Former Bogotà mayor Enrique Peñalosa interviewed by Susan Ives (U.S.A.)
If you could wave a magic wand and create the perfect city, what would that city be like?
We really have to admit that over the past hundred years we have been building cities much more for mobility than for people’s well-being. Every year thousands of children are killed by cars. Isn’t it time we build cities that are more child-friendly? Over the last 30 years, we’ve been able to magnify environmental consciousness all over the world. As a result, we know a lot about the ideal environment for a happy whale or a happy mountain gorilla. We’re far less clear about what constitutes an ideal environment for a happy human being. One common measure for how clean a mountain stream is is to look for trout. If you find the trout, the habitat is healthy. It’s the same way with children in a city. Children are a kind of indicator species. If we can build a successful city for children we will have a successful city for all people.
Given the rapid growth of Third World cities, is this possible?
Many Third World cities today are really only half built. Many are still surrounded by undeveloped land that will be overtaken by the city very soon. We still have the opportunity to learn from the successes and mistakes of other cities around the world. We need to think about how to create cities that produce more convivial, creative, and happy human beings. Where is the urban expert who decided that cities had to be structured around cars? Why not begin to think differently? Why not dream of a city where half the streets would be for pedestrians, where the heart of the city would be a giant avenue lined with benches and trees, a meeting place for the community, where people go to jog, ride bicycles, talk, kiss, eat in cafes? A city doesn’t have to be a bunch of roads for cars with some buildings around them.
As mayor, you made it your platform to transform the city’s transportation system.
When I got to city hall, I was a handed a transportation study that said the most important thing the city could do was to build an elevated highway at a cost of $600 million. Instead, we installed a bus system that carries 700,000 people a day at a cost of $300 million. We created hundreds of pedestrian-only streets, parks, plazas, and bike paths, planted trees, and got rid of cluttering commercial signs. We constructed the longest pedestrian-only street in the world. It may seem crazy, because this street goes through some of the poorest neighborhoods in Bogotá, and many of the surrounding streets aren’t even paved. But we chose not to improve the streets for the sake of cars, but instead to have wonderful spaces for pedestrians. All this pedestrian infrastructure shows respect for human dignity. We’re telling people, “You are important–not because you’re rich or because you have a Ph.D., but because you are human.” If people are treated as special, as sacred even, they behave that way. This creates a different kind of society.
How was your idea of putting pedestrians needs ahead of cars received?
I was nearly impeached when I said that cars shouldn’t be allowed to park on the sidewalks. My opponents were business owners who said there was enough space on the sidewalks for cars to park and for people to still walk by. In Bogotá only 25 to 30 percent of the households have cars.
Yet we use public money to build roads for the cars that so few people can afford, while the majority walk or use public transit. Democracy isn’t just about casting a vote. It’s about public good over private. If we can ban cars, isn’t the majority better off?
What steps were you able to take?
We began to experiment by instituting a car-free day on a weekday. In a city of about 7 million people, just about everybody managed to get to work by walking, bicycling, bus, even on horseback– and everybody was better off. There was less air pollution, less time sitting in traffic, more time for people to be productive and enjoy themselves. Every Sunday we close 120 kilometers of roads to motor vehicles for seven hours. A million and a half people of all ages and incomes come out to ride bicycles, jog, and simply gather with others in community. We took a vote, and 83 percent of the public told us they wanted to have car-free days more often. Getting people out of their cars is a means of social integration. You have the upper-income person sitting next to the cleaning lady on the bus. This may be something you take for granted in your country. But in the Third World, society isn’t so integrated. This is extremely powerful and revolutionary.
Source: CHILD- AND YOUTH-FRIENDLY LAND-USE AND TRANSPORT PLANNING GUIDELINES FOR BRITISH COLUMBIA by Richard Gilbert and Catherine O’Brien, April 30, 2005