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Interview with Enrique Peñalosa

As mayor of Bogota, Colombia, Enrique Peñalosa accomplished remarkable changes of monumental proportions for the people of his country in just three years.

Penalosa BRT

Peñalosa changed the way Bogota treated its non-driving citizens by restricting automobile use and instituting a bus rapid transit system which now carries a 1/2 million residents daily. Among other improvements: he widened and rebuilt sidewalks, created grand public spaces, and implemented over one hundred miles of bicycle paths.

Penalosa Bike Lanes

TOPP Executive Director Mark Gorton discusses with Penalosa some of these transportation achievements and asks what the future could hold for NYC if similar improvements were made here.

[intro music]

Enrique Penalosa: [00:12] The essence of the conflict today really is cars and people. That is the essence of the whole discussion. We can have a city that is very friendly to cars or a city that is very friendly to people. We cannot have both.


Mark Gorton: [00:40] I’m here today with Enrique Penalosa, the former Mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, who is one of the leading figures in the world in terms of actually accomplishing changes on the ground that have made life better for pedestrians, I mean in many different ways in the city, but his policies are really revolutionary in terms of rethinking the way, you know, transportation works and its relation to the city. You gave a talk this morning and one of the things you said that was interesting was this idea… when you say, when you talk about transportation, the first thing you have to do is decide what you want.

Enrique Penalosa: [01:20] Before we know what the ideal transport is we have to work out what city we want. But in order to know what kind of a city we want, we have to know how do we want to live really, because a city is really is only a means to a way of life. The least of the least that a democratic society should have is public pedestrian space of great quality. Sidewalks, pedestrian streets, plazas, sports facilities, parks, even public transport, public libraries could be considered as public space as well.

Mark Gorton: [01:52] So how did you decide for yourself?

Enrique Penalosa: [01:55] We can see what cities have worked in the world. We have had cities for 5,000 years. We have had cars for only about 80 years or so in significant amounts. So for 5,000 years all streets were for people, were pedestrian streets. A child could walk ten blocks without any fear of being killed. We should have cities with very large network of pedestrian only streets. Not the quaint little pedestrian street Downtown here and there, but hundreds of kilometres of pedestrian streets where people could go ride bicycles, jog, just sit and read a newspaper on a bench without having cars going in front, look at people walking by. What we find more and more is that good cities, one city where you would like to be at, and a city that is good for the most vulnerable citizens. I will say a city where you have many people in the street who are handicapped, where old people, where children, children by themselves.

Mark Gorton: [02:59] Could you talk a little bit about your experience as a politician, you know, in going through the process of implementing some of these changes?

Enrique Penalosa: [03:07] What we try to do is to restrict car use, to create public transport, to do bicycle ways, and to create public space. We took the road network and created a bus system, what is called a Bus Rapid Transit. You give exclusive lanes to the buses. Our system has a velocity and a capacity that is very similar to the best subways in the world. Clearly this is possible because we give priority to public transport in the use of road space. So public good prevents over private transport. We created a very large bicycle network, a protected bicycle path network. A protected bicycle path is a symbol that a citizen on a $30 bicycle is equally important as one on a $30,000 car.

Mark Gorton: [04:02] Your experience in Bogotá was that bicycling went from… I mean I think it’s fringe activity to carrying a real fraction of the transport.

Enrique Penalosa: [04:14] When we started, bicycling was almost insignificant. Zero, or 0.2% of the people in Bogotá used to bicycle. And now, nearly 5% of the people only after six years or so, we get almost 400,000 people bicycling everyday.

Mark Gorton: [04:36] After you put in these changes, I mean and again I should state that these are, you know, for cities around the world, among the most significant changes in terms of moving away from cars and towards focus on pedestrians and bicycles and public transit, I mean practically of any city I can think of, I mean particularly in a short period of time. Maybe you could tell us a little bit about what the public’s mindset was beforehand and then afterwards.

Enrique Penalosa: [05:02] There is always resistance to change per se. And also all of these policies which have a social content have conflicts with those who own cars, whose use we are going to restrict, and those who don’t. People opposed very much, for example, we had to get rid of tens of thousands of parking bays which having illegally carved out where they should be sidewalks. So we took tens of thousands of parking bays away and we made big sidewalks. And there was a huge outrage from shop owners. But then afterwards they realised how much life had improved, how the real estate prices had gone up, how crime had gone down, how they were selling more.

Mark Gorton: [05:57] After you left were the policy… were these policies continued by your successors?

