Dynamic Transportation Leaders Are Transforming Our Cities


Last week I finally had the chance to stroll down Broadway in New York City, including a visit to the Times Square Toys R Us that actually has an indoor ferris wheel (Note to self: Take my daughter there soon). I heard that the avenue had been transformed into a genuine bicycle and pedestrian haven, and sure enough as I scanned the bike path and comfortable patio-style seating at tables alongside I felt like I had been transported to one of the world's most walkable cities -- Amsterdam.

I could imagine the once unimaginable — that New York could acquire a walkable and wildly popular atmosphere, with streets jam-packed with men, women and children commuting to work and school on their bikes. While strolling around we stumbled across some familiar faces, as you can see in the pic below (courtesy of Harrison Wadsworth of the Association of American Railroads).

This is just one of a number of initiatives that visionary transportation leaders have been thinking about for some time, and that they are well on their way to making a reality in cities across the country. These leaders, while relatively low profile, are bringing about changes that are disproportionate to their modest reputations. The federal government should take note of these efforts as a model for how to make progress below the radar of the forces of paralysis at work nationally.

In New York, Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, an avid biker herself, has overseen the creation of 260 miles of bike lanes in the last four years, since she became commissioner. Under her leadership, the city is now working to better integrate these lanes and to institute what will be the largest bike-sharing program in the country. A company to run the program, which would make available 10,000 bikes at 600 rental stations around the city beginning next summer, was chosen this fall.

Much of Sadik-Kahn’s work is informed by her insight that cities reach a tipping point in their use of bicycles once they achieve an “architecture of safety.”

Meanwhile, Gabe Klein, in two years as head of the District Department of Transportation in Washington, D.C., established what is currently the country’s largest bike-share program, expanded the city’s circular bus system and pushed for the creation of a streetcar system. He is now embarking on transforming the transportation system in Chicago, as Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s new commissioner of transportation. The city plans to expand an existing 100-bike demonstration bike-share program into a 5,000 bike program within two years. Emanuel and Klein describe their laudable initiative in this video: 

Other projects include installing video screens in bus shelters that would let commuters know where buses were on their routes, the availability of bike and car shares, and how long it would take to walk to their destination; making the city more hospitable to pedestrians with pedestrian scrambles; and slowing down vehicle traffic.

Klein’s agenda is built on his conviction that people should not have to own their own means of transportation. Before entering government, he was an executive at Zipcar, the for-profit, car sharing company.

Keith Parker, president and CEO of the VIA Metropolitan Transit in San Antonio, Texas since 2009, is another of the urban transportation visionaries. I met Keith at the ITS America World Congress in Orlando a few weeks ago. As head of the Charlotte Area Transportation System (CATS), he helped bring light rail to that city. Now he's spearheading efforts to bring light rail to San Antonio, the largest American city without a commuter rail system.

These leaders share their commitment to creating transportation systems that ease urban circulation and improving the urban aesthetic, all within the economic means of municipalities and their diverse inhabitants. Their energy, enthusiasm and vision is inspiring and provides hope that many cities are taking some big steps forward.