Michael Bloomberg, Mayor
Janette Sadik-Khan, Commissioner, Department of Transportation
Sadik-Khan: The streets in a city like New York—6,300 miles of streets—it's the largest real estate portfolio the city has. So we have to make it more efficient. That's why designing in bike lanes, bus lanes, new capacity on the seven-line [subway] extension—it's all about using that existing resource, but looking at it differently.
Bloomberg: And it's not just roads. It's parks. With our PlaNYC, a park for everyone within 10 minutes was our [goal]; to get that, you have to take schoolyards and convert them into parks in the off-hours, simply because there's no room to go build new parks in the dense parts of our city. There are a lot of those kinds of things, and they impact the economy, they impact the psyche of the people who live here, they make the city more attractive.
Sadik-Khan I think, too, that part of it is balance. A third of New Yorkers get around by transit. A third get around by walking. A third get around by driving. And yet, the investment strategy has been very much toward the car. And it’s really been a 1950s view of our streets, that they were really to move cars as fast as possible from point A to point B. And so, what Mayor Bloomberg was saying in his PlaNYC is, if we’re going to grow and thrive, between now and 2030, we really need to take a hard look at our assets, and improve the efficiency of our city, and reduce greenhouse gasses.
Sadik-Khan: The very first project we did was in DUMBO, where we changed a parking lot over a weekend, from an underutilized area for parked cars to a plaza. And we literally just painted it, painted it green, painted the curbs. Added tables and chairs and planters. Three years later the sales tax receipts are 172% higher than before in the adjacent areas. It worked. But to the mayor’s point: You don’t really know. And one of the benefits of being able to try things out quickly is, if doesn’t work, fine, put it back. No harm, no foul. And that gave us the confidence to move forward with something like a Times Square [pedestrian plaza].
Bloomberg: When [Janette] wanted to close Broadway ... I remember when she came and told me about it, and I signed on. Well, first I thought it was the stupidest idea I’d ever heard. Ten minutes later she had convinced me, and I walked in the next day at the staff meeting and said, ‘We’re going to close Broadway,’ and you could see the [shocked] reaction. But the merchants kept saying, our business will go to zero because nobody will be able to drive to our store, or for deliveries. Forget that there was never any parking allowed on Broadway ... You can always get somebody opposed to it.
Sadik-Khan: Usually a cabdriver.
Bloomberg: Janette’s put in 500 miles of bicycle lanes. And we have 6,000 miles of roads. You can make the case that that’s not exactly changing the whole world. A lot of people think it is. You can close Broadway from Times Square to Herald Square, creating an enormous benefit for the city, and publicity. But it’s not exactly closing down the roads. Most people can still go exactly where they were going before, exactly the same way. So I think the only change in a practical sense you’re going to do has to be evolutionary. It can’t be revolutionary.
Sadik-Khan: I do think that under the mayor’s watch, the design of our streets has changed, our street furniture is different, the plazas are different, allocation of space on the streets.
Bloomberg: Remember the old bus shelters and news racks? It was horrendous. When was the last time you saw a vandalized bus shelter?
Sadik-Khan: And it’s a single vocabulary now. The bike stations look like the bus shelters. Like the news racks. There’s a consistency that says, 'Somebody cares about how this infrastructure looks.' And if you take a look at how many people are riding their bikes, voting with their pedals, using the new bus routes, voting with their metro cards. You take a look at what’s happening on the real estate side with the economic returns from these projects, I think it’s very unlikely that you’re going to see them rolled back, simply because of the success—and the popularity is sort of surprising.
The sponsorship model that we used is, I think, going to be a very important one going forward. And Citibank has had tremendous brand exposure. They could have spent $41 million encouraging people to open checking accounts, right? But now there brand is everywhere. Leo DiCaprio is on it. It’s on The Daily Show.
Bloomberg: One of the things that Janette did when she closed Broadway was it brought down the accident rate dramatically. The sidewalks could not handle the number of pedestrians and they were slowly taking over the roads. Now they’ve taken over the whole road. But they probably transport a lot more people than the cars. Cars when you think about it are very inefficient—typically they have one person or maybe two people in it, they’re big.
Sadik-Khan: Times Square is now one of the top 10 retail locations in the world.
Bloomberg: Building owners tell me they make more from the ground floor than from the rest of the building. Forever 21 is open from 8 in the morning until 2 in the morning, 40,000 people come through their store. It’s unbelievable.
Sadik-Khan: Commercial rents have doubled. Retail rents have doubled. It’s incredible. It’s one of the hottest spots.
Bloomberg: I was at Sun Valley, at the Allen conference, and one of the questions was, "Aren't you ruining the city for business with all your nanny-state stuff?" Keep in mind, I was on a panel with Muhtar Kent, who runs Coca-Cola, who happens to be a casual friend. "Wait a second," I said. "Let me get this straight. We have record population, record tourists, record number of private jobs in the city, record life expectancy, record retention of employees—what did I miss here?"
The innovators are the ones with their arrows in their backs, as the euphemism goes. If there is an instant referendum in advance on everything, you’re never going to do anything. And one of the dangers is, particularly with elected officials who have no knowledge of technology, they will say, oh my god, we had 10,000 people write me yesterday saying they don’t like that bike lane. Yeah, it’s one kid with a computer, and he bought the friends on Google.
Design does matter. And not necessarily in a way that people realize. A lot of what you do, people take for granted—that a park has always been here, that a bicycle lane has always been there, that the street is safe or clean. ... You'd be hard-pressed now to find anyone who wasn't in favor of the smoking ban. But I don't quite remember it that way. I got a lot of one-fingered waves in the parade. Today, nobody would call it back.
Read more pairings from Fast Company's 10th Annual Innovation By Design issue:
- J. Crew's Libby Wadle And Jenna Lyons On Tension
- Burberry's Angela Ahrendts And Christopher Bailey On Trust
- Airbnb's Brian Chesky And Joe Gebbia On Design Running The Boardroom
- Flipboard's Mike McCue and Marcos Weskamp On Spiraling Toward Solutions
- Jawbone's Hosain Rahman And Yves Béhar On The Power Of Trust
- 5 Ways Nike Factors Design Into Its Innovation Equation
- PepsiCo's Indra Nooyi And Mauro Porcini On Design-Led Innovation
- The Role Of Design At Pinterest
- Samsung On Global Design Influences
- 5 Brilliant Business Lessons From Warby Parker's CEOs
[Photograph by Brian Finke]
A version of this article appeared in the October 2013 issue of Fast Company magazine.