An If/Then Reflection on Janette Sadik-Khan's Legacy

NYC Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan has transformed what transportation means in New York and nationally. (Photo: New York Times)

NYC Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan has transformed what transportation means in New York and nationally. (Photo: New York Times)

Last week I took advantage of living in a big metro area and saw a new Broadway-bound musical, “If/Then” starring the fabulous Idina Menzel. It was with surprise and delight that I heard people singing about the glamorous life of a female city planner in New York City. It’s not every day that you hear someone using Environmental Impact Statement as a song lyric!

The premise of the play was about the choices and trade-offs we make, and how our decisions set us on different potential paths in life. In the following days I have reflected on some of my own personal “If/Then” moments, and also such moments that cities experience. What if a certain mayor had won re-election? What if a proposed development had not happened? What if the metro hadn’t been moved to make Arlington’s Orange Line the success it is today? Conversely, what if we had been able to get the Dulles alignment put underground?

Given the musical’s setting and recent elections, I couldn’t help but think “What if Janette Sadik-Khan had not become Transportation Commissioner in New York City?” Touches of Janette were sprinkled throughout the play, including bikes rolling across stage.  Over the years I have been fortunate to work with Janette on different federal policy efforts, and am proud to consider her a friend and mentor.  I don’t know where she is headed next, but I do know that IF she is involved THEN she will make an impact.

Numerous stories have been written about her over the past decade extolling or lambasting her accomplishments and management style.  I won’t retread that ground, but rather what I find amazing and transferable to any city is the story her legacy tells about leadership, vision and the ability to take risks. We hear a lot about the first two, and have come to expect them in our political leaders, but those traits aren’t usually demanded from those selected to lead public agencies. Nor does the public have the patience or forgiveness to support them in taking risks.

Janette Sadik-Khan has reshaped transportation and shifted our perceptions about what is possible and now normal both in the market place and in the court of public opinion – not only in New York City but across the country as witnessed by cities like Indianapolis, Cleveland, Oklahoma City, and Salt Lake City to name only a few redesigning streets to work for people, cars, bikes and transit; and reclaiming sidewalks, trails and streets for active public spaces.

She has done this through focusing on metrics and data, through changing the storyline to be about transportation in support of greater community goals, and through her steadfast belief that we can break from the traditional when it doesn’t work anymore to realize a different vision for the 21st century city and transportation network.  She is not afraid to take risks and embrace what works and jettison that which doesn’t. This takes no small amount of courage, backbone, brains and humor.

When we find leaders like these – be they Janette in New York City, RT Rybak in Minneapolis, MN; Chris Zimmerman in Arlington,VA; or Gabe Klein in Chicago, IL (to name some of my favorites who announced they are stepping down) – we need to appreciate the positive legacy they are leaving to their cities, and work to ensure that the next generation of mayors,  county commissioners, transit agency managers and city transportation commissioners are also poised, ready and supported to make our communities places we love, places that thrive, and places that aren’t afraid to experiment.  IF we support public sector leaders to take smart and cost-effective risks that help people, places and the economy, THEN we will have a country filled with livable and resilient communities.