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San Francisco Should Take Cues from New York and Just Try It!

4:42 PM PST on February 26, 2009

TS.jpgThe vision for closing Broadway in Times Square, which will happen by May

Urban space advocates the world over use best practice examples from other cities to raise the bar on policy and praxis in their own cities.  For years in New York, Transportation Alternatives and the NYC Streets Renaissance Campaign invoked the phrase "Lessons from London," pointing to congestion pricing and the pedestrianization of Trafalgar Square, among other excellent projects, that demonstrated that city's commitment to reconquering its streets for people over cars. They also pointed to Paris, Copenhagen and Bogotá for examples of brilliant bike share programs, four decades of urban design giving primacy to pedestrians and cyclists, and innovative use of street space and buses to move more riders on Transmilenio BRT than most cities move on their entire transit systems.

Then a funny thing happened on the way to getting a new DOT Commissioner: Mayor Bloomberg got the point.  The rest is Janette Sadik-Khan history.

I think San Francisco advocates should start using the phrase "News From New York" (Noticias de Nueva York translates nicely).  And not just because of the alliterative ring, but because the roar of the press cascade from that city has become deafening. 

Every other month, Mayor Bloomberg makes international headlines with a sweeping new policy that will transform his city for decades to come, from PlaNYC, to Congestion Pricing, BRT in the Bronx and on 34th Street in Manhattan (one of the busiest 3-miles in the Western Hemisphere) to car-free Summer Streets on Park Avenue (c'mon, who wouldn't want to have a press conference with Lance and Jay-Z?), to over 100 miles of new bike lanes, to closing two lanes of Broadway for pocket parks, to reclaiming 40,000 square feet of street space in Madison Square for a new pedestrian plaza.

What do we get from Mayor Newsom?  50 bikes and 2 electric plug-in hybrids at City Hall.

Market_vision.jpgA nice study on Market Street from 2004. Expect another study soon. And probably another after that.

Or take car-free streets.  Two days ago the Board of Supervisors agreed to let the SFCTA study a
or car-lite Market Street.  Mind you, just another study, with no
policy directive and no implementation schedule, requested by the board with no leadership from Mayor Newsom.

Then, today we learn Mayor Bloomberg is going to close Broadway to cars for seven blocks in the heart of the busiest part
of Manhattan.  Forget press conferences full of what-ifs,
Mayor Bloomberg took bold action on a visionary plan that will further
stretch his lead among "green" mayors with aspirations for higher
office.  And all this in arguably one of the most politically intransigent cities in the country, where the status quo interests of FIRE (Finance, Insurance, Real Estate) have a firm grip on policy.

Several Streetsblog commenters have suggested I'm being too critical of the mayor and that my writings are a case of the perfect being the enemy of the good.  I just wish we had some more good to accuse of being imperfect. 

Time and again in the two months since we launched Streetsblog SF we've conducted interviews with planners, engineers, and agency personnel who have very good ideas and proposals for making our city more livable, for simplifying municipal functioning, for making our streets safer and more efficient, and for improving the quality of the public realm. 

Aside from the tired excuse of the the bicycle injunction, without fail planners point to a lack of vision and leadership from the top.

When Janette Sadik-Khan came to town in November for the Railvolution conference, at a lunch organized by the SFBC, she entertained the heads of the major agencies that control or influence our streets, including the Department of Public Works, Planning, the MTA, Parks and Rec, and the Department of Public Health.  When questioned how NYCDOT had implemented so much in such short order, how they had cleared environmental review, she explained that the DOT invested in a bunch of paint and glue and had started the initiatives on a trial basis.

We live in a city that has Transit First and Complete Streets policies, a highly educated public that understands the intricacies of arcane concepts like Level of Service, a remarkably progressive Board of Supervisors, and a professional advocacy class that has tremendous influence over city policy. Unfortunately, we don't have leadership from the top.

What Sadik-Khan didn't mention and what is fundamental to her success is not only the bold vision laid out in PlaNYC, but the political backing that Mayor Bloomberg provides.  If we want to see a similar transformation of our streets and a legacy that will last decades, Mayor Newsom needs to step up to the plate and deliver.

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