In the three years Enrique Peñalosa was mayor of Bogotá, Colombia he stirred up a lot of controversy by challenging some “norms” of city life, such as parking on sidewalks and forcing bicycles to compete with traffic. He had the radical idea that cities should be for people rather than cars.
That did not make him universally popular nor get him re-elected. Some were not happy when the “Cicloruta” (bike paths built alongside major arterials) were carved out of private property without the owners’ agreement or any relief on property taxes. Others thought his proposal to turn a country club into a public park was off base. And although he improved the city’s rush hour traffic, his method for doing so raised hackles. He made drivers take turns adding to the congestion by restricting each licensed vehicle to certain days of the week.
Peñalosa put children and public spaces ahead of private cars. He built bicycle paths and pedestrian streets, pathways and parks. He planted thousands of trees, expanded the bus system, created exclusive lanes for transit, improved marginal neighbourhoods and instilled civic pride.
In his TED talk, Peñalosa talks about his vision of more egalitarian cities where all children have “access to green spaces, to sports facilities, to swimming pools, to music lessons.” He calls for a “democratic equality” where “a bus with 80 passengers has a right to 80 times more road space than a car with one.”
When Peñalosa visited Vancouver in 2006, Charles Montgomery interviewed him for the Tyee. Peñalosa told him we need to measure success by something besides income. He said a more important measure was happiness and added:
And what are our needs for happiness? We need to walk, just as birds need to fly. We need to be around other people. We need beauty. We need contact with nature. And most of all, we need not be excluded. We need to feel some sort of equality.
Those were not just platitudes for Peñalosa. He spent his time as mayor changing his city’s built environment to ensure those things were possible. Nowadays he can be found consulting with governments and organizations around the world, sharing his vision for transformed urban areas.
The small city I live in (Kelowna, British Columbia) is gradually retrofitting neighbourhoods to create bike and pedestrian paths and add access to the waterfront. We have a long way to go before we accord pedestrians even a fraction of the space and convenience offered to private vehicles. But we are making progress. Learning about the vision of Enrique Peñalosa gives me hope that city governments will gradually discover that everyone’s quality of life improves in cities that put people and public spaces over private interests.