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Enrique Peñalosa

For those that didn’t make it to our film night or haven’t seen Gary Huswit’s Urbanized here is a little more on what was, for me, one of the highlights of the film. Dr Enrique Peñalosa. The implausibly suave ex-Mayor of Bogota. Interviewed on one of his cycleways riding in a suit, pausing mid interview to greet people zipping by.

Enrique Peñalosa

Enrique Peñalosa was Mayor of Bogota from 1998-2001. He transformed this very divided city by prioritising spending on the poor instead of the rich, which included building a BRT system and cycle and walking infrastructure instead of highways. He also built a lot of libraries, kindergardens, and public parks. Naturally this all made him very unpopular with some very powerful sections of society but, despite his short time as mayor, he did still manage to transform the city in ways that persist today. Here’s an interview with him from 2007 on Streetfilms.

Now of course Bogota is a very different place to Auckland. In particular Auckland has a less extreme social hierarchy, or at least a bigger middle income group, but still, the more I read about Peñalosa the more I find his approach both relevant and inspiring. For example this is true everywhere:

“Urban transport is a political and not a technical issue. The technical aspects are very simple. The difficult decisions relate to who is going to benefit from the models adopted.” -Enrique Peñalosa

Too many decisions have been made in Auckland and New Zealand through processes that privilege technicalities over outcomes. In other words lower order issues of through what process to fund infrastructure or what we are used to building gain priority over higher order questions of what kind of society do we want. We have the cart before the horse. Remember that the fateful coup that totally redirected all of Auckland’s transport infrastructure away from people and towards the car in the mid 1950s was achieved with the words: “It’s a technical matter”.*

“We had to build a city not for businesses or automobiles, but for children and thus for people. Instead of building highways, we restricted car use. … We invested in high-quality sidewalks, pedestrian streets, parks, bicycle paths, libraries; we got rid of thousands of cluttering commercial signs and planted trees. … All our everyday efforts have one objective: Happiness.” -Enrique Peñalosa

Of course enabling productive business is important but only in order to serve the greater good of human happiness; business, like faster transport is not an end in itself. Furthermore the world’s economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment. It is not an either/or situation. We cannot delay living better. Fitting sustainably into the reality of a finite planet is not something we can turn our attention to after we have somehow become rich while despoiling it. Sustainable practices are not, as our current government speaks about them, some kind of wasteful cost, but a real benefit. And this century we are going to have to change pretty much every detail of our lives in order to accommodate pressures that just weren’t as pressing in the last one;

“The world’s environmental sustainability and quality of life depends to a large extent on what is done during the next few years in the Third World’s 22 mega-cities. There is still time to think different… there could be cities with as much public space for children as for cars, with a backbone of pedestrian streets, sidewalks and parks, supported by public transport.” -Enrique Peñalosa

I am constantly surprised by how little debate there is in New Zealand about these issues, how out of date the terms of most of the conversation is, and how resistant to change our institutions are. But then I think this is because we are relatively lucky: We have been fortunate by being insulated from the worst of the ongoing crisis in the global economy by high commodity prices and having China’s mine as our largest trading partner. And by the fact we have a thinly populated and therefore relatively unspoiled country. The urgent problems facing the whole world can feel quite distant here, for which we are right to feel grateful, but not complacent. It is a feature of the increasing interconnectedness of both the world’s economy and its biology that we cannot escape these mega-issues; change is coming whether we welcome it or not.

And here’s the thing: The more the pressures of this century unfold the clearer it becomes how much better life could be by adapting to them rather than just pretending that we can go on indefinitely as we are. That Republican idea that this way of life is non-negotiable is as pig-headed as it is certain to be untrue: It will be re-negotiated. Cities that stop building for cars and invest instead in Place and People are becoming better, safer, more resilient, richer, and yes, happier, than those that cling to the late 20th century model.

The only constant in life is change. And it is a lot more pleasant to choose to change than to wait until it is forced on you. This is true personally and collectively, and when it comes to cities, the ones that are better adapted, ‘fitter’ in the Darwinian sense, for the forces at work this century will be the most successful.

It is instructive to recall that mid 1950s moment that plunged Auckland from having about the highest public transport rates in the developed world to later that century having the lowest as proof that quite extreme change is not only possible but more frequent than might be thought. That was, of course, a top-down revolution and currently we have a government that refuses even to have a conversation or thought about change. In fact its actions can be read as a wilful attempt to force continuity onto the world by simply ignoring any factors that don’t fit its model. Yet there is more than a nagging fear concealed in its anxiety to rush through its plans with such urgency, like unconsciously it knows that the game is up- this is the last great highway mania. And of course systems have momentum and tend to persist; but the corollary to that is that things also go on until they don’t….. Interesting times.

It seems we may have to experience crisis directly before we are ready for our own Peñalosa.

* See Paul Mees Transport for Suburbia RMIT 2010 pp20-29 for the history of this pivotal event.

Here’s trailer for the film:

19 comments to Enrique Peñalosa

  • Mugsy1

    Yes, a very inspiring man and for me, one of the highlights of the film.

    I was particularly struck by his linking of transport choices and democracy. “100 people in a bus have 100 times as many rights to road space as one person in a car” (or words to that effect).

    Which is why we should have (at least at peak hours) bus lanes over the bridge and all the way to/from Britomart.

