of hundreds of miles of bike lanes, a bike-share program and bus rapid transit.

Press play above to stream the full episode of our podcast What’s The Point with Sadik-Khan. She discusses her time in office, some of her more ambitious (and contentious) efforts, and how data can inform urban planning. Below, watch a video excerpt of our conversation on how her office radically transformed Times Square, and read a partial transcript of the interview.

How New York City transformed Broadway with data

Shutting Off Manhattan To Cars

AVIRGAN: London shut off much of its downtown to cars, right? Was that ever something in the back of your head — you said, “Maybe we could do that”?

SADIK-KHAN: Well, we did look at the pedestrianization of Lower Manhattan, and I do think that that’s something that needs to happen, without question. I would also like to have seen —

AVIRGAN: That means no cars in Lower Manhattan?

SADIK-KHAN: Yeah, or you have certain links that are there. But basically, pedestrianizing the oldest part of the city.

Why Bike Lanes Are So Contentious

AVIRGAN: There’s at least one instance I can think of when a community was not very happy about a bike lane and you removed a bike lane, is that right? You painted over a bike lane on Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn. Was that your call?

SADIK-KHAN: It was the call of the department. Yes, certainly my call. In that instance, there was a much better connection on Kent, and so we were able to meet the concern of the community and also provide a much better alternative connection.

There was a part of the community that said they didn’t want girls in flirty skirts —

AVIRGAN: — That was the line in the media that the Hasidic community in that neighborhood did not want people from Williamsburg in quote-unquote “flirty skirts” riding their bikes through their neighborhood and that’s why they got it painted over.


AVIRGAN: Was that an unfair characterization of how it really went?

SADIK-KHAN: That was certainly the media’s characterization of how it went but —

AVIRGAN: But was that an unfair characterization of how it really went?

SADIK-KHAN: There’s certainly a cultural change associated with updating your streets. When you think about it, you understand it. We listened, and we tailored our projects accordingly. But make no mistake, you put down bike lanes and you remove parking, there’s going to be controversy that’s there. But you have to update your streets, you can’t leave them frozen in time. Our streets were basically in suspended animation for 50 years, and we had to update this resource in order to continue to grow and thrive.

If you’re a fan of What’s The Point, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, and please leave a rating/review — that helps spread the word to other listeners. And be sure to check out our sports show Hot Takedown as well. Have something to say about this episode, or have an idea for a future show? Get in touch by email, on Twitter, or in the comments.

What’s The Point’s music was composed by Hrishikesh Hirway, host of the “Song Exploder” podcast. Download our theme music.

Jody Avirgan hosts and produces podcasts for FiveThirtyEight.