November 05, 2014

5 Things I Learned from Enrique Peñalosa

by: Taz Loomans

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Enrique Peñalosa is the former mayor of Bogota and he has become famous for putting in place radical equity measures such as restricting private car use and installing hundreds of kilometers of sidewalks, bicycle paths, pedestrian streets, greenways, and parks. Some of his most well known accomplishments during his tenure as mayor of Bogota are organizing the first city-wide Car-Free day in 2001 where a city of 6.5 million people banned cars from its streets, opening up public spaces for all people to walk, bicycle, and enjoy the city and bringing a very successful Bus Rapid Transit system to the city which empowered citizens with an affordable and efficient way of getting around.

Last month I had the privilege of seeing Peñalosa speak at SPUR, an urban planning advocacy organization in San Francisco. Here are 5 things I learned from his lecture that I’d like to share with you. (Everything below is almost entirely a direct quote from Peñalosa.)


1. Transportation solutions are not a matter for traffic engineers.

The most valuable thing in a city is road space. How should we distribute it? This is not a technical issue. Equality is a very important criteria for transportation planning. The only thing that matters in this life is happiness and one of the main obstacles to happiness is feeling excluded. All citizens are equal before the law. So a bicycle has the same right to street space as a Rolls Royce. There is no traffic engineer that can tell you the right width for a sidewalk. This is something you feel in your heart and in your soul.

2. Our cities today are VERY wrong, not just a little wrong.

We live in fear of getting killed (by a car). We think this is normal. When we keep building bigger and bigger roads, something is wrong. An urban highway is like a poisonous river. Humans can’t go near it or cross it. Can we imagine cities where every other street is for pedestrians and bicycles only? According to some projections, we will need to build 70 million new homes in the US in the next 40 years. This is a great opportunity to do something new.


3. Sidewalks are the only public space that’s left.

Where do we have a right to be? We only have a right to be in our own country and even then we only have a right to be in certain places because so much of our country is privately owned. The only place we have a right to be is sidewalks. Sidewalks aren’t just for walking from point A to point B. They are for talking and playing and doing business. Though they are adjacent to roads they are much closer relatives to plazas than they are to roads.

4. Mobility and traffic are two different problems.

Transit does not solve traffic, it solves mobility. You solve traffic problems by restricting car use and restricting parking. Parking is not a human right. Just like when you buy a refrigerator, you don’t expect the government to give you a house, you shouldn’t expect the government to provide parking for your car.

5. Every detail in our city should show respect for human dignity.

Every detail should show that all citizens are equal. Protected bikeways – are they just an architectural feature or are they a right? A protected bikeway is a symbol of democracy. It shows that a citizen on a $30 bike is as important as a citizen in a $30,000 car.


Photo Credit: Photo by the author.

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