By Josette Madonia
Arizona Community Press | www.azcommunitypress.org
How do you define quality of life? Enrique Peñalosa defines a high quality of life as one within an egalitarian city. One in which every person counts the same and all citizens are equal before the law. More precisely, a city where a bus with 80 passengers has eighty times more rights than a car carrying one person. Where the quality of life for children and the elderly are taken into account when designing the city.
On Monday February 18, 2013, Enrique Peñalosa gave his talk on “Equity, Mobility and Quality of Urban Life” at Tempe Center for the Arts. It was sponsored by ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability. Enrique Peñalosa was the mayor of Bogotá, Columbia from 1998 to 2001. When he started out as mayor he had an 18% approval rating. By the end of his career as mayor his approval rating had soared to 70%. To which Peñalosa said that doing the right thing is not always easy. Some of the changes Peñalosa implemented in the city of Bogotá can be seen in the documentary, Urbanized. He is known for implementing the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) in Bogotá, one of densest cities in the western hemisphere.
Peñalosa stated that mobility and sustainability are important in the United States because what happens in the United States has an impact on the rest of the world. In the next 38 years there will be 2.7 billion people added to the population. The population will almost double in 2050. Therefore, he states, we will need 45-75 million more homes, more than the number of homes currently in UK, France, and Canada combined.
Peñalosa described how to fix sustainable issues in mobility. First, define what kind of city you want. What Peñalosa called the New American City. Next, design that city and its transportation system. Peñalosa said that sometimes the injustices and inequalities right before our noses are the hardest to see and that our current system is not egalitarian; even though we may think it is. He presented a slide of Earth as seen from space. He contrasted the feelings of universal humanity we get when observing this picture versus the feelings we get when we zoom in and realize that we are really only free within our own country lines. If we want to visit another country, we need to ask permission. Even in our own cities there are private waterfronts and almost everything is private property. And ultimately, we only have rightful access to public pedestrian spaces. Peñalosa states that these pedestrian spaces are the most important part of the city.
Peñalosa asked, why are people leaving the “wonderful” cities of post WWII? They are leaving for more greenery, more trees, and to escape cars (safety for their children). He furthered asked, how did we get to where we are today? Beginning in the 20th century the wealthy had homes on the main streets. Yet, once cars were introduced, people moved away from the main streets and away from the roads. Before cars, the most valued property in a building was on the first floor. Post cars, the first floor is now the least desirable and the most desirable is the top floor; that is why the penthouse is located at the top of the building. It was during this period that cars became a double-edged sword. They made it possible for people to leave for the suburbs but the reason people were leaving was to get away from the traffic. And yet, despite our modern highways we still have traffic jams. In fact the more highways we build, the worse the traffic jams. This is because what creates traffic is the number of cars, the number of trips, and the length of trips. At the end of 20th century, modern cities started to correct the problems that were introduced from the increase in traffic and population.
Peñalosa said that a good city is one where people are out in public space and have contact with nature; one that is designed for its vulnerable citizens (children, elderly, handicapped). The cities belong to people not to cars. He described two problems with cars. First, they decrease the quality of life. In 1925 in the United States, one-third of car accidents involved children. In the 1920s, 200,000 people were killed by cars in the United States. To put that in perspective 292,131 people were killed in WWII.
The second problem with cars is that as the population increases, our mobility problems cannot be solved with cars. There is a conflict between space for people versus space for cars. Peñalosa illustrated this by comparing roads to fences because we cannot go across them. They are not safe to cross and definitely not safe for children or the elderly to cross.
