Bicycle Diaries: Bogotá traffic taming

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Bogotá traffic taming

Columbia rolls!

Enrique Peñalosa, while mayor of Bogotá between 1998 and 2001, was responsible for numerous radical improvements to the city and its citizens. He promoted a city model giving priority to children and public spaces and restricting private car use, building hundreds of kilometers of sidewalks, bike paths, pedestrian streets, greenways, and parks.

After organizing the Democracy in Movement Car-Free Day in 2001, he was awarded the Stockholm Challenge Award and rewarded by a referendum vote endorsing an annual car-free day and the elimination of all cars from streets during rush hours from 2015 onwards. As he has said,
In order to choose a city model we must have an idea of how do we want to live, because a city is really a means to a way of life. For example if we want a humane, child friendly city, motor-car road infrastructure may have to be limited and car use restricted.
Recently Peñalosa was a visiting scholar at New York University. He researched and is currently writing a book on a new urban-development model for the Third World, which covers fields such as transportation, land use and housing for the poor, pollution abatement, and public space. Back in July 03, Project Syndicate featured Peñalosa and his new urbanism policies.
In Paris, New York, and Mexico City, rich and poor alike escape the summer heat in city parks. But in many places in the developing world, open public spaces are as rare as stable democracies. That may be no accident. If it appears frivolous to write about public space in cities like Bogota, Delhi, and Lima, where poverty and squalor run rampant, consider that the government's subsidy of grass and concrete for pedestrians is a measure of its respect for human dignity and the democratic values.

Public spaces are where poor and rich meet as equals. If governments cannot level the playing field in a global economy, they can at least equalize the enjoyment of a city during leisure time. In the Third World, this means offering residents clean and plentiful public parks and keeping the sidewalks clear for pedestrians. While the latter is taken for granted in the developed world, sidewalks in Latin America are often akin to disputed territory. Pedestrians shouldn't have to compete with cars. City and government officials should ensure that parks and paved paths become as ubiquitous to a city's landcape as parking spaces.

As Mayor of Bogotá, I was almost impeached for insisting that pedestrians win this war with the automobile and commerce. Shop-owners and drivers complained that sidewalks should continue to be shared with parked cars, as they had been for years. We had to explain that although sidewalks live next to roads, they do not belong to the same family. Rather, sidewalks are close relatives of parks and plazas.

Sidewalks are not merely for going from one place to another, they are for talking, playing, kissing, or sitting on a bench. To suggest that parking bays can be carved out of sidewalks is like saying a park or a plaza can be turned into an open-air parking lot with trees.

People need to walk to be happy. A bird can survive inside a small cage and even lay eggs and bear descendants. We, too, could live out our lives in the confines of an apartment. But just as a bird is happier in a cage the size of an auditorium and even happier when flying free, we walk better on a sidewalk three or ten meters wide. We are exuberant if offered an esplanade cleared of cars, noise and pollutants.

For thousands of years, city streets were pedestrian, even if shared with horses and carriages. Paintings up to the end of the 19th century depict cityscapes with people all about the street. Any eight-year-old child was safe walking about these streets. All this changed dramatically when automobiles appeared. Streets became lethally dangerous, particularly for children.

As automobiles drove pedestrians off to the side of streets, cities in the Third World should have developed a parallel network of exclusively pedestrian walkways. Nothing of the sort happened.

On the recently built road from Delhi to Agra to facilitate the flow of tourists to the Taj Mahal, there must be at least 200 pedestrians and bicyclists for each motor vehicle. But there are no sidewalks or bicycle paths alongside it. This regressive design is not exclusive to India; it is typical of the Third World. Investing in road infrastructure tends to be regressive in societies where only a minority own automobiles.

But upper income people drive and they make the decisions. Building an infrastructure for an ever-growing number of cars was a daunting task, one that absorbed the attention and resources of many Third World governments over the past three decades. After clogging every square meter of city street, they cut road space through the most spectacular natural settings. Practically no urban lakefront, riverbank, coastline, or mountainside has not been threatened.

Quality public pedestrian space, on the other hand, demonstrates official respect for human dignity and for society's most vulnerable members--the handicapped, children and the elderly. A progressive strategy towards public space deepens democracy, since the pedestrians and bicyclists who benefit most directly are lower-income citizens.

This is especially true in developing countries, where the population of cities will increase by more than two billion inhabitants over the next 30 years. The new urban areas to be created could be different, more egalitarian, and environmentally more sustainable than those built over the last 100 years. Public space networks of greenways, parks, plazas, exclusively pedestrian avenues, and streets could be the backbone of the new Third World city.

As for mobility in a pedestrian city, it is possible to structure low-cost bus-based transit systems and to severely restrict car use during peak hours. Generally, cities in developing countries cannot afford architectural jewels such as Notre Dame; but they can have formidable pedestrian avenues shaded by enormous tropical trees. Environmental and social sustainability worldwide depends to a large degree on what happens in developing countries' cities over the next few decades. There is not much reason for optimism now. But there could be: if the Third World frees its feet, its mind will follow.

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