Wednesday, November 9

Enrique Penalosa: Hope for an Urban Future

Enrique Peñalosa Londoño, at fifty-seven years old, the “Man of Plan,” is an award-winning journalist, an international consultant on urban policy and transportation, an avid biker, and the former mayor of Bogotá.  He also has a suggestion or two for New York City.

Credit: El Espectador
“We underestimate the power of dreams. The most difficult thing is to dream and to create a collective dream or a shared vision. I think it’s time to take a great risk suddenly and to do something new, to do the new New York.”

A charismatic and agile fifty-seven year old Colombian-American, Peñalosa ran his first three out of four mayoral elections entirely on foot, on a bike, or on a bus.

Peñalosa attended Duke University, studying economics and history, before receiving his Masters and Doctorate degrees in Management and Public Administration from the Institut International D' Administration Publique in Paris. From 1986 to 1990, Peñalosa served as economic advisor to then-President of Colombia, Virgilio Barco. In 1990, with neither political experience nor official support, he ran for the Colombian Congress. Elected with 22,000 votes, he only remained in office for one year due to reform measures that closed the Colombian Government.
Credit: StreetsBlog

           That year, Peñalosa decided to run for Mayor of Bogotá using the same campaign strategy as his Congressional win. Again, without the backings of any other officials, he went door-to-door, person-to-person, on foot, a bike, or on public transportation. After two unsuccessful bids, he was finally elected in 1997.

During his three years in office, Peñalosa built 52 new schools, refurbished 150 others, and increased student enrollment by 34 percent. He created or improved 1200 parks, established 13 libraries, built 100 nurseries, provided water service to 100% of Bogotá households, bought undeveloped land around the city for future developments in affordable housing and greenways, built 300 km of bikeways, and created the world’s longest pedestrian street, which measures at 10.5 miles.  Such comprehensive and expedited improvements had not been seen in developed cities such as New York since the age of Robert Moses, let alone in developing ones like Bogotá.

Penálosa sees New York as the perfect city for improvements. Densely populated and with a relatively flat terrain, he envisions Broadway being closed off to vehicles, and 42nd street being a pedestrian-only walkway for tourists.
“Here in Manhattan, there could be at least a few cross-town bicycle ways. We cannot continue to deceive ourselves thinking that to paint a little line on a road is a bikeway,” Penálosa stated in an interview with StreetFilms, “ A bicycle way which is not safe for an eight year old is not a bicycle way. Hopefully the city can do a whole network of very well protected, physically protected bicycle ways all across Manhattan.”
Peñalosa believes that New York, as well as many other developed cities, put the select few who own motor vehicles first. They are given a higher quality of life and great strides need to be taken in meeting the needs of those without cars. To him, accommodating motorists first and foremost is undemocratic.

In a December 2009 interview with Business Standard, while discussing the new BRT system in Ahmedabad, India, Peñalosa claimed that affluential first-world cities like New York needed to re-evaluate how public transportation is viewed.

           “In the 20th century, we made cities for cars. In the 21st century, we need to make it for people,” he stated, “The people will have to understand that public transport is not only for the poor but for the rich as well.”
In documentary titled “Bogotá Change,” the rapid and radical transformation of a city once called the world’s “most dangerous, violent, and corrupt,” is seen as largely a result of Peñalosa’s unorthodox methods. According to the film, in ten years time, the violence-infested capital of Colombia became a model city under Peñalosa’s charismatic leadership, unique strategies, and philosophy of urban planning.

Credit: StreetsBlog
New York City parallels Bogotá in some ways. It has experienced a recent decrease in criminal activity. It also claims a large income disparity, a dense population, unsafe conditions for bikers, and a puzzling traffic problem. Informal vendors or “hawkers” are commonplace on Canal Street in Chinatown. In Bogotá, these peddlers have been relocated away from occupation the streets.

Like Moses in his heyday, Peñalosa made great improvements in city parks as well as construction of new ones.  Many of the city’s main streets and avenues were entirely renovated. But with the changes came controversy. By elevating the concrete slabs and installing placed bollards, he made it impossible for cars to park on sidewalks. He began construction on the TransMilenio, a rapid transit bus system that allows for acceleration by buses on designated roads, which now has 114 stations and counting, and services 1.5 million people. An increased tax on gasoline for vehicles has generates revenue for the bus system.

The aristocratic sectors of the city view him as a socialist and an idealist. His idea to turn the Bogotá Country Club into a public park was quickly turned down.

Other radical changes include his introduction of the Pico y Placa traffic mitigation policy, which restricts vehicles with license plates ending in certain digits from traveling the streets during certain times. As of July 2011, four digits are restricted each day between 6 AM and 8 PM, forcing drivers to take public transportation, carpool, or bike during those hours. The traffic congestion has since been reduced by forty percent.

          “I was almost impeached by the car-owning upper classes,” Peñalosa remembered, “but it was popular with everyone else.”
Unpopular enough for Peñalosa to lose the 2007 Mayoral Election, in which he received only 28.15% of the votes.

In 2009, he was elected President of the Board of Directors of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, New York-based group promoting sustainable transportation in the developing world. Many hope that his presence and leadership in New York urban planning grows, despite his desires to return to Bogotá as a Green Party Candidate for Mayor.
“Economics, urban planning, ecology are only the means. Happiness is the goal,” Peñalosa says, “We have a word in Spanish, ganas, which means a burning desire. I have ganas about public life.”

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