NBC's Harry Smith Gushes Over 'Greener and Cleaner' NYC Traffic Plan: 'Maybe We Should Just Get Rid of Cars Altogether?'

On NBC's Rock Center on Monday, correspondent Harry Smith did a glowing profile of New York City Traffic Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, praising her as a "bold bureaucrat....on a mission to tame New York's mean streets. Her goal, untangle the gridlock and make it safer, greener and cleaner."

As Smith explained in his report, a big part of that plan involved shutting down streets throughout the city, making them only accessible to pedestrians and bicycles: "In Times Square, business improved almost overnight, with half the cars and trucks gone, the 356,000 daily visitors could breathe a little easier, and Sadik-Khan became the high priestess of people-friendly cities."

Later in the segment, Smith talked to transportation engineer Sam Schwartz, who excitedly declared Sadik-Khan to be "a visionary." After Schwartz explained that horses in 1915 moved through the city at the same speed as modern traffic, Smith wondered: "Maybe we should just get rid of the cars altogether?" Schwartz joked: "Bring back those horses."

Smith touted Sadik-Khan's dictatorial approach: "[She] is a champion of so-called pilot programs that give her the freedom to try out her ideas without getting bogged down in red tape or community input." Smith proclaimed: "New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is an unabashed fan. To him, brash is beautiful." Bloomberg argued: "She goes and she tries to implement it rather than just sit around and talk....You can't keep consulting all the time."

After detailing how a critic of the bike lanes demonstrated that one such lane in front of her apartment building was hardly used by cyclists, Smith sympathetically asked Sadik-Khan: "Does it surprise you that people will go to that extent to sort of prove you wrong?" Sadik-Khan remarked: "We've got a city of 8.4 million, and sometimes I think they're 8.4 million traffic engineers..."

Bloomberg dismissed the criticism: "Nobody makes you take a bicycle, but giving you another alternative, that's just giving everybody more of a right to be in charge of their own destiny, which is what you'd really like in a democracy."

Following the report, Smith continued to promote Sadik-Khan's plan: "Broadway goes diagonally across and that adds more places for people to stop. So getting rid of that section of Broadway actually, they say, helped the traffic move a little better." Host Brian Williams noticed Smith's advocacy: "Somebody's been lobbied." Smith replied: "You think I drank the Kool-Aid?" The two just laughed off the bias.

Smith explained that some of the bike lanes have been reverted back into roads after resident complaints and asserted: "So they are really responding to the needs of the people." Williams again pointed out Smith's reciting of talking points: "Listen to you. I think I just got played. I just got played by Harry Smith on our own broadcast."


Here is a full transcript of the December 5 segment:

10:35PM ET

BRIAN WILLIAMS: You are looking live at Times Square here in New York, just a few blocks from where we are at Rock Center. And when they call Times Square the crossroads of the world, they aren't kidding. It's a big ball of humanity. Now a very powerful woman with an exotic name and a controversial, almost glamorous public image, is trying to unsnarl New York's endless traffic jam and she says make it a better place to live and a better place to drive, either on four wheels or two. Her name is Janette Sadik-Khan and she is not like a lot of the other transportation officials you meet, as Harry Smith found out when he walked the streets of New York with her this fall.

HARRY SMITH: Up until two years ago, this was a street. There was buses, cars, trucks, and now, day and night, this is filled with people.

JANETTE SADIK-KHAN: Yes. It used to be an incredible tangle of traffic. And now you can see people out just enjoying it.

SMITH: Janette Sadik-Khan is single handedly either revitalizing or ruining the streets of New York City. She is that rarest of public servants, a bold bureaucrat. Did this all turn out better than you anticipated?

SADIK-KHAN: I was greatly relieved that it turned out as well as it did.

SMITH: Sadik-Khan is the transportation commissioner of New York City. A yawn-inducing title with an enormous budget, most of which is used to pave streets and fix bridges. What inspires you?

SADIK-KHAN: Cities inspire me. I think cities are the future of the planet. We have half the population of the world living in cities right now.

SMITH: She is on a mission to tame New York's mean streets. Her goal, untangle the gridlock and make it safer, greener and cleaner. Two years ago, she had a bold idea. Close off half of Times Square to cars, reducing traffic and pollution and making the area safer for pedestrians.

