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David Byrne and Janette Sadik-Kahn

 David Byrne and Janette Sadik Khan at the Center for Architecture

Recently, I went to the Center for Architecture to hear a talk by David Byrne, the musician, visual artist, filmmaker and co-founder of the musical group Talking Heads.  In 2009 he released Bicycle Diaries, which chronicled his travels throughout many world cities via bike.  He has owned a fold-up bicycle for more than 20 years, and it is his transportation of choice on the streets of New York. In 2010, Mr. Byrne completed a series of commissioned bicycle racks for the New York City Department of Transportation.

Mr. Byrne gave a brief slideshow of his  travels throughout Latin America.  He raved about the public architecture and transportation projects that have been implemented fairly recently in cities like Quito, Ecuador, and Bogota, Colombia. “There were new libraries in the middle of incredibly poor neighborhoods. It created new public space, which for many neighborhoods it was the first time that they had a dedicated public space.  The architecture of those libraries is something that any major city would be proud of. It gives them a different perspective of themselves, and it connects to the bike lanes, and pedestrian lanes.”

The city has installed nine new bike racks designed by David Byrne. Each has an evocative name. Top row, left to right: MoMA, Olde Times Square and Villager. Middle row, left to right: Coffee Cup, Wall Street and Ladies’ Mile. Bottom row, left to right: Hipster, Chelsea and Jersey. (Photos: New York City Department of Transportation)

Mr. Byrne was later joined by Janette Sadik-Khan, the New York City Department of Transportation Commissioner.  As the NYCDOT Commissioner, Ms. Sadik-Khan has spearheaded a number of ground-breaking roadway projects that have catapulted her into the international spotlight.  She has implemented pedestrian plazas, most famously in Times Square, and in Herald Square.  During her tenure she has also closed off streets on several weekends, exclusively for recreational use in a program called Summer Streets.  However, her most controversial turn has been her tireless efforts to expand the network of bicycle lanes throughout the city.




Throughout the evening, Ms. Sadik-Khan cited numerous polls to show that New Yorkers overwhelmingly supported many of the new transportation initiatives.  “Critics who have come out against Mayor Bloomberg’s focus on the pedestrian experience said that it is somehow elitist for us to be doing this work, because the pedestrian plazas, the bike lanes, making buses go faster is only for a small number of New Yorkers. I think that the good news is that a majority of New Yorkers really don’t see it that way, and they see past the rhetoric that has been in some of the newspapers.  I also think that’s a very important message going forward for other cities, particularly for design of our cities, and transportation policy around the world.”

Ms. Sadik-Khan mentioned that she was amazed that human activities such as walking have been neglected within the public policy realm.  Surveys across the city have shown that walking accounts for the highest share of how New York City residents actually get around.  The audience laughed when she said that initially many people had been fixated on the design of the “lawn chairs” in Times Square, but that at least 58 percent of New Yorkers now supported the changes and improvements in pedestrian plaza. 

Overall it was an evening filled with vigorous head nodding in agreement, and rounds of applause from the staunchly converted.  The bicycle advocates came out en masse to make it a standing-room-only crowd in a matter of minutes early on a Monday. I’ve never seen a city official have such a dedicated constituency, and the majority of the audience appeared appreciative of Ms. Sadik-Khan's ongoing efforts. 

In this day and age where people are often jaded about the state of the government, and question the intentions of celebrities, it was refreshing to hear people actually applaud for pedestrian plazas, bicycle lanes, and even David Byrne’s quirky collection of bicycle racks NYCDOT bike racks.  The entire event restored my faith in the possibilities of government, and the effectiveness of campaigns that are endorsed by well-known personalities.   Change will always have its share of challenges, but at least there are still people willing to make the effort to try something new. 

Three of my favorite NYCDOT pedestrian plaza projects:

Dumbo Pedestrian Plaza

In 2007, the DUMBO neighborhood of Brooklyn, received a vibrant pedestrian plaza adjacent to the Manhattan Bridge.  This space once housed a 12-car parking lot at Front and Pearl Streets, and was transformed into a triangular-shaped living room, complete with outdoor furniture.  The Dumbo Improvement District asked the NYCDOT for help in turning this into a pedestrian space.  The Brooklyn Botanic Garden was also summoned, and together they created a space with a green-painted floor, café tables and chairs, umbrellas and planters filled with flowers and trees. Great granite blocks from the Williamsburg Bridge delineate the space, which also showcases a large abstract sculpture.


Madison Square Plaza

While most people venture over to the popular Madison Square Park, there is also a unique plaza that offers an interesting vista to see New York City’s historic landmarks The Flatiron Building and the Empire State Building. Completed in 2008, this space is an unexpected surprise in the heart of the bustling city.

Chelsea Plaza

In 2007, Chelsea Plaza on West 14th Street and Ninth Avenue was transformed from one of the most dangerous pedestrian crossings, into a gracious pedestrian plaza.  Located near Gansevoort Plaza, the Apple Store, and steps away from the High Line, it is one of my new favorite public plazas.  The dynamic public space also offers weekly Salsa and Capoeira classes.  Streetfilms has an excellent documentary of the before and after: