The man who built bike lanes: Enrique Peñalosa

Former Mayor of Bogotá and city planning pin-up Enrique Peñalosa was in London last week to speak to a packed and eager audience at the London School of Economics.  I was there to hear what tips he had for achieving mass cycling rates and building a cycling city.

Mayor of the troubled Columbian city between 1998 and 2001, Peñalosa's administration was credited with increasing happiness and providing equality of opportunity for the city's people through its library, parks, protected bikeway and Bus Rapid Transit building projects.

Peñalosa opened his speech by explaining that over the next 30 years the developing world's urban population will increase by over 2 billion inhabitants.  Within the developing world private space is guarded much more fiercely and is more segregated from public space than in the West and therefore the public realm is more important that ever.  Put simply "..cities are a means to a way of life way of life: we all need to choose what kind of cities make us happy."

Streetfilms produced a series of films on Bogotá after their visit in 2008 - in their first film they explore lessons to be learnt from the city.

In Bogotá the city administration was applauded when it took control of a golf course which dominated the downtown of the city and turned it over to public use as a park.  One would think, especially in a crowded city, that the basic tenet that public good should prevail over private interest was universally accepted, and yet when Peñalosa scaled this attitude to focus on the city roads and parking he inevitably ran into conflict. "Choosing between a city friendly to people or a city friendly to cars is a conflict", says Peñalosa, "Often, injustice is right before our noses but we are so used to seeing it we don't even notice it."  He cites the problem of parking on the sidewalk which was endemic before he came to power, even forcing children to walk around the cars into the road in order to go to school; "If a pedestrian walked in a road with a blocked sidewalk and was then hit by a car, you'd think their rights had been infringed.  Is it not the same for bicycles?  Cycling is, after all, just a more efficient way of walking."

Previously, as in most large cities, motorists had been given priority and the majority of the road space in Bogotá, despite the fact that those travelling through the city by car are a minority.  In Bogotá this was exacerbated by the gap between rich and poor - though this could easily be an analogy representing the City of London and the neighbouring borough of Tower Hamlets where you'll find some of the worse urban social deprivation in Europe and where 56% of residents do not have access to a car (57.8% in neighbouring more affluent Islington).

When the international development fund the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) lobbied Bogotá to construct a major urban motorway in to the centre of the city, Peñalosa refused.  He recognised that such a road being built through the dense urban core would displace and blight the lives of the urban poor much more than the relatively wealthy who would be able to afford access to such a road.  "Dealing with traffic by building roads is like fighting fires with gasoline."  Instead, the city used the dollars saved to invest in free city schools, public parks, new libraries and some 300km of walking and cycling-only streets.  The outlaying districts and favelas are now connected to the city by safe, wide and direct bicycle routes thus allowing everyone the opportunity to travel as oppose to just the minority who have access to a car.  Peñalosa elaborates on this bold move; "Under our - and most - constitutions, all people are equal under the law.  Therefore, a bus with 100 passengers has 100 x the right to access and space as a single occupancy car.  Likewise, a child on a tricycle has the same rights as a motorist.  This is not about being anti-car, this is about equality for all."

Bearing in mind the children who were forced to walk in the road and how incensed we would feel if they'd been hit by a car, and Peñalosa's assertion that people on bikes were simply 'more effective pedestrians', his desire to build bikeways becomes very clear; "Protected bikeways are a right, otherwise only the few with a car and those prepared to cycle with those cars have the right to mobility... ...if road space is the most valuable resource in the city, how do we distribute it?  To the many, or for the few?"  Peñalosa elaborated with an analogy; "If there was an earthquake and we only had enough fuel for 5% of the vehicles would we give them to private cars, or to buses in order to keep the city moving?  It's the same for road space."

Streetfilms take part in Ciclovia, Bogotá's answer to London's SkyRide, only much much bigger and every single Sunday of the year.

His approach to city planning clearly focuses on allowing the most amount of people the ability to move as possible yet anyone thinking this is a 3rd world focus would do well to look closer to home.  In the City of London just 9.6% of travellers use private motor transport.  A massive 90.4% walk, cycle or use public transport.  But on who are our roads focussed?  Who takes priority?  Which method of transportation has the biggest potential for moving the most of all kinds of people?  As Peñalosa stated from the start "choosing between a city friendly for cars or a city friendly for people is a conflict."

