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For Citys Transportation Chief, Kudos and Criticism

The New York Times: For City’s Transportation Chief, Kudos and Criticism

By MICHAEL M. GRYNBAUM
Published: March 4, 2011


ON a balmy night last June, the city’s Congressional delegation gathered for dinner at Gracie Mansion. Representative Anthony D. Weiner, who aspires to live in the mansion someday, knew he would have only a few minutes with the host, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. So he brought up the hottest topic he could think of: bicycle lanes, and the transportation commissioner who had nearly doubled the number of them, Janette Sadik-Khan.

“When I become mayor, you know what I’m going to spend my first year doing?” Mr. Weiner said to Mr. Bloomberg, as tablemates listened. “I’m going to have a bunch of ribbon-cuttings tearing out your [expletive] bike lanes.”

Mr. Weiner, a brash Democrat from Queens, had expected a bit of banter with his longtime adversary. Instead, Mr. Bloomberg adopted an exasperated, welcome-to-my-world expression. “His answer was, ‘Tell me about it,’ ” said a person who was there, one of two who recounted the tale. The mayor, some guests said, made it clear that Ms. Sadik-Khan was off on her own.

In four years as commissioner, Ms. Sadik-Khan has earned international fame for transforming the car-clogged streets of New York. She has directed the installation of more than 250 miles of bicycle lanes, turned parts of Broadway into pedestrian plazas and eliminated hundreds of parking spots across the city. Even some of her critics concede they are impressed with the scope and the speed of her achievements.

But among the city’s political class, Ms. Sadik-Khan has also become notorious for a brusque, I-know-best style and a reluctance to compromise.

In public screeds and private whispers, many city leaders say they have felt rebuffed, alienated or outright dismissed by Ms. Sadik-Khan, with several recounting in interviews having picked up their phones to find her yelling on the other end. And she recently set City Hall atwitter by appearing to deflect criticism over the response to the December blizzard to Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly.

“Even if one appreciates some of Janette’s goals, it’s clear the approach has been very alienating all over the city,” said Bill de Blasio, the city’s public advocate. “There is a needless level of conflict. A lot of communities have become distrustful of the approach that the mayor and Janette have taken.”

In the past several months, even members of the Bloomberg administration have begun to acknowledge that Ms. Sadik-Khan’s aggressive style, so effective at first, may have morphed into a liability. The mayor, who found himself booed over bicycle lanes at a town hall meeting in Queens in January, spoke with Ms. Sadik-Khan, and they agreed she would solicit more opinions from neighborhood leaders. Since then, she has been making conciliatory phone calls to City Council members, adopting a friendlier tone and proposing more collaboration.

Last week, Ms. Sadik-Khan withdrew a plan to ban car traffic on 34th Street between Herald Square and the Empire State Building after complaints from businesses, residents and The New York Post.

Sharp elbows and strong words are nothing new in city government, and some have wondered whether the backlash against Ms. Sadik-Khan has become unusually ferocious and personal in part because she is a woman. Cindy Adams, the venerable gossip columnist, has taken to calling her the “wacko nutso bike commissioner,” and the tabloids have showcased City Council members and borough presidents who have taken the rare step of publicly criticizing a prominent member of the Bloomberg team.

In Brooklyn, where a group has threatened to sue the Transportation Department in hopes of removing a new bike lane along Prospect Park West, Marty Markowitz, the borough president, recently delighted an audience by entering an auditorium riding a tricycle and announcing, “I’ve taken advantage of the D.O.T.’s newest bike lane.”

Even the mayor admitted on his radio show recently that his team had “not done as good a job as we should have” on outreach about bicycle lanes.

In an hourlong interview last month, Ms. Sadik-Khan said that she believed her initiatives had saved hundreds of lives on the city’s streets, and that she had pursued precisely the type of innovative, data-driven thinking that Mr. Bloomberg prides himself on. But she also conceded that mistakes had been made.

“I can do a better job,” Ms. Sadik-Khan said when asked about resentment among city officials. “I think I’ve made some mistakes in that arena. We’re working on that; I’m certainly working on that. And we need to be more effective.”

DEVOTEES refer to her as “J. S. K.” and lionize her as the brave and forward-thinking city planner who ushered in a golden age for bicyclists, pedestrians and environmentalists. Two-wheeled ridership has doubled during her tenure; European-style rapid-transit buses now ply exclusive, camera-enforced lanes; and fewer people have been killed in traffic accidents on New York’s streets than at any time in the past century, according to city records.

“She takes her agency’s mission of improving safety very, very seriously,” said Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group that has been a close ally of Ms. Sadik-Khan’s. “It’s why she does things quickly, and it’s why she does things sometimes too aggressively for people, but ultimately it’s to save lives and to achieve a better balance on our streets.”

