Way forward for Toronto is transit, not more car traffic

Janette Sadik Kahn

During her keynote, Sadik-Khan (in Times Square, above) said: "The love affair with the car was really more of an arranged marriage."

The way forward for Toronto is transit, not traffic says NYC's former transporation commissioner

New York-based “road warrior” Janette Sadik-Khan came to Toronto to tell us that we need to act faster to go from rendering to reality, to build a prosperous, people-friendly city – and bike lanes.

by Tammy Thorne

While serving as commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation, Janette Sadik-Khan delivered what seems like miracles: 400 miles of bicycle lanes, the nation's largest bike share program and 60 public plazas across the city – including transformative projects like the pedestrianization of Times Square – all in six short years between 2007 and 2013. In her current role at Bloomberg Associates, she works with mayors around the world to reimagine and redesign their cities with innovative projects that can be developed quickly and inexpensively.

On December 1, Sadik-Khan shared insights on her innovative approach to designing urban spaces to a rapt audience of Toronto city builders and cycling enthusiasts. Her keynote speech, Changing Lanes: Blueprints for a New Road Order, was held at the Isabel Bader Theatre. As Sadik-Khan described how New York was able to transform so many public spaces "virtually overnight" the phrases "move fast" and "act quickly" were repeated often. Innovative pilot projects were key to Sadik-Khan's strategy from the beginning of her tenure in New York; during the the PlaNYC effort, instead of years of planning studies, the developers used paint and planters so they could move fast. "You can paint the city you want to see," Sadik-Khan said.

Another key to the success of the projects in New York was by creating public demand for the improvements: "We flipped the process," Sadik-Khan said. Communities now apply for public space improvement pilot projects in their neighbourhoods, the government does not dictate the process. She also noted that every pilot project that they launched was tweaked based on community feedback before becoming permanent.

The idea of improving city spaces so quickly is an exciting prospect, and it's clear that Toronto has a thing or two to learn from Sadik-Khan's experience, especially when it comes to acting quickly to implement pilot projects. "Limited staff resources" is often the reason given when Toronto's transportation department is asked why so few bike lanes are being installed so slowly. The City of Toronto is now in the process of developing a new 10-year cycling plan. Our last cycling plan became outdated before it could even be fully implemented, and we are still waiting eagerly for the installation of the Bloor Bike lanes after decades of studies and proposals.

As much as Sadik-Khan's methods were aided by painting the city as she wanted to see it, data was essential to putting the ideas into action. Former NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg was insistent on measuring results, and it proved to be the key to continued success of the transformation of the city. She joked that Bloomberg was such a data freak that he might have a tattoo saying "Trust in God, everyone else bring data."

For instance, they were able to measure that retail sales increased substantially in all of the new pedestrian zones. Times Square is now one of the top 10 retail locations on the planet. Although the retail data was some of the most difficult to gather, Sadik-Khan emphasized that it can be done, and was important in unequivocally proving the benefit of the pedestrian zones.

Bike lanes are also an important part of any economic development strategy in a city, Sadik-Khan said. Street fatalities and speeding have gone down in part due to newly implemented bike lanes and "slow zones" which changed streetscapes to "move at the speed of life." This resulted in the lowest number road fatalities in New York's streets in a century: "If you want a safer city, build bike lanes."

From Sadik-Khan's experience in New York, we know that in order to push against the status quo for positive change (i.e. bike lanes) we need good data, a lot of advocacy work (especially around safety) and the ability to work quickly and measure results.

One example of where Toronto is getting it right is Queen's Quay, she said. On the new streetscape, transit, bikes, pedestrians and motorists are all "playing nice together," although there were some scoffs from among the crowd. My neighbour whispered, "We're just beginning." Later, during the "fireside chat" portion of the evening, Toronto's chief city planner, Jennifer Keesmaat told Sadik-Khan that the Queens Quay project was met with some derision when it first opened.

"Toronto's future is in more transit, not more traffic" she said, adding that one-off projects won't cut it: we need a connected grid of bikes and transit.

"Toronto has all the right ingredients. It's an exciting time. You have the leadership," Sadik-Khan added, noting that with the climate talks happening in Paris right now, it's an appropriate time to be discussing how bicycles can transform cities. Since transportation is the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions, it makes sense that bicycles will be an important part of the solution.

Sadik-Khan ended her inspiring talk before joining Keesmaat for the Q&A portion of the evening by saying that Toronto can also make radical changes to improve city spaces for pedestrians and cyclists, but we need to act fast. Once community improvement projects are implemented, the public will demand more.

changing lanes

Janette Sadik-Khan with Toronto's chief planner, Jennifer Keesmaat, above.

“You can get there,” Sadik-Khan said, to the delight of hundreds of cycling advocates and stakeholders in the room – including the general manager of Toronto's transportation services, Steve Buckley, and the City’s cycling manager, Jacquelyn Gulati Hayward, as well as urban planning guru, lead planner for the recently announced Under the Gardiner project, Ken Greenberg.

The event was arranged by the Metcalf Foundation, which is shifting the focus of some of its environmental programming towards cycling. The Cycle City program aims to "help build a constituency and a culture that support cycling in Toronto."

The Metcalf foundation recently funded a report by the Pembina Insitute about cycling in urban centres around the country. The report finds support for cycling is growing in Toronto, however the city still has the least cycling infrastructure per capita when compared to four other Canadian cities. (Calgary has three times as much as Toronto per capita.) You can check out the full report here.

The Metcalf Foundation has arms for performing arts, local economies and environmentalism, and allocates millions of dollars in grants each year to fund charitable activities. One of their principles is  "to inform public policy with new ideas that challenge the status quo."


Janette Sadik-Khan certainly has a lot of ideas that challenge the status quo of city building. Toronto can gain a lot from her method of acting fast and putting the methods for community improvement pilot projects in the hands of the communities. If you missed the talk, you can watch a TED talk that Sadik-Khan gave in 2013.


Related on the dandyBLOG:

dandyARCHIVE: City’s Chief planner likes bikes

Bike spotting on Queen's Quay

Vision Zero for Toronto

Complete streets would mean a healthier Toronto

City Councillor pushing for lower speed limits on residential roads



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