Peñalosa's legacy in Bogotá can only be keenly felt.  Every Sunday the city closes 120km of its roads for several hours in order to host 'Ciclovia'; a mass-participation bike ride run by volunteers, attended by millions and demonstrating that bikes come first.  In 2000, 64% of all 7 million Bogotans voted to ban all cars during the peak hours of every first Thursday of February, but this brave step was shot down on a legislative technicality.  The city's TransMilenio Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system which opened in 2000 and now comprising of some 9 lines covering 84km, operates across the city and carries 1.5 million passengers a day.  Proposals to build an additional 388KM of BRT tracks, stations and buses will cost only 10% more than a project which proposed to construct just 30km of underground rail. [SourceThe city is not in debt to the likes of the JICA because of mass road building projects and is instead now touted on the global stage as an image of good practise.

Streetfilms show how Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT, moves 1.5 million people every day in Bogotá.

Since the construction of Bogotá's extensive cycle path network, developed in association with the BRT project in 2000, the city cycling levels have grown to double that of London, or 5% modal share, but Peñalosa likes to think of the individual; "Pity the poor Soccer Moms of this world and her children.  She must spend all her time and money on her car shuttling her kids to and from school / friends / football practise because the city has failed to provide her kids the opportunity to do it themselves through a combination of suburban density, dangerous roads and encouraging more traffic.  Isn't that sad?"

I explained to Peñalosa that there were many people here in London who should like to see cycling facilities such as Bogotá's right here in the UK, but that there was an apparent lack of political will both within our own cycling campaigns and at a Government level. What advice could he give to us as constituents as a politician himself?
"Politicians love to hear from constituents, especially if they think there are votes in it for them - even more so if they think there are lots of votes in it for them.  Political will is like a tea spoon floating on a cup of coffee - cyclists, constituents, campaigning groups must lobby their politicians drop by drop by drop till that spoon sinks: until the political will to equalize the city is there."

Build it and they will come indeed...

Enrique Peñalosa was speaking at the London School of Economics as part of their series of free public lectures.  A full podcast of his talk can be downloaded here.  For an interview with him on Streetfilms with more excellent footage of Bogta see here.

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arh14 said...

Nice post and a good source of information.

I had no idea he was in London - a shame.

ibikelondon said...

He really was inspiring, and clearly had so much enthusiasm for his specialist subject - I could have listened to him for hours. Check out the video on streetfilms or the podcast of his lecture on the LSE website (links at the end of my post)

ndru said...

Great post Mark. I am glad you've raised the very valid issue about increase in urban population. It already becomes apparent that there's no way we can have all these people in London and cars at the same terms as now (look at overflowing Oxford Street and then imagine that happening on every street in London). The sad thing is that British politicians hardly ever learn from abroad thinking they know better.

Anonymous said...

There is more on Enrique Peñalosa and his 'urban revolution' in Bogota here at the Reinventing Parking blog.

Martin said...

Penalosa's story is certainly one of an urban legend from which you never get sick of. You may also like these video's here
which tells the whole story, and also here
" a citizen on a $30 bike is just as important to a citizen driving a $30 000 dollar Car" Good stuff.

Paul M said...

What I particularly liked is Snr Penalosa's observation that "Cycling is, after all, just a more efficient way of walking".

In an urban transport context that is EXACTLY how our transport authorities should be looking at cycling - forget about cycling as sport, or cycles as vehicles, or all the other hang-ups which impede our prgress towards Dutch or Danish-style modal shift.

Philip Loy said...

Thanks very much for writing this up Mark as I totally missed this event. An interesting piece - heartening to see Bogota achieving progress in public transport and a cycle network, not to mention the radical car parking policies and the resistance to financing of an urban motorway. It would be interesting to know the demographic make-up of those 64% of 7 million Bogotans who voted to ban cars on a Thursday and what social factors gave the political manadate to Peñalosa to do what he did. Consider that at one point he was threatened with impeachment for his parking restrictions! I suspect London will need a slightly different tactic to reach the same outcome.

Anonymous said...

"Cycling is, after all, just a more efficient way of walking".

That statement would bring many cyclists in the UK to a state of apoplexy!

But I completely agree with it.

ibikelondon said...

@iswas When he said that I almost gasped out loud - it was a real 'clutch my pearls' open mouthed moment. Not because I disagree with him - far from it in fact - but because I don't think I'd ever actually heard anyone here in the UK physically say so out loud. Isn't that just shocking?

His talk was so inspiring, and really challenged the widespread dogmatic approach to our streets and cycling that we have here in the UK, so I hope in a little way by writing this up on here we can spread the word.