SADIK-KHAN: I think it's a great model for other cities and other countries to look to.

SMITH: Other big cities are taking notice. For as the song says, "if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere."

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: We've got ourselves a Broadway hit.

SMITH: In Times Square, business improved almost overnight, with half the cars and trucks gone, the 356,000 daily visitors could breathe a little easier, and Sadik-Khan became the high priestess of people-friendly cities.

SADIK-KHAN: If you build it, they will come.

SMITH: Harry Smith from NBC. But not everyone is a fan of her 'Field of Dreams' attitude.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It's impossible to drive in this city.

SMITH: We're doing a story on traffic.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN B: It's pathetic.

SMITH: It's pathetic?

MAN B: The mayor has no clue. And what we've done here, we've reduced the space and we've made everything more difficult.

SMITH: And it's not only Times Square making drivers angry. In her quest to reduce the city's carbon footprint and manage New York's notorious traffic, Sadik-Khan has converted 260 miles of city streets into bike lanes.

MARTY MARKOWITZ: They're trying to stigmatize car owners and get them to abandon their cars.

SMITH: Brooklyn borough president Marty Markowitz mocked the bike lanes by riding a tricycle. He even wrote a song about them.

MARKOWITZ: I simply remember my favorite lanes and then I just say, 'Ay, veh.'

SMITH: The opinions are really very heartfelt and if you're taking away my ability to get from point A to point B and the way I've always done it, you are messing with me.

SADIK-KHAN: But I'm not taking away your ability to do it and that's the important piece. I'm just allowing some other people to do it and improving their options for getting around.

SMITH: Impeccably dressed, ivy-league-educated and tough as nails, Sadik-Khan has been labeled a "zealot," an "anti-car extremist" and one columnist called her "the wacko nutso bike commissioner." Do you read this stuff?

SADIK-KHAN: I do.

SMITH: Yeah? And when you read it, what do you think?

SADIK-KHAN: Not for TV.

SMITH: It's not just what she's done but how she's done it. Sadik-Khan is a champion of so-called pilot programs that give her the freedom to try out her ideas without getting bogged down in red tape or community input.

BLOOMBERG: She goes and she tries to implement it rather than just sit around and talk. People will say, 'Well, you didn't consult me enough.' She consults. You can't keep consulting all the time.

SMITH: New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is an unabashed fan. To him, brash is beautiful. The rumor going around is that she may be the only person around city hall who intimidates you.

BLOOMBERG: I don't think that's quite – I've never heard that rumor before. There's not a lot of truth to that. But there is some truth to the rumor that the ways to have permanent employment in the Bloomberg administration is to have the newspapers demand that I fire you. You can rest assured she'll have a job for a long time, thank you very much.

SMITH: Your critics say, well, she's imperious, she doesn't listen, she's autocratic. You know, we could go on and on.

SADIK-KHAN: Please don't.

SMITH: When you hear that stuff, what do you say?

SADIK-KHAN: I'm really focused on delivering the agenda that we have to make our streets as safe as they can be. And I feel very strongly about that.

SMITH: The daughter of an investment banker and New York Post reporter, Sadik-Khan is an avid cyclist who often bikes to work. She held a high-level transportation job under President Clinton and spent nearly a decade in the private sector before Mayor Bloomberg hired her.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN [TRAFFIC REPORTER]: Traffic is still very heavy for miles and miles. We've got one lane blocked.

SMITH: Even her critics agree Sadik-Khan doesn't have an easy job. She took us inside the city's traffic command center where engineers are using the latest technology to keep midtown moving. Using GPS data from taxicabs, motion sensors and traffic cameras, technicians can not only monitor congestion in real time, they can fix it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN C: Right lane blocked, expect delays.

SADIK-KHAN: They can actually react to what happens on the streets wirelessly and change a traffic signal if it needs to be changed or get a police department tow truck in there to move a truck or a car off to the side.

SMITH: While all that technology might trim a few minutes off a daily commute, a lot of drivers simply want their lanes back. Why do you think that bike lanes make people so mad?

SADIK-KHAN: I think they're different and they're visible. What you're seeing in the opinion polls is that 66% of New Yorkers like them. So despite what you might read in some of the press, I think that there's an understanding that they're better for the city. It's healthier for the city and it's safer for the city.

