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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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