The memorable Janette Sadik-Khan
Janette Sadik-Khan is a lawyer. She moves easily in engineering circles. She led the New York City Department of Transportation for six years. There is no necessary reason with that professional pedigree that she should also be able to speak clearly. Lawspeak plus engineeringspeak plus transportationspeak plus zoningspeak can be the deadliest of communication cocktails. Numbed by acronyms, baffled by gab, fogged by vaporous words, listeners are quickly anaesthetized while the elect work their schemes unbothered because un-understood.
Sadik-Khan spoke to crowds in Edmonton and Calgary last week. She spun yarns from her storied tenure at NYC DOT. Bike lanes. Bikeshare. Summer Streets. Plazas. A new Times Square. Deck chairs. Paint. Bus rapid transit. A reinvigorated way of seeing public space for people. All the riveting stuff of her book Streetfight: Handbook For An Urban Revolution. Read it!
Part of Sadik-Khan's revolution is in language itself. In the book's preface, she recalls Mayor Michael Bloomberg whispering "Don't fuck it up!" after introducing her as transportation commissioner at a media conference in 2007. The salty language is attention-getting. We aren't accustomed to hearing elected leaders swear openly. We have been granted special access by the writer, and access, as every old newspaper reporter knows, is everything. But there is another kind of salt in the four-word Bloomberg imperative. This salt is the way that short sentences preserve themselves in the reader's memory. And Sadik-Khan can write short sentences. Here are a few of the many examples from the book, and some tentative thoughts about what makes them tick.
When you push the status quo, it pushes back, hard.
Drivers learned that the street was theirs and to stop for red lights instead of for people...
What happened to the traffic that used those two uptown lanes? The grid happened.
(The grid happened. Makes me think shit happens. A little more salt poured in the words!)
Sadik-Khan's fondness for using tricks from pre-literate days in her writing transfers to her live stage show.
Two days after we watched her in a packed the Garneau Theatre in Edmonton at an event hosted by Paths for People, I asked my wife what she remembered from Sadik-Khan's presentation.
She took a heartbeat to consider. "She said density is destiny," Shelagh said.* A short sentence with alliteration can work like a hook, even when listeners can't go back and read the short sentence again. The hook works precisely for that reason. When words uttered live vanish, as unprinted sound does, they need help to stick around inside an audience. Short sentences, with two of three words starting with "d," do help.
Short wordplay helps, too.
Another short sentence:
|Book of Jon|
Sadik-Khan's presentation was image-rich. No screens full of text. No screens full of bullets. And replete with humour that smuggled in messages.
You have a lot of asphalt! she said in front of an image of the downtown bicycle lanes. Laughter! Lesson: use it to make a true bike network that connects people to where—the libraries, rec facilities, parks, work—they want to safely go.
|A lot of asphalt|
Here's a version of that meme about the space required to transport 60 people by car, updated to include Uber and autonomous vehicles, she said. Laughter, as the audience digested the sameness of the line of cars. Lesson: the streets of the future will be just like the streets of the present unless there is room made for people, cool technology or not.
|Space in future time|
The Citibike bikeshare program was in the very centre of the Venn diagram illustrating what annoyed New Yorkers. Whether you didn't like Bloomberg, environmental initiatives, sharing, health campaigns or things vaguely French, you didn't like Citibike. Laughter. Lesson: don't be so serious all the time.
The humour set the stage for the profound. In front of a slide showing a person using a scooter to safely cross a marked intersection, Sadik-Khan recalled the wisdom of former New York Mayor David Dinkins, who said we are all temporarily able. We are all temporarily able. Short and true and unforgettable.
Janette Sadik-Khan can technical-talk with the best of them, I am sure. Her access to the worlds of law, engineering, transportation, planning and zoning and the rest of the rest of the municipalexicon ensures this. She can connect with the best of them, too.
What I remember: keep people in sight in your work, and in how your words work, too.
* An earlier version of this post incorrectly relayed the quote as "density was density." While this is inarguably and demonstrably true, it is precisely not what was said. :) Thanks for the catch, Sue.