    • Ingolfson

      Our current system is indeed a bit like giving cars the vote. Everything is decided to a large degree by sentences like “this intersection carries 7,000 vehicles a day – that limits our ability to provide for pedestrians”.

      Also, I’m not a funding-assessment person, but as far as I am aware, the benefit-cost-ratio calculations in NZ heavily advantage work commute trips and business traffic over all other traffic. With the implied assumption that a pedestrian or a cyclist (for which only one benefit ratio exists each) can never be on a work or a business trip.

  • Greg N

    On that point, there was a recent report I read about a study (a NZ based one) that looked at what Public Transport users did with their time while waiting for their bus, train etc (and possibly Snapper card to scan correctly :-) ) and how happy as a whole they were.

    It said that contrary to the current dogma that all such “waiting” is bad, in fact those who used PT were on the whole happier and more socially engaged as a result of the activities they undertook while essentially “waiting” for the bus to turn up (or for the journey to reach their stop). This including day dreaming, engaging with other PT users to some degree.

    In effect many of the PT users “day dreamed” (or texted, Facebooked or whatever) while waiting and did not see waiting as a bad thing and that some downtime is actually beneficial not only for that person, but for society as a whole.

    Wish I could find the link, but this ties into the assumptions around BCR calculations which assume that waiting is always bad and that any business taking priorty over everything else is even better.

    So maybe, we need to do as the Bogota mayor did and take time out to actually “smell the roses along the way” as the old saying goes.

    • Ingolfson

      Mmmmh, I remember the studies from way back which discussed waiting time. Maybe we need to emphasise that actual travel time of PT is considered less of an issue (it’s the waiting for the bus time that bugs people most) and also, that both waiting periods are somewhat alleviated by today’s smart / internet-linked electronics?

      However, I was mainly referring to the fact that BCR calculations for transport projects use two very different yardsticks for “business” and “leisure” trips (in addition to letting peds and cyclists fall through the crack a bit) – and I argue that this is a result of our extremely capitalist society, which always needs to weigh everything in the “does it make a buck?” manner.

  • He’s not implausibly suave, he is merely Colombian ;)

  • To do all that in three years seems incredible in the Auckland context.

    • Ingolfson

      One presumes (unfairly?) that it is easier to build cycleways in a less dense environment, with cheaper land and wider road corridors?

      But I may be wrong, and they may face the same issues of constrained corridors we do, and just were more “can do” in resolving them. I don’t know.

      • Kent Lundberg

        Easier yes. Impossible no. I have a series of guest posts coming up showing how several “new world” big cities are doing just that.

      • KLK

        Another great quote from the ex-mayor (referring to cycle lanes just marked by a painted line):

        “a bike lane that is not safe enough for an 8 year old is not a proper bike lane”

        Brilliant. We need to do a whip-round and get this guy to Auckland…..

      • Are you saying that Bogota is less constrained than Auckland?

        I’d say quite the opposite, its a much more intensive and constrained urban environment (apart from their numerous wide arterials).

        • Ingolfson

          I didn’t say. I was wondering what factors aided their success, and wondered whether this was one. Road reserve width available is THE determinant of whether you can do something without cutting something else back, which founders many cool projects before they really start and have to mojo to ALLOW them to cut other things back.

  • KLK

    On a related matter, there is a hot debate on the (excellent) cycle lanes in sydney – essentially that some (though not all) are badly located such that they cause havoc with car traffic in the CBD.

    The chief antagonist seems to be the local Minister of Roads, who claims that a couple in particular are a disaster. However, the RTA points out that the lanes in question did not take the place of traffic lanes, rather, on-street parking and as such it’s difficult to see how vehicle traffic is now impacted.

    Of course, the Minister of Roads starts his rants with “Look, I actually support the cycle lanes, but…..”

    I guess at least Sydney can actually have that debate. Auckland needs some CBD cycle lanes first….

    • George D

      Their removal is entirely reactionary. Essentially, men in cars (it’s always angry men, usually older men) didn’t like that cyclists were travelling freely. There’s not much more to understand.

    • I wouldn’t call Sydney a model to follow for cycle lanes. Brisbane is far better. I think Melbourne and Adelaide are better too.

  • Kent Lundberg

    +1 “Too many decisions have been made in Auckland and New Zealand through processes that privilege technicalities over outcomes.”

  • George D

    We invested in high-quality sidewalks, pedestrian streets, parks, bicycle paths, libraries; we got rid of thousands of cluttering commercial signs and planted trees

    I love this attitude. Sao Paulo, the largest city in the Americas, similarly did wonders for itself with an extremely successful advertising ban. It returned public spaces to the people rather than advertisers. It’s been so successful that advertisers are forced to make works of art to distribute their message. In Auckland we’ve struggled to pull down a couple billboards on heritage buildings in Queen St.

    Such things are possible, they require freedom from fear; either through boldness, or change of consequences that drive that fear (reactionary media mouthpieces, etc.) In New Zealand our politicians who want to do such things are cautious and often fearful, and the other side are bolder. There are costs to any decision, but there are also extraordinary benefits. I think this cartoon about sums things up – ‘what if we create a better world and it’s all for nothing?‘. We need to empower our representatives and decision makers and show them what’s possible. I think this blog is part of that.

  • Another great doco on Bogota is “Cities on Speed”. You will be introduced to another iconoclastic politician named Antanas Mockus who famously employed mimes to shame and mock traffic violators.

    Part 1 is here:

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