Celebrated Colombian urbanist and former mayor of Bogotá Enrique Peñalosa told a standing room audience of more than one hundred people at the San Francisco Public Library last night that San Francisco can be friendly to cars or to people, but not both. Further, he argued that there is no fundamental technical reason why streets have to function only as free-flowing arteries to move cars, but that the state of our cities in America is a political decision that we can overturn and that American’s perceptions of what is possible in cities will follow suit.
“I don’t say this as a car-hater—I have a car, I think cars can be wonderful to go to the countryside—but clearly the faster cars go in a city, the wider the roads are, the less pleasant is it to be around. The narrower the street, the slower the speeds, the wider the sidewalks, the better you can feel. High-velocity urban roads are sort of fences in a cow pasture.”
Road space, he argued, is the most valuable asset in a city and it is a resource that society can use as it pleases, distributing it between all transportation modes or only one. He stated what is obvious, but what seems to rarely be acknowledged by traffic engineers and politicians in San Francisco: less space for cars will mean less cars. “There is no such thing as a ‘natural’ level of car use in a city. There is nothing technical about how much space you should give to cars or to pedestrians. It’s not like you have to ask a transport engineer permission. What is clear is this is a political decision.”
Peñalosa’s trip was underwritten by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) and was part of the kick-off of the Great Streets Project, a join initiative between the SFBC, SPUR, Project for Public Spaces, and The Livable Streets Initiative (parent company of Streetsblog). Peñalosa earlier in the day met with Mayor Gavin Newsom, which he said went quite well.
“I think [Newsom] was very sensitive to all these issues and he even told some of his people to look into how these things are being used in other cities, the designs that are being used to improve the pedestrian and bicycle spaces there,” he said.
In a nod to San Francisco’s Freeway Revolts, Peñalosa argued that one of the most important citizen movements in the last fifty years has been the slow reclamation of cities from private cars and freeways. He also stated emphatically that there is no reason that we have to be inured to the number of people who die from cars, particularly children. Citing the statistic that 250,000 children die on streets every year worldwide, he said we should rethink our fairy tales where the big bad wolf is actually a wolf.
“We are living in an environment where our children are constantly in danger of being killed, but what is shocking is that we think this is normal,” he said. “A good city is good for children, for the handicapped, for low-income people, for the elderly, for the most vulnerable citizens.”
In addition to changing the physical boundaries of streets and sidewalks to privilege vulnerable populations, Peñalosa spent a good deal of his discussion on the need to remove parking at curbside to open up the space for other users and to make transit as convenient and cheap as possible, two issues particularly relevant in San Francisco.
“All constitutions have many rights, pages and pages of rights. With so many rights, I’ve never found that any constitution includes the right to park,” he said. “Governments have the obligation to provide health, to provide education, to provide housing, but not necessarily to provide parking. This is a private problem.”
Instead of providing so much curbside parking, Peñalosa suggested that sidewalks should be widened as much as possible, that sidewalks are extensions of parks and public space that should be treated with the same regard as actual parks. “People tend to think sidewalks are relatives of streets, because they live next to each other,” he said. “But in fact, sidewalks are not for getting from one place to another. Sidewalks are for talking, for doing business, for playing, for kissing. Sidewalks really are relatives of parks.”
As for transit, he clearly sees public mobility as a public right that trumps the right to private mobility and he believes that car drivers should pay more to subsidize transit.
“Whenever people use public transit, it’s not because they love the environment. In advanced cities in Zurich or in London, most people use public transit, even the rich. Why do they use it? Because they have to. If we want people to use public transport, we have to improve transit but we also need to restrict car use, a little bit of the carrot, a little bit of the stick.”
The easiest way to restrict car use is to restrict parking, he said. “Most cities in the world where people use public transit it’s difficult to park.” Other strategies he liked were charging for car use, such as congestion pricing and higher gas taxes, provided that money is used to subsidize transit.
In closing his presentation, Peñalosa urged the audience to set its sights as high as possible to completely re-imagine cities so that not only “those who have a private motorcar have the right to safe mobility. People in government will have to take a risk, they will have to make decisions that are unpopular to at least some people. You have to do uncomfortable things.”
“If we’re going to talk about transport, I would say that the great city is not the one that has highways, but one where a child on a tricycle or bicycle can go safely everywhere.”
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