Enrique Penalosa: [06:02] The Mayors that have come afterwards have continued that, and there is a huge [unintelligible 06:06], it would be impossible really for someone to reverse these policies. And on the contrary, then we will have to make them even more radical. Our dream is to totally ban car use during peak hours everyday. In many countries they have car-free days where they close off a few streets to cars during that day. But we close the whole seven million in Harrington City to cars during one week day, a Thursday. And this again is not only an experiment in environmental transport, but this is an exercise in social integration, because we get uppering of people and lowering of people, everybody going out to find public transport. We allow taxis to operate that day but most people use buses or ride bicycles. We show ourselves that it’s possible to organise the city without private cars.

Mark Gorton: [07:01] In addition to being Mayor of Bogotá, you’ve also been a visiting scholar at NYU, and you’ve lived in New York and you said you have an apartment here in New York.

Enrique Penalosa: [07:12] Yes, I love New York.

Mark Gorton: [07:14] And I guess, you know, we were just walking down the street before and you were talking about some of the things that you would like to see and that you think make a lot of sense to do here, and it would be great to get some of your ideas on that.

Enrique Penalosa: [07:26] I think what changes cities are things that are different. I will almost say crazy. New York for example could turn all Broadway into a pedestrian street, all the way from [unintelligible 07:39] Bridge to the tip of Manhattan. And if you don’t want to turn the whole Broadway to pedestrians, to take half of Broadway into a very large giant sidewalk with bicycle ways and at least on Sundays it could be closed off completely so to allow people to access Central Park from different areas of Manhattan for example. I think there’s some wonderful things that have been done recently, like the bikeway around the Island, the Hudson River Park and this is wonderful. But here in Manhattan for example, there could be at least a few cross-town bicycle ways. We cannot continue to deceive ourselves thinking that to paint a little line on a road is a bikeway. A bicycle way which is not safe for an eight year old is not a bicycle way. And hopefully to do a whole network of very well protected, physically protected bicycle ways all across Manhattan. And only a few hundred cars would… which are now parked would be affected by these measures, which is nothing next to the millions that would benefit from this. The 42nd Street project, where they turned 42nd Street into a pedestrian street from East River to the Hudson River, put in a tram, it would be fantastic. Manhattan has all the qualities for successful pedestrian and bicycle street because Manhattan is dense, it’s very dense, distance is relative very short, so it’s perfect for walking or for bicycling and is very flat, so there are no significant hills. So these are just some of the projects which could be implemented in Manhattan. Mathematically it is totally impossible to solve the transportation problems of a city using cars. Because cars simply don’t fit, it’s impossible. If everybody wants to move by car… time lost in traffic jams is increasing every year. There is a conflict between a city that is friendly to cars and a city that is friendly to people, because if you have very wide streets that are very… where cars go very fast, they become obstacles for people, they are menacing, they are threatening. The United States is a fantastic society, having sampled the world in so many aspects and [unintelligible 10:17], its culture, the movies, the music, universities, the libraries. But not everything is ideal and one of those problems is this suburban highway culture. I believe New York could be even better.


Enrique Penalosa: [10:35] If we will take a lot of space away from parked cars and give it to pedestrians for example or to bicycles. The importance of public pedestrian space is obvious in New York. How every sidewalk is [unintelligible 10:47]. Mayor of Manhattan and the City Council Members would be surprised how they may receive much more political benefits from these measures which are relatively cost free. We underestimate the power of dreams. The most difficult thing is to dream and to create a collective dream or a shared vision. I think it’s time to take a great risk suddenly and to do something new, to do the new New York.



Clarence Eckerson Jr. has been making fantastical transportation media in NYC since the late 1990s. He's never had a driver's license and never will.

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  • James L.

    Enrique Penalosa is GOD!

  • pb

    OMG! Please clone Mr. Peñalosa and send the copies everywhere!

  • Steve K.

    Viva Senor Penalosa. He truly is a visionary, and one who has actually seen his dreams become reality!

  • http://deleted GaryE

    Bring Mr. Penalosa to Cleveland please! Seriously, how can you get a hold off him? Is there any way?

  • Clarissa

    Another great example of the power of possibility and creativity. Just because it had never been done before doesn't mean it couldn't be done!

  • http://ecociclistas.blogspot.com Rolando

    Excellent video, excellent interview. I was in Bogotá in the 80´s, traffic was a total mess, worse than Mexico City. I was also in Bogotá a few months ago. I must say I was completely amazed at the positive change these improvements have made. It was also nice to see how proud the people from Bogotá are.

