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Is NYC’s Bold Transportation Commissioner a Victim of Her Own Success?

The New York Times’ profile of celebrated and embattled New York City Transportation Commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, shows how getting things done in a democracy can be bad for your political future.

Sadik-Khan has increased the amount of bike lanes by over 60 percent, removed cars from congested places like Herald and Times squares enabling them to become highly popular pedestrian zones, and cut traffic deaths to the lowest point in over a hundred years due to an intense attention to detail by her and her staff. New York magazine described her as being “equal parts Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs.”

Yet to her critics she is the equivalent of Genghis Khan, yelling insults over the phone to fellow bureaucrats, ignoring the wishes of certain parts of the city, not being deferential enough to city councilors, drawing “them versus us” lines in the sand, and basically having a “I know best style.” In a city that prides itself on being tough, her critics are pitifully crying that she hurts their feelings and she is not “inclusive” enough.

This is no more than the status quo defending its turf, hiding behind a fatuous grade school argument of “she isn’t nice.” Here is a successful person being pilloried in the press for being, well, successful. It certainly brings to mind the “resignation” of the hard-charging and tough former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee. She stepped on some toes and did not kiss enough rings, but she moved mountains in the worst public school system in the country. That similar criticism is directed at two powerful women may not be a coincidence.

This democracy needs tough “I know best” leaders to tackle the host of problems we face that appear insolvable. Sadik-Khan’s boss, Mayor Bloomberg, and other recent long-serving successful mayors like Mayor Daley and Riley (Charleston), do not govern solely by trying to be popular. They are successful because they know what is best. Many times they have to step on toes, many times breaking those toes, to get things done.

Sadik-Khan is leading the charge for a re-allocation for the most valuable real estate on the planet: the rights-of-way of the city of New York. Those rights-of-way have been the domain of the car drivers since Robert Moses ruled. It was what the market wanted then, and the Jane Jacobs-types of the city who were searching for a human-scaled place were marginalized. Now the market wants more Jane Jacobs and less Robert Moses, claiming a bigger share of the right-of-way. In giving the market what it wants, New York City has been far more economically successful recently than any time in the past two generations.

So, if you have your feelings hurt by a strong female leader you should, as they say in New York, get over it.