“New visions do not start with majority support”

Filed under How-To Centre

This is how Dr Enrique Penalosa, urban strategist and former mayor of Bogota in Colombia, began his talk in Canberra on 9 March 2011.

Enrique took listeners on a journey through the trials and tribulations of introducing dramatic urban change in Bogota to improve mobility, sustainability and the quality of life of its citizens. His administration set up extensive bikeways and pedestrian zones, and created a mass transit bus service with dedicated busways. He took action to restrict car access in particular areas where car use was conflicting with pedestrian use. At one stage, the resistance to his changes was so intense that he found it prudent to send his 12-year-old daughter overseas to study.

While the circumstances facing Bogota were very different, not least because of its population of 7 million, his talk still provided valuable food for thought on approaches that could have some relevance for Canberra.

He stressed the importance of deciding what kind of a life we want to live in our cities before designing the transport system:

  • Do we want cities that make it easy for people to be outside, using public urban spaces?
  • Do we want cities that accommodate the needs of vulnerable citizens?
  • Do we want cities that are friendly to people, or ones that are friendly to cars? (as he said, “high velocity roads are like fences in a cow pasture”)

He asked, “How would your quality of life improve if you were to structure the new parts of cities around bicycle and pedestrian roads? Why not create a large network of roads for use only by buses, bikes and pedestrians?”

Enrique said that what creates traffic is the number and length of trips, not the number of cars, and creating more road infrastructure actually brings about more traffic.

Although international development assistance agencies had recommended that his administration spend billions of dollars on new highways, he had decided it was more productive to invest those billions of dollars in schools and libraries.

Enrique was not a great fan of trams and light rail, remarking that buses can do anything that a tram or light rail system can do, but at a much lower cost. He said that people prefer buses to rail because buses can pick them up closer to where they are, and drop them off closer to their final destination.

He said that fundamental features of a good public transport system are that it should be low cost and high frequency.

All in all, Enrique’s talk was quite inspiring about what can be achieved in a comparatively short space of time (he was Mayor of Bogota for only three years).

Find out more about Enrique’s views on urban planning by listening to his interview Learning from Bogota: a lesson in public space on ABC Radio National’s ByDesign Program on 9 March 2011.


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