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  • Ryanotokyo

    Inspiring. What a legend.

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  • Pat Ballentine

    I have long admired the practices shown on this site. The walkable, bikeable city seems to heavy snowfall for those same situations. The ice isn't safe and the slush is miserable to walk in. I can see that mass transit is good for snowy locations, but is there anything else that could be implemented? If a northern city invests in infrastructure, they want it to be usable for the whole year. Also, what about the traffic calming concepts--do they interfere with snow plowing? It seems like there would have to be plowing to walk or bike too.

  • antonio

    it's interesting to think that we're now fighting to restrict the use of cities by motorists. it reminds me, in a simple way, of the the pendulum swing towards organic foods. if we hadn't been so eager to use pesticides in the first place....

    progress can happen too quickly. why did we create so many parking spaces in the first place? why did we relinquish so much of our cities for vehicle use?

    but enough about what coul've/should've! Penalosa makes it seem so simple; let's fix NYC.

  • http://www.wrkng.net Nick

    Antonio's got a point - think of all the things we're willing to change these days in the name of progress.

    Maybe I'll reconsider getting that iPhone now!

  • Jack

    Truly a visionary and a man to watch. His honesty and accurate potrayal of the obvious conflicts between cars and people is too easily ignored by most leaders.

    In St. Louis, the region has made a dramatic and large commitment to the opposite approach in putting cars over people. Amazingly, local leadership continues to be surprised by depopulation trends.

    Thanks so very much for giving this great man a broader audience. Linking real estate values to smart transportation design is the way to convince skeptics.

    I too scream VIVA Senior Penalosa!

  • http://azulebanana.com/bluey Bruno

    Living in a country where some scholars and those with the responsibility to make changes like those started by Enrique Peñalosa, are still finding excuses not to make them and see the solution only based on cars, this interview only strengthen my opinion regarding will to change is almost everything needed to really change.
    Some supposedly expert scholars that make plans for our capital city council, still think that there's a need to make traffic easy for cars, that including bikes in the plans will cause more deaths of bikers. People still paint the line on the ground and think that they're making anything for the cause.
    Our capital city has only around 1/3 of Bogota...
    We've got, almost everywhere, from 70% to 90% of the street to the car (huge roads with lots of parking space, small and full of obstacles sidewalks), even on building new roads there isn't any care for pedestrians. Roads are built without sidewalks, bus stops are defined by a pole, people get the bus on the side of the street, on the tarmac, on the rain. And I live on one of the most rich councils of Portugal (Oeiras), with lots of offices from the big Portuguese and multinational corporations. We've got a stupid way of financing the councils, based on the construction rate, increasing real estate speculation, creating corrupt councils, leading to few innovation and to no will to benefit the population.


    With the will to show the interview to people unable to understand English, I took the time to transcribe this interview on dotSUB and translate it to Portuguese:


    You can register there and translate it to your native language, it would be wonderful to promote further the strong message the work of Mr. Peñalosa holds.

    Thanks. :-)

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  • v

    and he's a fellow blue devil. what's not to love?

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  • Paul

    Awesome! So good. I think every city should take at least one long street downtown and restrict personal vehicle use. 5th and 6th avenues? in downtown Portland are going through major renovations where there is a rail line, a bus lane and a car lane. Why not ditch the car lane for more bicycle/pedestrian use? You don't need to drive on those streets anyway.

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  • Mauricio Villamil Betancourt

    Im from Colombia and lived in Bogotá for about 17 years now and in all this time the only real lider thinking about changing the city for better and not for worse was Enrique Penalosa...I´ve voted for him when he run for Mayor and WE WON of course...and also voted for him when he run for SENATOR of the Republic...and guess what.....HE IS COMING BACK! HE IS RUNNING FOR MAYOR OF BOGOTÁ AGAIN what else can one ask from God? Im getting my pen ready for THE day! I love PENALOSA

  • Natalia

    As someone who grew up and has lived in Bogota her whole life, I must say that my city really experienced a big change both in the urban and the identity aspects during the last 12 years. Having had Enrique Penalosa as the Major of our City, was the best thing that could ever happen to our public spaces, our parks, our transport system, our public libraries, and most important, the sense of belongingness of our citizens.