According to Peñalosa, the quality of sidewalks is the most important thing in a city. You can tell a lot about a city by the quality of its sidewalks. Sidewalks are integral for public transportation. They get people out and on the streets, which in turn gets people using public transport. Peñalosa stated that sidewalks are really “relatives” of the parks not of the streets. Meaning sidewalks should not be designed with streets in mind but as an extension of the parks. As Peñalosa put it, sidewalks are like parks because “sidewalks are for kissing.” He said that they should be wide enough for three wheelchairs to fit side by side. Cities are badly designed if they have tall buildings surrounded by narrow sidewalks (this is the current problem with Manhattan; it is designed for adults). More important than a tall building is what happens on the ground floor. Children need to be able to come out of their homes and into pedestrian spaces, greenways, and parks. Cities should design these things first and pave the road for cars last because human beings are sacred, not cars. Peñalosa stated that parking is not a constitutional right in any country. The roadways belong to its citizens and the same to all citizens, including children. Peñalosa states that the New American City should include greenways, bikes, and pedestrians. That there needs to be serious investment in the infrastructure design for bikes. Currently, he states we only have environmental impact studies. But, what we also need are human impact studies. Studies that determine how the quality of life is impacted by city design.
Peñalosa went on to talk about class division when it comes to using public transportation. He said that even though Denmark and the Netherlands are richer than United States, both rich and poor use bikes whether rain or snow. The bike use in Denmark and the Netherlands is more than Spain or Italy. Peñalosa states this is because Denmark and the Netherlands are more egalitarian. By riding a bicycle instead of a car, there is a monetary savings of 15-40%. In Peñalosa’s view, a $30 bike and a $30,000 car should be equal. Therefore, we need to make bicycling safe by providing protected bikeways, not just painted lanes. It is a myth that bicyclists want to ride their bike for fun and meander through the streets. Bicyclists want to get from point A to point B. Peñalosa also believes in a bicycle highway and a highway for buses. “Porvenir promenade” is a 15-mile pedestrian-and-bicycle-only street through the Bogotá’s poorest neighborhoods.
Peñalosa states that wealthy people are using public transportation (in Paris, Zurich, or NYC) because they have to; there are restrictions to using a car. Therefore, Peñalosa proposed two things that need to be done get all people to use public transport: make public transport attractive and have restrictions to car use. Peñalosa stated that mobility and traffic are two different problems that need two different solutions. To improve traffic, a city must increase the cost for car use by increasing gas tax and restricting parking. Wherever there is open-air parking, the price to park is too low and density is too low. To encourage mobility, public transportion must be subsidized. Public buses on exclusive lanes is the most efficient way to improve public transportation because it less expensive and with exclusive lanes transport is fast. Peñalosa states that the BRT is the only way to reach all sectors of the city; the BRT in Bogota moves ten times more people per hour per direction (p/h/d) than the American light rail. Furthermore, all of the city’s malls are on the BRT line in Bogotá and investors want to locate their projects along the BRT line.
In America, some of the obstacles we have is the attitude that road space for cars is a valuable resource. Peñalosa joked that the roads for cars are so valuable that they would be protected if diamonds were found under the road. However, low density equates to more global warming. We need a high density city to enable public transportation to work. And Peñalosa says that for those who say Arizona is too hot to do this, he points to Madrid, Spain. People are out in the streets in Madrid despite the warm weather.
Peñalosa suggested demolishing suburbs to make new cities to house 74 million American homes needed over next 38 years. Peñalosa posed the question, if new homes are not put in existing suburbs, then where? Some suburbs are derelict and schools are boarded up, yet nothing is done with these neighborhoods. He then asked, how do we make these changes? First a small group of people need to have an idea. Then this small group sells it to the public. An example of this is while Peñalosa was mayor, the city voted to have a Car-Free Day once a year. This was voted on by the people of Bogotá. It was the dream of a few but the city voted on it and the dream was realized. Peñalosa says that we are short on new proposals for the New American City. Yet, he says, mobility is also political decision. Usually the people who oppose an idea are more belligerent than those who support it. Therefore, the ideas that are implemented are not always the best ones but the ones with the most political clout. Therefore, one way to produce change is to get involved in your community.
Video of Car-Free Day in Bogotá:
*You can get involved online at MyPlanPhx, Tempe Forum, or Thunderdome Neighborhood Association for Non-Auto Mobility. For other cities, visit your city government’s website for information on city planning. If you have stories about transportation in your neighborhood, consider blogging or submitting a story to Arizona Community Press.