SMITH: These colored lines represent all the bike lanes. Sadik-Khan has doubled the amount. And while the percentage of New Yorkers commuting by bike has doubled in the past 20 years, the actual number is incredibly small, less than 1%.

CROWD: This is insane, move the lane! This is insane, move the lane!

SMITH: Nowhere has the battle of the bike lanes been more contentious than in Brooklyn. Louise Hainline has been fighting city hall, and in particular a two-way bike lane in front of her apartment building, for the last year. A psychology professor at Brooklyn College, she set out to collect her own data.

LOUISE HAINLINE: So I set up this pretty cheesy surveillance camera in a window nearby, and I filmed the bike path, and then I spent hours in front of a computer counting bikes.

SMITH: After shooting 500 hours of footage and coding the data, she concluded the transportation department had overstated the benefits of the bike lane.

HAINLINE: They seem to have created a bike lane to solve a problem that doesn't exist.

SMITH: Does it surprise you that people will go to that extent to sort of prove you wrong?

SADIK-KHAN: We've got a city of 8.4 million, and sometimes I think they're 8.4 million traffic engineers and so everybody's got a very strong opinion about how they want to see their street used. So, no, it doesn't surprise me.

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: Nobody makes you take a bicycle, but giving you another alternative, that's just giving everybody more of a right to be in charge of their own destiny, which is what you'd really like in a democracy.

SMITH: But freedom on New York City streets has always been hard to come by.

SAM SCHWARTZ: Janette is absolutely a visionary.

SMITH: Sam "Gridlock" Schwartz is one of the nation's leading transportation engineers. This former traffic commissioner for the city earned his nickname "Gridlock" during the 1980 transit strike when he worried that the city grid system would lock up. Yes, that's how the term "Gridlock" was born.

SCHWARTZ: Traffic speeds today are identical to what they were in 1915.

SMITH: 1915, the traffic speeds were the same as they are now?

SCHWARTZ: Yes. A horse could move at 5 to 7 miles an hour and cars in midtown Manhattan in 2011 are moving across town at 5 to 7 miles an hour. Crazy.

SMITH: Maybe we should just get rid of the cars altogether?

SCHWARTZ: Bring back those horses.

SADIK-KHAN: We have to do things differently. You can't wish your way out of congestion. We are thrilled to be coming together today

SMITH: Sadik-Khan recently announced a new bike share program for the city that will bring 10,000 bikes to the street, allowing riders to rent bicycles from automated kiosks. More change that will most certainly bring more controversy.

SADIK-KHAN: The notion that you're going to change things and you're going to make it better and you're from a government, you know, that's a heavy lift.

SMITH: What are you, crazy?

SADIK-KHAN: Yeah. Change is always, always hard and you're not going to make everybody happy. But you have to try your best to leave the city in a better place than you found it, and that's really what I'm here to do.

WILLIAMS: So, Harry, I'm no traffic engineer, but if you – if you want to make a pedestrian mall out of Broadway, if you want to put a Robert Trent Jones golf course in, go ahead.

SMITH: Sure.

WILLIAMS: I do have news. Those cars are not going to stay home. They're going to come into New York City and they're going to find other streets to sit on.

SMITH: Well, they talked about doing price congestion, you know, like they have in London, that got nowhere. So this is what they're trying to do because honestly, you know, Broadway goes diagonally across and that adds more places for people to stop. So getting rid of that section of Broadway actually, they say, helped the traffic move a little better.
                
WILLIAMS: Somebody's been lobbied.

SMITH [LAUGHS]: You think I drank the Kool-Aid? That's what they said anyway?

WILLIAMS: And the bike lanes. Now, on behalf of those people who are angered by the bike lanes, is there a time when if they're still kind of more desolate than not in five years, they will paint them black again and cars and trucks will be able to use them?

SMITH: There have been perhaps one or two cases where they have gone back and said, "We have made a mistake and perhaps we should re-engineer what we've done to this bicycle lane."

WILLIAMS: So?

SMITH: So they are really responding to the needs of the people.

WILLIAMS: Listen to you. I think I just got played. I just got played by Harry Smith on our own broadcast. Thank you very much. Interesting profile.

SMITH: Always a pleasure.

Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen is a News Analyst for MRC