February 09, 2009

Enrique Peñalosa: An Urban Innovator Draws A Crowd

These were the words that kicked off the lecture/presentation/self-help seminar by Enrique Peñalosa, former Mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, last Thursday night at the Boston Public Library. The quote was unattributed, but the idea of happiness formed the nucleus of Mr. Peñalosa’s philosophy of people-centered urbanism. Using photos and examples of projects in cities around the world, he crafted a vision of city life that stems from, focuses on, and expands exponentionally on the idea that cities are habitats for people.

His lecture was wide-ranging and full of digressions (and skipped-over slides that he never returned to) but he always returned to his core ideas, which I’ve tried to summarize:

  • If all people are equal, then the public interest trumps any private interest
  • Cities are habitats for people

In Mr. Peñalosa’s view, the easiest way to make the most people happy is to think of cities in terms of people, instead of cars or businesses or anything else. In a people-centric city, the primary use of streets is to move people efficiently in a way that benefits the public first: mass transit. “If there’s any room left over,” he joked, “we can let the cars have it.” In Bogotá, Mr. Peñalosa began enforcing laws that vastly restricted parking, moving vehicles off the sidewalk and reclaiming the space for pedestrians. Additionally, his administration designed and implemented a vast Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system called TransMilenio, which carries more than a million people a day. This system was cheaper, more efficient, and more egalitarian than a subway system would have been, and since the buses have dedicated lanes and utilize “green wave” signals, taking the bus is almost always faster than driving.

What these two ideas lead to is a completely different way of thinking about cities, especially when it comes to planning and transportation. In most cities, streets are not effective ways to move people from point A to point B. You and I and city planners and engineers have been fooling ourselves by thinking that they are, but we’ve been wrong. Instead streets are effective at moving cars from point A to point B. And the vast majority of cars are privately owned, thereby defying Mr. Peñalosa’s first idea up above.

For cycling, Mr. Peñalosa believed in pulling out all the stops. Every year in Bogotá, there is a 100% car-free day. Even though this day falls on a regular work-day, the citizens are not particularly inconvenienced. Amazingly, 88% of commuters report that they are able to get to work in the same amount of time on the car-free day as on normal driving days. Additionally, the city’s impressive Cyclovía program (pronounced see-klo-vee-aa, it’s the Spanish word for “bike path”) transforms almost 75 miles of busy streets to bicycle-only every Sunday and most Holidays. The Cyclovía program wasn’t started by Peñalosa, but it did receive additional attention and has been expanded into other Colombian cities.

In all, Mr. Peñalosa’s lecture was full of ideas and inspirations, and the audience—full of activists, advocates, urban planners, and local government types from all across the Greater Boston Area—was vocal in its enthusiasm and support. It seemed clear, in that auditorium, that there is room for a more people-centered approach to urban design here, but the real fight hasn’t even begun.

With the Boston Mayor’s race already starting, the coming Spring and Summer will be a crucial time for members of the Bicycling, Pedestrian, and Complete Streets communities to talk to the candidates and begin a dialogue about our cities’ potential and what they are willing to do to make us all a little bit happier.

To access the original article, click on the link below:
Enrique Peñalosa: An Urban Innovator Draws A Crowd

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