Some detractors use a different nickname: “Chaka Khan,” a reference to the big-haired 1970s singer.

“Council members have found her dismissive and confrontational,” said Letitia James, a councilwoman from Brooklyn who described herself as a friend of the commissioner’s. “Other than Brownstone Brooklyn and parts of Manhattan, she is pretty much despised by my colleagues.”

Ms. Sadik-Khan, 50, was paid $205,180 in 2009 and occasionally cycles to work from the home in the West Village she shares with her husband of 20 years, Mark Geistfeld, a professor at the New York University School of Law, and their teenage son. As transportation commissioner, she is in charge of the city’s thousands of miles of streets, including signage, stop lights and turning lanes; over four years, she has expanded the agency’s budget by 36 percent, to $833 million, and its staff by more than 200 people, to about 4,500.

The daughter of an investment banker and a New York Post reporter, Ms. Sadik-Khan was director of the mayor’s office of transportation in the Dinkins administration, where she earned notice in 1993 for cracking down on diplomats with unpaid parking tickets. She moved to Washington for a high-ranking post in the Federal Transit Administration and then returned to the city to work at Parsons Brinckerhoff, one of the nation’s largest engineering firms, where she was noticed by a Bloomberg deputy while consulting on the rebuilding of the World Trade Center.

Then and now, City Hall officials considered Ms. Sadik-Khan a brilliant innovator with a sharp mind for data and details. But she has repeatedly stumbled on the political side, making errors that, some officials fear, threaten her ability to pursue her department’s agenda.

The trouble began early. At a get-to-know-you session on Staten Island, the politically crucial borough where transportation troubles are legion, Ms. Sadik-Khan listened for about 20 minutes before making it clear that, in her mind, the meeting had come to an end.

“Three minutes, gentlemen,” Ms. Sadik-Khan informed the group, which had not yet finished its presentation, according to several people in the room at the time.

Three years later, “three minutes, gentlemen” is still a joke among the politicians who were part of the meeting, invoked whenever they believe the Bloomberg administration has ignored their interests.

(Ms. Sadik-Khan said in the interview that she did not recall the episode, but joked that perhaps it “was a ferry issue, in terms of getting back.”)

When lobbying in Albany for the mayor’s congestion-pricing proposal that first year, Ms. Sadik-Khan offended several lawmakers by warning, “You are either for this historic change in New York or you’re against it.” It did not help that on the way to the capital, her chauffeured sport utility vehicle had been ticketed for improper use of lights and sirens.

Inside City Hall, Ms. Sadik-Khan developed a reputation as a difficult colleague who resisted oversight, according to current and former administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the mayor’s distaste for public discussion of internal business. Friends allow that she has a temper.

“She couldn’t care less whether you like her or not,” said a city official who has been close to Ms. Sadik-Khan for years and insisted on anonymity for fear of straining the friendship. “She doesn’t suffer people who don’t support her lightly. She’ll scream right back.”

Another high-ranking official, fearful that being named could get him fired, recalled a heated conversation that culminated in Ms. Sadik-Khan’s announcing that she planned to remake New York City’s streets, “and people are going to have to get used to it.”

“She has an absolute certainty that she’s correct,” said Lewis A. Fidler, a council member from Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, who has clashed with Ms. Sadik-Khan over bicycle lanes. “I guess it’s nice to go through life with that kind of certainty, but I don’t know if it’s appropriate in government.”

VISITORS to the Department of Transportation’s new offices on Water Street are greeted with a color photograph of New Yorkers relaxing on lawn chairs in the middle of Times Square.

Persuading the mayor to ban cars from that and other parts of Midtown Manhattan, a dream of New York planners for decades, catapulted Ms. Sadik-Khan to celebrity. A 2009 profile in New York Magazine declared her “equal parts Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs,” and she began accepting speaking invitations from cities around the world eager to mimic her success.

Such marquee projects remain the headlines of Ms. Sadik-Khan’s tenure. But in the interview, she said her focus was the day-to-day, fix-a-broken-traffic-light business of her agency. She cited statistics about improvements to safety and traffic flow. She dismissed criticism that her agency has acted in secret, pointing out that many of her initiatives come straight from the mayor’s public environmental agenda. And she cited outreach to community boards as evidence that her department has been eager for their involvement.

“I don’t think it’s realistic to think in a city like New York that everybody is going to be happy with all the changes,” she said.

Asked about her troubles with politicians, Ms. Sadik-Khan described herself as “passionate,” and said her zeal was inspired by a desire to make streets safer. “I don’t think people see me as a screamer,” she said, adding: “My guess is that every single transportation commissioner you’ll ever speak to has raised their voice on the phone.”

