Published February 21, 2013
New York – The snow begins to pile up on the streets of Manhattan as a steady stream of taxis rush down Broadway toward Union Square amid a cacophony of horns, revving engines and screeching tires.
The lunchtime crowd scuttles along the sidewalk, bundled up in heavy winter coats and hunched under umbrellas while a lone bicycle messenger precariously swerves through traffic.
A few avenues away, cars and buses sit bumper-to-bumper on the FDR East River Drive while on the opposite side of the island traffic moves uptown in fits along the West Side Highway. Traffic is snarled in Downtown Brooklyn near the newly opened, rust-colored hulk of the Barclays Center, as construction workers direct traffic at the corner of 4th and Atlantic Avenues, while on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway merging lanes create a bottleneck with drivers navigating their way over the Kosciuszko Bridge.
The dream city of infamous urban planner Robert Moses creeps by in the wintery mix.
All the while, Enrique Peñalosa stands on the corner of E. 19th and Broadway thinking of ways to turn the famed, congested canyons of Manhattan into a pedestrian’s paradise.
“Imagine in Manhattan if one street is pedestrian only and the next for cars,” Peñalosa said in an interview with Fox News Latino. “Bikeways in every single street. Bikeways are not a cute architectural detail, bikeways are a right.”
Peñalosa, the former mayor of the Colombian capital of Bogotá, is one of the world’s preeminent minds on making modern cities more livable. From adding more bike lanes to implementing Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT, systems to creating more urban green spaces, Peñalosa believes that a less car-reliant, more pedestrian-friendly city means a safer urban space with a happier and healthier population.
“When we talk about car-free cities we’re not talking about some hippy dream,” Peñalosa said, referring to cities where people can go about their lives without four wheels. “Not only do they exist but they are the most successful cities on the planet. The ones where the real estate is the most valuable, the ones that attract most tourists, the most investment, the ones that generate the most creative industries.”
His work and ideas have gained him international attention and a loyal fan base that includes New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Talking Heads front man and cycling advocate David Byrne, who quoted him heavily in his treatise on city cycling, “Bicycle Dairies.”
The cost of his proposals, however, has not sat well with some people who believe social spending should be kept in check and that things like the expansion of bike lanes and green spaces need to monitored.
“Let’s look at this from a cost-benefit point of view,” said Bruce Levinson, a regulatory expert the Washington-D.C.-based think tank the Center for Regulatory Effectiveness. “Let’s look at the cost of putting in a bike lane and if it’s worth spending the money on it.”
Standing over six feet tall with a tightly-shaped beard, full head of graying hair and the confidence of someone who has spent much of his adult life proposing radical ideas to less-than progressive government employees, the 58-year old former Colombian politician garnered global attention as mayor of the country's capital from 1998 to 2001.
Peñalosa entered office when Bogotá was a city clogged with traffic, plagued with violence and deeply torn by years of civil conflict. His sense of social justice – honed during time spent studying at Duke University and through his work with Colombia’s Liberal Party – was solidified when he saw the vast social divide between the wealthy and the poor in his city.
Bogotá is a sprawling metropolis with over 10 million people. The upper class is shuttered into carved-out, protected neighborhoods — remnants of the country’s violent past — while its poor live in neighborhoods that range from working-class barrios to enormous slums pushed to the city’s outskirts due to Bogotá's rapid population growth.
While walking the streets of the city, Peñalosa realized that a major facet of the city's inequality and violence was locals' reliance on automobiles.
“I was very interested in creating spaces for pedestrians,” Peñalosa said. “I was almost impeached for getting cars off the sidewalks where they had been parked forever.”
He added: “Public space is an end in itself. It makes people happier; big sidewalks, parks, promenades. Transportation is a means. Having great transport doesn’t make people happy, but not to have it makes them very unhappy.”
Despite some opposition from citizens who spent decades parking where they pleased, Peñalosa followed up on the progressive moves of his predecessor, Antanas Mockus, and implemented a sweeping number of urban reforms that included building or improving 1,200 parks and playgrounds, buying undeveloped land in the city’s outskirts to prevent real estate speculation, creating over 186 miles of bikeways linking poorer areas to richer ones and — perhaps most impressively — establishing in 2000 the TransMilenio.
A BRT system that carries about a half-million passengers per day on special bus lanes — and modeled after the BRT system in the small Brazilian city of Curitiba — the TransMilenio is the model that Peñalosa is now trying to sell to cities around the world. A success in Bogotá, where the bright red buses are synonymous with the city’s progress and a cheaper, safer alternative to a subway, the TransMilenio cruises through traffic in specially designated and blocked off lanes, while rush hour traffic edges along in the other lanes.
After leaving office, Peñalosa continued his work in urban planning — ending up in 2009 as president of the New York-based Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), which currently promotes BRTs in other developing nations.
“Most of the new transport spending goes to building new roads and yet most people in the developing world use bikes, their feet or public transport, not cars,” said Jemilah Magnusson, the communications manager at ITDP. “The TransMilenio shows that you can use a BRT to promote clean, public transit over cars.”
The institute focuses its efforts in cities outside the so-called developed world of the U.S. and Western Europe such as Jakarta, Mexico City, Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro, where in 2012 it helped implement the TransOeste BRT in preparation for the 2014 World Cup.
