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NYC transit chief eager to see streetcars

New York for 60 years strived for just one thing: to get motor vehicles around as quickly as possible. That plan failed: the average car on Broadway travels at 5 mph.

By Peter Kuitenbrouwer

Published in the National Post on Wednesday, April 22, 2009.

Janette Sadik-Khan, Commissioner of Transportation of the City of New York, is in Toronto today to celebrate Earth Day and to see a Toronto icon that she wants to bring back to the Big Apple: the streetcar.

"I'm very jazzed about my visit," Ms. Sadik-Khan said yesterday from her New York office. "The streetcar program is something that I'm looking at here. We threw away our streetcars, and you kept them. I think it's a great economic development tool."

New York has one of the world's great subway systems, but long ago gave over its surface routes to cars and cabs and trucks. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is changing that. When the state blocked his bid for Manhattan road pricing, he retaliated two years ago by hiring Ms. Sadik-Khan, who has an "aggressive agenda to improve air quality, mobility and public space."

New York for 60 years strived for just one thing: to get motor vehicles around as quickly as possible, she says. That plan failed: the average car on Broadway travels at 5 mph. As one joke puts it, the only way to get to midtown Manhattan is to be born there.

And so Ms. Sadik-Khan has chosen a different plan: to increase the space on streets for walking and riding a bicycle. Last summer New York gave two lanes on Broadway in Times Square for pedestrians, bikes, planters, tables and chairs. This August the city will shut Broadway to cars for good in Times Square and in Herald Square, near the Empire State Building.

A cyclist herself, she adds: "We've gone from 220 bike lane miles to 420 lane miles in the last couple of years."

Ms. Sadik-Khan, a guest of Missisauga-based Walk & Bike for Life, will address a lunch at the Chestnut Hotel in Toronto, then meet with Mayor David Miller, and later travel by GO train to Port Credit for an evening speech at Clarke Hall.

Her assault on the lowly passenger automobile is part of a global craze: This Magazine's latest cover story, "Stop Cars," lists cities that put a high price on driving, including London, San Francisco and Vauban in Germany. Toronto is part of this trend. Having widened Jarvis Street in 1946 for cars, by cutting down the trees along its length, the city now plans to narrow Jarvis again. Waterfront Toronto has begun an $8-million study on removing the east stretch of the Gardiner Expressway. And with Transit City, Toronto plans to remove two lanes of car traffic from Sheppard, Finch and Eglinton avenues, for dedicated streetcar tracks.

The irony here is that efforts to promote transit, walking and cycling are most pronounced downtown, where those modes of transportation are already popular. What of the 905, where car is king? Enter Gil Penalosa, founder of Walk & Bike for Life, the hosts of Ms. Sadik-Khan's visit. He says Mississauga, where he lives and works, has more than doubled in population in 30 years, but all its best spots are the ones created before people drove cars.

"Name one community in Mississauga that is as good as Streetsville and Port Credit and Clarkson," he asks me.

I cannot.

"The government is widening the QEW in Mississsauga," he says. "There is not one cent to build a pedestrian bridge across the QEW. Let's spend $10-million on 10 pedestrian bridges across the QEW."

Vauban, Germany, discourages cars in part by giving every new resident a free transit pass. And German transit is very fast and efficient. So is New York transit. Many in Toronto, and not just in the 'burbs, drive cars because the transit is poor.

Still, it's fascinating to hear that our lowly streetcars, overcrowded and slow, have fans in high places. Ms. Sadik-Khan thinks a new streetcar in Brooklyn could encourage people to get on and off, and shop in their local area.

"In Portland they just started a new streetcar and were able to leverage $3-billion in [private] investment," she notes. "We need to rebalance the transportation network and make it as efficient and effective as possible."