But Ms. Sadik-Khan repeatedly acknowledged she could “do a better job” in her communications with civic leaders, and said she and the mayor had recently spoken about “making sure that we have everybody involved who needs to be involved on these projects.”

“He is abundantly clear about what he likes and what he doesn’t like,” she said, “and obviously we need to improve our communications.”

The mayor, through an aide, issued a statement of unwavering support: “Janette isn’t afraid to try new ideas and knows how to get things done. She’s gotten attention for being an innovator and a pioneer, but she does not get enough credit for making our streets safer than they’ve ever been."

Still, officials and friends said Ms. Sadik-Khan seemed increasingly isolated. Some supporters have sent notes to Mr. Bloomberg to make sure he received positive feedback about her.

At the request of The New York Times, an aide to Ms. Sadik-Khan provided the names of more than a dozen prominent business and political leaders who support the commissioner, including James P. Molinaro, the Staten Island borough president; Daniel L. Doctoroff, the former deputy mayor who discovered her on the World Trade Center project; the heads of New York City Transit and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey; Mitchell Moss, the New Yorkologist; and Douglas Durst, a major real estate developer.

They described Ms. Sadik-Khan as smart, charming and focused — a creative thinker and an inspired networker; “visionary” is a common compliment. Several said she had restored their faith in government’s ability to effect change. “She is a courageous and strong person,” said Steve Hindy, the owner of Brooklyn Brewery and a donor to transportation groups.

“I have no problem with how she gets things done,” Mr. Molinaro said. “She is a thoughtful woman, and you have to be a forceful leader in New York City.”

But a few of the recommended sources said they barely knew Ms. Sadik-Khan. John J. Mack, the chairman of Morgan Stanley, for example, said he and his wife met Ms. Sadik-Khan for the first time last summer, for a cocktail at a Manhattan restaurant, after he had praised the new bicycle lanes to Mr. Bloomberg. “I told her I want to be supportive and helpful,” Mr. Mack said.

Another person on the list did not feel knowledgeable enough to discuss Ms. Sadik-Khan — or to be named saying so.

IN the aftermath of the December blizzard, Ms. Sadik-Khan, like virtually everyone else in the Bloomberg administration, was heavily criticized — in her case for not declaring a snow emergency.

At a City Council hearing investigating the city’s response, Ms. Sadik-Khan spoke only briefly, leaving some lawmakers wondering why she did not accept more blame. Making matters worse, she was later quoted in The New York Post saying of the hearing, “The Police Department could have called a weather emergency, and Ray Kelly wasn’t there.”

City Hall insiders were aghast. Public infighting is not just rare inside Bloomberg Land; it is all but forbidden. And the quote seemed an unprovoked attack on the police chief, the city’s most powerful and popular commissioner. Ms. Sadik-Khan was admonished by Bloomberg aides, according to two officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss internal matters, and in the following days she telephoned a number of City Council members to explain her comments.

Mr. Kelly, in an interview, said he and Ms. Sadik-Khan spoke about the incident, but he would not describe their talk. Ms. Sadik-Khan said she had a “great working relationship” with Mr. Kelly, and described the conversation as civil.

Asked more generally about Ms. Sadik-Khan, Mr. Kelly called her smart and innovative. But he acknowledged that the two “don’t always agree,” and said that the additional police efforts required by bicycle lanes and some of her other initiatives “can bring about some strain.”

“Certain decisions have been made that levy additional obligations on us at a time of reduced manpower,” Mr. Kelly said. “These decisions impact on our deployment, on our use of resources. There is always some give-and-take.”

Several politicians have recently started to see changes in the commissioner: courtesy phone calls that would not have been placed before; a receptive tone rather than a skeptical one. Scott M. Stringer, the Manhattan borough president, was surprised last month when Ms. Sadik-Khan pledged to accept some of his suggestions about a bicycle lane on the Upper West Side.

“The old way the mayor and the D.O.T. approached these street design issues was ‘my way or the highway,’ ” Mr. Stringer said. “What I think has happened over time is that is not working well.

“The test of Janette,” he continued, “is whether she can take all of these great ideas and bold proposals and actually sit down with the community and get them accomplished in a way that can be long-lasting.”

The recent travails seem to have left Ms. Sadik-Khan more guarded and on edge — and more attuned to her public image. Asked in the interview if she believed her standing with the mayor had fallen, she said: “I really can’t speak to that. I think you’d have to ask him.”

As the conversation came to a close, Ms. Sadik-Khan slumped in her chair, exhaled deeply, and crossed her arms. “A 30-year career,” she declared, with a snap of her finger, “can go like that.”