Enrique Penalosa's Approach To Building Public Infrastructure

October 3, 2005, 11am PDT | David Goldberg
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In just three years under the leadership of Enrique Penalosa, former mayor of Bogota, Colombia, the city built the Trans-Milenio, a bus rapid transit system, rehabbed 1,200 parks, laid 300 kilometers of bikeways, created the world's longest pedestrian street, brought water to all of Bogota's slums, and built new schools, libraries and daycare facilities, all while reducing the murder rate by two-thirds and institutionalizing an annual, citywide car-free day. 

 David GoldbergAt the turn of the century, Enrique Penalosa was mayor of one of the most notorious urban agglomerations in South America: Bogota, Colombia. Taking advantage of a strong economy and citizens' thirst for change, Penalosa led an astonishing turnaround in just three years (he was prevented by law from succeeding himself). Penalosa shared his experiences and passion for cities with attendees at the Rail-Volution conference in Salt Lake City on September 10, 2005. Rail-Volution brings together hundreds of citizens, planners, designers and other advocates for creating livable communities served by excellent public transit.

Among Penalosa's many actions as mayor, Penalosa dropped plans for a major, elevated freeway and instead built the Trans-Milenio, a bus rapid transit system in dedicated lanes that continues to be expanded throughout the city. He also built or rehabbed 1,200 parks, laid 300 kilometers of bike ways, created the world's longest pedestrian street, brought water to all of Bogota's slums, built new schools, libraries and daycare facilities, all while reducing the murder rate by two-thirds and institutionalizing an annual, citywide car-free day. He was interviewed in advance of his visit to Rail-Volution by David Goldberg, a veteran urban affairs journalist now serving as communications director for Smart Growth America (www.smartgrowthamerica.org).

GOLDBERG: Much of your reputation in Bogota and abroad was built on your aggressive approach to building the infrastructure of the public realm, from parks to public transit. How much of a determinist are you where this is concerned? That is, do you believe that simply providing the armature of civic culture will spur its creation?

 Enrique PenalosaPENALOSA: I am convinced of the power of good urban design and architecture. People will use it if it has quality. Every detail in the city should show respect for human dignity and reflect that everything human is sacred. And I do believe that if people have to walk in the street, avoiding parked cars, or next to some horrible surface parking lot, or they are mistreated by poor quality transportation systems, it's very difficult to ask them to be good citizens, to keep the streets clean, or even pay taxes. If a city shows respect, and more than that, loving care for its citizens, people will behave in kind. I do believe it, because I've seen it happen. It was beyond my wildest dreams the way the attitudes changed in Bogota, from being despondent and convinced the city was doomed, to civic pride and hope that the future can be better. Bogota is far from being a model city. But that's what is so amazing.

Just a few concrete efforts produced concrete results and profoundly changed people's attitudes. Not everything was physical. For example, we restricted cars during peak hours so that 40 percent had to be off the streets in peak hours. We had a tradition that every Sunday we closed 120 kilometers of main arteries, and we had more than a million and a half people out, seeing each other and enjoying themselves. We had a car-free day, a Thursday when they could not use their cars and had to use public transport, or walk or bicycle. This annual event was approved in a referendum. We also had a series of campaigns that were not physical elements, but were necessary to construct a civic culture.

I must emphasize that in everything we did we tried to increase equality, to maximize integration. In this way we are also constructing democracy. Educational exercises and campaigns are not enough if you don't have the physical amenities. A city is a physical entity, a place where people go to schools or libraries that are physical buildings, they walk on sidewalks, and use public transit and roads. If the physical quality of the city is poor, the quality of life there also will be poor.

GOLDBERG: In just three years, in a relatively poor third-world city, you built a new transit system, miles of bikeways, hundreds of parks, and much more. Yet in America, most mayors would be unable to raise the money and get the necessary consensus to do a fraction of these things in two terms, let alone one. Is there something wrong with us?

PENALOSA: Many things that I started were finished after I left, but the important thing was that we created a shared vision and got many things in motion. The public transit system was so successful that it was impossible to avoid continuing the extensions. In 15 years about 90 percent of the population will be living within 500 meters from a transit stop. We put in the regulations that all reconstruction of roads had to include bicycle ways. These were possible because there was great citizen support for these things. We did many things though referendum.

We did have a very healthy financial situation in the city at that time which allowed us to do a lot of public works. But the important thing is that it was a different paradigm. When I entered office, there was a proposal from a Japanese firm to build an elevated highway right through the city. It would have been very expensive and in my view would have destroyed the city, but it's the sort of thing that might well have been built in the past. Much of what we did would have been considered crazy before we did it, not just in the U.S. but in Colombia.

Some of our ability to move quickly was because our democracy is not that advanced. It is better to have more participation and democracy, but it does slow things down and makes it hard to make radical changes. It is very possible that if we had had a very advanced, participatory democracy that we would not have been able to move as quickly. In developing countries we have an additional ingredient, which is inequality. Less than half of the households own cars, sometimes substantially less. The upper classes have all the political power; they contribute to political campaigns, own TV and radio stations, have the time and the means to put their views in the newspapers.