    Before Bogota went through this polyfacetic process of transformation, the capital city was said to belong to nobody in particular, something that was in part the result of a massive migration of people from the smaller cities and towns all around the country, who came to Bogota looking for better opportunities. After the construction of the first phases of Transmilenio, the hundreds of kilometres of the so called 'Ciclorutas' (bike lanes), the mega-libraries designed by some of our most famous architects, the schools, the recovery of many areas of the city that had some urban, cultural or historical meaning, and the cultural citizen educational programs undergone by Antanas Mockus who followed Peñalosa as Major, we (bogotanos)do think in Bogota as our city; we feel very proud when we see people coming from around the country or even the world, who come to visit the city for the changes they know it has had, people who have heard that we had the fortune to have a team of great people working to turn Bogota in one of the cities where good administration practices have worked, turning it into an admirable urban centre.

    We nice interview with Peñalosa. Congratulations!!!

  • Michele

    Great interview. I wish we could lure him to Toronto to deliver the same message...

  • http://WWW.ADARIDE.COM Art Hulscher

    I saw Dr. Penalosa speak at a transportation conference in Long Beach CA, and was blown away. His message is so easy to hear and understand because he speaks the truth and common sense. Hopefully his message will not be lost in political, socio-economic forces in America. As an advocate for people with disabilities and seniors, it is vital that these pedestrian and bike friendly pathways be created in the US for the inevitable senior tsunami. All hail Dr. Penalosa!

  • Jose Franco

    AMAZING!!! I wish this could be done in my country!

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  • http://slf.org.au Sam Hoffmann

    I am the film programmer of the Sustinabel Living Festival in Melbourne Australia. I would be interested in showing this film at our upcoming Film Festival. Is it possible to gain a high res copy somehow?

  • Lawrence Tseu

    I heard of this man, Enrique Penalosa when I was working on my thesis on the relationship between traffic congestion and car dependency in my city, Kuching in theState of Sarawak, East Malaysia. I WISH someone can pass me the goodDr. e-mail. I have been working on sustainable urban transport programme (for 3 years now) but nobody listens as the national government policy on the national car PROTON eats into the life of every Malaysian adult who thinks that the car is the answer to accessibility. I envy Bogota and Curitiba and creative city councils in the USA that seize opportunities to give street back to the people for pedestrianization, bike, street buses, train etc.
    Can someone pass me this great man's e-mail or contact. We are in the process of preparing for an Conference on Kuching Healthy City, an international evbent for the Alliance for Healthy City , western Pacific and getting Dr. Penalosa here to speak about community spirit in developing a sustainable uban transport programme/project. Thanks.

  • Lawrence Tseu

    I first heard of Dr. Enrique Penalosa when I was working onmy thesis on the relationship between car dependency and urban traffic congestion. Now I am involved trying to get urban public transport programme moving. Seems that in malaysia, nobody wants to know about buses and bike - practically all Malaysian adults are caught up in modern lifestyle and driving individually in their own cars. Sad but true.
    I would appreciate if someone out there could pass me Dr. penalosa=s contact numbet (e-mail that is) as I sure would like him to come over and help me in my little cit of Kuching. The opportunity could be during our 10th Kuching Healthy City Conference wherby we, the working committee would be delighted to invite him as a keynote speaker. Thanks people.

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    Some supposedly expert scholars that make plans for our capital city
    council, still think that there's a need to make traffic easy for cars,
    that including bikes in the plans will cause more deaths of bikers.

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     nobody wants to know about buses and bike - practically all Malaysian
    adults are caught up in modern lifestyle and driving individually in
    their own cars. Sad but true.I envy Bogota and Curitiba and creative city councils in the USA that
    seize opportunities to give street back to the people for
    pedestrianization, bike, street buses, train etc.

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  • Arslan

    love him great man really showed the world if there is a will there is a way a bright example for the corrupt politicians of developing countries who brag about lack of funds that how one can establish MRTS in a megacity of a developing country way to go bogota way to go Penalosa

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  • Agneta

    Great job by a good man in politics

  • Enrique Penalosa’s #1 Fan

    "New York for example could turn all Broadway into a pedestrian street, all the way from [unintelligible 07:39] Bridge to the tip of Manhattan." He's saying Tappan Zee Bridge

  • Enrique Penalosa’s #1 Fan

    "The Mayors that have come afterwards have continued that, and there is a huge [unintelligible 06:06]" He's saying "there is a huge popular so" or it sounds like he's saying "there is a huge popularity source" but I think he means "there is a huge popularity"

  • Enrique Penalosa’s #1 Fan

    "he importance of public pedestrian space is obvious in New York. How every sidewalk is [unintelligible 10:47]." He's saying "How every sidewalk is clogged"