Is It Time to Rethink the Legacy of Enrique Peñalosa?

Negative responses to the "Most Influential Urbanists" list published last week overwhelmingly focused on one name on the list: Enrique Peñalosa.

7 minute read

October 17, 2017, 2:00 PM PDT

By James Brasuell @CasualBrasuell

Bogota, Colombia

Fronteiras do Pensamento / Flickr

It would have been foolish to assume that a crowdsourced list of "Most Influential Urbanists" would be without controversies. But the largest source of controversy did come as a surprise.

Many people who read the list saw only one name: Enrique Peñalosa, once and current mayor of Bogotá, Colombia.

Two major themes emerged in the responses to Peñalosa's placement on the list: the city of Bogotá is failing, and Peñalosa is a liar and a fraud.

That second point might come as a shock to many in the United States, who have grown accustomed to the ubiquity of Enrique Peñalosa's name as a symbol of ambitious and innovative planning, especially in the realm of public transit. Between the TED talk that describes Bogotá's TransMilenio bus rapid transit system as democracy in action, the prominent positions at organizations like the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, and his repeated references in articles for leading publications like CityLab, The Guardian, Citiscope, and, yes, Planetizen, it's no wonder Peñalosa did so well in the "Most Influential Urbanists" vote.

Maybe, however, the North Americans who make up the vast majority of Planetizen readers don't know the whole story—a story that now includes a troubling accusation of academic fraud.

El Espectador revealed in April 2016 that Peñalosa lacked a doctorate in public administration, as claimed in book jackets, political campaign materials, and in a quote given to the Brazilian newspaper O Globo.

Even the most dedicated observer of urbanism news might have missed that revelation if they were reading English-speaking websites, because there was very little coverage as the controversy unfolded. To this day, finding any record of the controversy requires a very specific Google search.

In response to the accusations, Peñalosa's side of the story claimed that the differences between advanced degrees had been lost in translation between Paris and Bogotá.

Recall efforts that predate the claims of academic fraud have not proven successful, yet, even with the additional ammunition provided by the controversy. The last news I can find about the recall effort came in May 2017, when a group called the Revoke United Committee presented 700,00 signatures on a petition requesting a recall vote (if anyone knows of any further development of the recall, please let me know, and I'll update this story). Most recently, El Espectador published an announcement of Peñalosa's placement on the "Most Influential Urbanists" list without mentioning the recent controversy.

Yet, the accusations of academic fraud are only one part of the story, and the controversy doesn't completely account for the level of vitriol directed toward Peñalosa after Planetizen published the "Most Influential Urbanists" list. (For examples, see the responses to two Tweets publicizing the list, and the comments on the original article.)

A TransMilenio station, with the streets cleared for Ciclovía. Monserrate is visible in the background. (Image by F.A. Alba, via Shutterstock)

Most people responding to the list wanted Planetizen readers to know that they think Bogotá is a mess, as is the bus rapid transit system that made Peñalosa famous, the TransMilenio. Even before the accusations of academic fraud, Peñalosa faced serious criticism and threats of legal action. Colombia Reports published an article in September 2016 with data showing Peñalosa as the least popular mayor of Colombia's large cities—by far. That article, published five months after the scandal over Peñalosa's degrees broke, does not make any mention of that controversy about a falsified doctorate. The article only references the track record of decisions during Peñalosa's second term, which began in January 2016, as evidence. According to this version of the story, Peñalosa's political blunders in the chronology of his second term are as follows:

First the mayor proposed to urbanize one of the Capital District’s dearest natural reserves, the Van der Hammen reserve in the north of the city’s territory.

He did this with an arrogance that infuriated many bogotanos who want to be able to enjoy a bit of nature while living in a city of seven million.

Peñalosa then approved the privatization of public energy company ETB in spite of mayor [sic] public resistance.

The mayor then turned advanced plans for a metro upside down, proposing to make it function above ground while foreign companies were already vying for the construction of an underground metro system.

This put Bogota’s metro plans exactly where they have been for more than 70 years, nowhere.

Peñalosa, in what begins to seem a desperate attempt to regain authority, evicted all homeless persons from the city’s most infamous drug den, the Bronx, only to spread the problem of drug use and petty crime over the city center.

This last move did not just further increase bogotanos’ dislike of their mayor, it actually resulted in charges of human rights violations. Attempts to impeach the mayor had been ongoing before that, but have only gained strength.

CityLab covered the Bronx controversy, and an English language blog called Planet Tuguria also provides a history of Peñalosa's fall from grace, but these developments in Peñalosa's legacy might come as a surprise to North American readers. Perhaps if these stories made more news or appeared higher in Google results (most of the latter trend toward his TED talk and public appearances that score public relations points for various urbanism causes), then Enrique Peñalosa would have placed lower, or not at all, on the Planetizen list of "100 Most Influential Urbanists." Let this post state for the record that news of these criticisms, however partial, made the trip north, and that Peñalosa's legacy is incomplete and in need of continued, critical attention. His term as mayor lasts until 2019, after all.

Then again, travel the world and you'll find similar stories about politicians and mayors of large, high-profile cities. When mayors like New York's Bill de Blasio or Los Angeles' Eric Garcetti receive praise or criticism (more often the latter), Americans have the experience and the information to place either in context. It's very difficult for a North American audience to tell which side of the Bogotá story is told by these criticisms of Mayor Peñalosa, and whether these criticisms are fair. A lot of superlatives have been lobbed at Planetizen over the past week, most involving the word "worst"—that Peñalosa is the "worst mayor" and that the TransMilenio is the "worst transit system"—so it's probably best to approach some of these claims with a grain of salt.

It might come as a surprise to some of the critics of the "Most Influential Urbanists" list that I have been to Bogotá, this year in fact. I took the TransMilenio, and saw some of its good (fast travel on dedicated routes, frequent arrivals, and a quick boarding process), its bad (overcrowding, diesel exhaust everywhere, and unfathomable congestion everywhere else in the system), and heard from locals that it had fallen under disrepair after years of neglect. By comparison to the experience of taking buses where I live Los Angeles, it's impossible to imagine that the bus rapid transit substitute that I take every day down Wilshire Boulevard will some day implement pre-payment, all-door boarding, and around-the-clock separated lanes. The idea that buses would every have primacy over the car in my home city, as a symbol of democracy or for any other reason, is too far-fetched for even the most pragmatic idealist.

About to take a ride on the bus transit system of my wildest dreams.

Actually, Metro in Los Angeles did recently announce that it would consider implementing all-door boarding on two routes, the aforementioned 720 on Wilshire Boulevard and the 754 on the intersecting Vermont Avenue. The MBTA in Boston recently announced the results of a pilot project that experimented with all-door boarding. In Los Angeles and Boston, implementation of even a fraction of the TransMilenio's innovations is a press release-worthy success, following years of planning and testing. As residents of Bogotá lament the state of the TransMilenio and the city of Bogotá, many cities around the United States and Canada are still trying desperately, and with only middling success, to emulate the accomplishments of Enrique Peñalosa. Other cities have had more luck, as bus rapid transit systems have grown in popularity around the world.

Maybe the appreciation for Peñalosa's achievements in the United States and Canada only considers one side of the story—but it's the story that Enrique Peñalosa told, and maybe it's one we needed to hear.

James Brasuell

James Brasuell is a writer and editor, producing web, print, and video content on the subjects of planning, urbanism, and mobility. James has managed all editorial content and direction for Planetizen since 2014 and was promoted to editorial director in 2021. After a first career as a class five white water river guide in Trinity County in Northern California, James started his career in Los Angeles as a volunteer at a risk reduction center in Skid Row.

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