Democracy is more than holding elections. It means making public good over the private interests the primary principle. We had to take road capacity for transit; if in our environment we had had participatory democratic process, the car owners would have had the power and would have stopped us. It's very likely that those who would have participated would have been the upper 30 percent. We did things that gave priority to the poorest 70 percent. And I firmly believe that making that the focus improved the quality of life for everyone in the city.

GOLDBERG: You have said that one of the highest aspirations of a city is to maximize the happiness of its inhabitants. The U.S. is a country founded, in part, on "the pursuit of happiness." Yet we almost never hear a government official talk about happiness, joy or even beauty. Why do you think that is?

PENALOSA: I think the Declaration of Independence is very beautiful because it makes a very powerful reference to happiness. However, when you got down to making the constitution, you left happiness out. Maybe lawyers got in the way. But that idea of the pursuit of happiness is very beautiful. We all run the risk of forgetting that the material possessions we accumulate are meaningless, and that happiness is what matters, even though it is difficult to measure.

In the developing world, we have no alternative but to focus on the things that make for a real quality of life. If we define success or failure strictly in terms of production per capita, we in the developing world would have to consider ourselves a failure for generations to come. If I tell our youth that the measure of success in society is GDP per capita, then I am telling them theirs is a fourth-class country, and most of our most talented young people would go away.

Development of the human potential as a member of society, as a creative individual -- a city is a means to a way of life. It is impossible to design a city if we don't think about what kind of living will make us happier.

We have the necessary ingredients for that. My fellow Colombians imagine that a German dreams of getting into a BMW and driving fast on the autobahn. In fact, what he may dream of is having the weather we have almost every day of the year; to get on an old bicyle and ride along a lazy river in a place where the pace of life is more relaxed.

GOLDBERG: What are your favorite two or three American cities, and why?

PENALOSA: With cities, it may be like people. A fashion model might look perfect, but you might have more in common with someone who is less than perfect. I like cites where life is intense. When William Whyte was asked which three American cities he liked best, he answered New York, New York and New York. Chicago, Boston and San Francisco are also wonderful cities. But my temptation is to answer like Whyte.

New York truly is a city of the world, and it has such fantastic energy. In New York, it only matters what you are able to contribute, no matter where in the world you are from. And its history is a lesson for us all. Central Park was created with formidable vision when New York was poorer than many developing country cities are today -- and certainly poorer than most U.S. cities. In terms of very well designed cities elsewhere in the world, the Dutch and the Danish have some of the most advanced living environments. Everyone can learn from them.

GOLDBERG: You mentioned the impact of car-oriented design on cities. You also have advocated car-free days, providing mass transit over building highways, converting streets to pedestrian-only promenade, all with the idea of pulling people from their vehicles. Even in Bogota, that must be a tough sell. How did you do it?

PENALOSA: Again, I believe that it has to start with a vision, an understanding of what alternatives there are. People don't go to the suburbs because they're dumb. It's because they are looking for something -- calmer streets, more green, whatever it is. We have to understand what is valued because that is what is important. You must help people understand that they can have more of what they want by giving a little less preference to cars.

I have nothing against cars. I like to drive through the countryside, listening to music. But I'm really against car use during peak hours. If you want a city where everyone above 15 years old must use a car to go to work, school and everything else, you can have it. But you can't have the other things that make city life good. There is an American expression, you cannot have the cake and eat it, too. We are not talking about getting rid of cars but restricting car use during peak hours. We can't build a city to accommodate all those cars at the peak and have a city we want to live in. I support capitalism and wrote a book saying so. But we are living in the post-Communism era when we have immense confidence in private entrepreneurs and individualism and distrust any form of government intervention. Adam Smith is reigning triumphant. He told us that each citizen behaving selfishly yields the best good for society.

This is not always true. If you have a shipwreck and everyone tries at the same time to grab the lifeboat, everyone will drown. You cannot allow a developer to do anything they want, whatever it does to his neighbors or the rest of the city. There is not a mathematical rule that will tell you exactly how many pedestrian streets, or how far people should live from a park or sports field, or how tall a building should be. These standards are a collective creation. How do societies create collectively? They do this through an institution called government -- it's ineveitable. So we must first achieve a shared vision of what we want our society to be, and how we want to live.

If we had a magic wand, how would our city be? Once we have the vision, we may realize we do have the magic wand. It's called time.

In the United States I have read much literature about urban design and caustic criticism of the way things are done. Yet nothing much has changed. Maybe if we have oil prices at $200 a barrel, this will get people to look closely at how in the Netherlands, for example, they use less land and yet they have more access to green and they can go around on bicycles on beautiful streets.

One thing about the Americans: Once they have decided that they want something, there is no other socieiy in the world that is more efficient in reaching the goal that it wants.

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