“What Latin America, and Peñalosa in particular, did is focus on the equity issue,” said Julian Agyeman, a professor of urban and environmental policy at Tufts University in Bedford, Mass and the mind behind the idea of “just sustainability.”
This concept argues that methods should be implemented to improve peoples’ lives now and in the future in an even-handed way and with a limited effect on the local ecosystem. The discussion of sustainable cities has focused disproportionately on environmental issues and not enough on the inequality of cities' citizens, Agyeman said.
“Too much of the discussion is about the environmental issue, with the wicked thing being the equity issue,” he said. “In all the discussions of society — especially in the globalized north — there is an equity problem, but Peñalosa focused around equity and it did good for everyone.”
Peñalosa said that transportation tends to get worse as a society gets wealthier, thanks in large part to the purchase of cars that cause traffic jams and accidents. This creates a city with no real defined center nor places such as parks or squares where people of all economic backgrounds can coexist — to Peñalosa the public park is the great equalizer and modern transportation is stealing that away.
“Transport is very peculiar because it is different from other challenges a developing society has such as health or education, which tend to improve and get better as a society gets richer,” Peñalosa said. “Transport gets worse as a society gets richer. More traffic jams, more pollution, more dehumanized cities.”
Despite the prevalence of cars and superhighways in cities like Los Angeles, Dallas and Miami, the United States has made strides recently to improve its public transportation systems.
There are currently 34 BRT systems nationally — ranging from glorified bus routes like those in New York and Philadelphia to full BRT systems in Seattle and Escondido, Calif. — with another 15 systems currently under construction.
Brazil — Latin America’s shining example of a country on the brink of jumping to the First World — already has 12 BRT systems either operating or under construction.
Peñalosa added that no city in the world — with the exception of maybe Amsterdam and Copenhagen — passes his test. Some countries are just farther ahead than others and much of that has to do with their national mentality, he added.
“Why do you think that people in the Netherlands and Denmark use bicycles more than in Spain and Italy where the weather is much better?” Peñalosa asked. “It’s because they’re a much more egalitarian society.”
“When we create a city that is a good city, it also helps solve inequality,” he said.
Along with BRT systems, Peñalosa is a firm believer in the power of the bicycle. An avid cyclist from a country that prizes the pursuit as both a sport and a pastime, Peñalosa's natural affinity for bikes came when he gave up jogging.
Waking up in the damp, cold mornings that are common in the high-altitude Colombian city, Peñalosa loathed lacing up his running shoes and heading into the rain. When he discovered the bicycle as a means of exercise and transportation, his exercise habit became less painful.
“I ride a bike almost every day,” he said. “When I start my day like this, listening to my music on the iPod, riding through the mountains, it's happiness. The rest of the day is perfect.”
Many cities across the globe have followed in Bogotá’s example of creating miles of bike lanes and implementing Ciclovia, a program which blocks off certain streets in the capital on Sundays exclusively for bicycle usage.
The idea of Ciclovia has caught on in the U.S. with cities from Los Angeles and New York to Roanoke, Virginia and Spokane, Washington testing out the idea of car-free days. San Antonio, Texas, various times labeled as the “fattest city” in the country, started a program last year.
"I don't want to make it sound like it’s a bicycling event," Andrea Garland, the vice president of BikeWalk Virginia's Roanoke chapter and former Bogotá resident, told the Roanoke Times. "The idea behind it is to share the streets with people."
Bike lanes, once a staple only in European countries, have become fixtures in many cities throughout the Western Hemisphere. From cities like Buenos Aires and Santiago to San Francisco and Montreal, the bike lane insignia is becoming more and more common.
In New York City, where bike ridership has skyrocketed to over 200,000 daily bike commuters using the city’s 400-plus miles of bike lanes, the city has actively embraced its newfound bike culture. While the city is far from being a bicycle haven like Amsterdam or other European capitals, there is talk of installing even more permanent, separated bicycle lanes on major thoroughfares over the next year.
The addition of bike lanes has also ramped up local business along certain routes in New York, including Manhattan’s East Village neighborhood where the cycling advocacy group Transportation Alternatives reported that 73 percent of people in the area said the protected bike lanes had a positive or very positive impact on the community. Across town on Ninth Ave, the protected bike lanes added to a 49 percent increase in retail sales at local businesses, according to a study conducted by the city’s Department of Transportation.
“The way the streets of the greatest city in the world are being used is changing fundamentally,” said Paul Steely White, Transportation Alternatives’ executive director in an interview with Biking Rules. “People are beginning to understand that it’s entirely possible and really very desirable to lead a life without being tethered to an automobile.”
When Robert Moses first started redesigning New York City in the post-War years with his vision of highways, bridges, an elevated road running through lower Manhattan, automobiles and high-rise apartments were the signs of the modern city.
Eighty years later, Peñalosa is one of the most prominent voices with a different opinion on what living in a city should entail. It may be an uphill battle, but Peñalosa sees advances moving all around him — even if they’re still far away.
“Everywhere good things are happening, in the United States and in Latin America,” Peñalosa said. “But those good things are still far from becoming an example of what the future city should become.”