I am planning a public bike forum/arts and entertainment event in the spring with the help of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. I imagine a meeting of ordinary people, biking advocates and city reps from the Dept. of Transportation, Parks, police and urban planning. Interspersed with this dream of reaching a compromise and progress on making the city more livable will be bike-related entertainment — to be announced when confirmed. I dream that civic work, improvement and action can be mixed with art and entertainment — that culture and politics can mix and be fun. Well, we’ll see.
As a result, the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives invited me to a meeting organized by Manhattan borough president Scott Stringer about transportation, held at Columbia University. I wasn’t able to stay for the whole thing, but was excited to meet Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogotá (Colombia) who revolutionized the transportation and parks in that city.
He created a new bus mass transit system, bike lanes, pedestrian streets — all of which had the effect of relieving congestion, boosting the economy and making Bogotá and its surroundings a better place to live. (Some inspirational credit should go to the Brazilian city of Curitiba, a town that made these kinds of changes some years ago and serves as an example. Unfortunately, Curitiba is, to me, a pretty boring town, but these changes have made it more livable for the residents.)
Here’s an excerpt from a piece Peñalosa wrote called “The Politics of Happiness”:
One common measure of the cleanliness of a mountain stream is to look for trout. If you find the trout, the habitat is healthy. It’s the same way with children in a city. Children are a kind of indicator species. If we can build a successful city for children, we will have a successful city for all people.
When I was elected mayor of Bogotá and got to city hall, I was handed a transportation study that said the most important thing the city could do was to build an elevated highway at a cost of $600 million. Instead, we installed a bus system that carries 700,000 people a day at a cost of $300 million. We created hundreds of pedestrian-only streets, parks, plazas, and bike paths, planted trees, and got rid of cluttering commercial signs. We constructed the longest pedestrian-only street in the world. [more than 20km!] It may seem crazy, because this street goes through some of the poorest neighborhoods in Bogotá, and many of the surrounding streets aren’t even paved. But we chose not to improve the streets for the sake of cars, but instead to have wonderful spaces for pedestrians. All this pedestrian infrastructure shows respect for human dignity. We’re telling people, “You are important — not because you’re rich or because you have a Ph.D., but because you are human.” If people are treated as special, as sacred even, they behave that way. This creates a different kind of society.
The Transportation Alternatives people arranged that we all meet on the west side greenway — very near where I live — at 7:30 in the morning. Peñalosa and the TA folks — then we’d all ride up together to Columbia University (116th Street) as a symbolic gesture. Moby and actor Matthew Modine were supposed to join as well, but they were no-shows. (To be fair, maybe they had never committed and their inclusion was just a publicist’s hopeful rumor.)
At Columbia I was introduced to some of the political players — taxi and limousine commission dept., dept. of transportation, borough president’s office, etc. It’s another world. Then there were short speeches from some of those — Iris Weinshall from Dept. of Transportation said some wonderful things. If those hopes and promises are fulfilled it would be wonderful for NY.
Peñalosa showed slides of Bogotá and talked about what he did.
Here are some quotes (paraphrased):
“If a bike lane isn’t safe for an 8 year old child, it isn’t a bike lane.”
“Traffic jams are not always bad. The priority is not always to relieve them. They will force people to use public transportation.”
“Building more highways never relieves congestion.” [This was not his insight, but he reminded us how true it is.]
“Transportation is not an end — it is a means to having a better life, a more enjoyable life — the real goal is not to improve transportation but to improve the quality of life.”
“A place without sidewalks privileges the automobile, and therefore the richer people in cars have more rights; this is undemocratic.”
(Peñalosa tended to link equality with democracy — an idea that is anathema to many in the U.S. I am simplifying here.)
“Upper-income people have always had access to nature and recreation. They go to country houses, golf clubs, restaurants, hunting preserves. What do the poor, especially in the Third World, have as an alternative to television? All poor people have are public spaces, so this is not a luxury. They are the minimum a democratic society can provide to begin to compensate for the inequalities that exist in society.
“Since we took these steps, we’ve seen a reduction in crime and a change in attitude toward the city.”
For New York, Peñalosa recommended first imagining what a city could be, what would one wish for, what could be achieved in 100 or more years. As with the great Gothic cathedrals one has to imagine something that one will not see in one’s lifetime, but one’s children or grandchildren may experience it. This also frees one from quickly dismissing ideas as too idealistic or practically improbable. Of course, like dealing with global warming, it needs political will to accomplish, something that ebbs and flows, rises and falls. So looking at the bright side, if there is precious little of that will now, that doesn’t mean there will never be any.
Peñalosa asked that we imagine Broadway, the longest street in the United States, as a pedestrian street. He asked that we imagine reclaiming contact with the East River and dismantling the FDR drive.
As an interim measure, we might turn one long street, like Broadway or 5th Ave., into a pedestrian street just on Sunday afternoons. (The fact that NYC businesses don’t rely much on car access and on having massive parking lots out front like in the suburbs makes this all within the realm of possibility.)
Imagine 42nd Street could be a pedestrian street… it almost is now, with all the stalled traffic and jaywalking. Imagine it as a long plaza, with theaters, restaurants, trees in the middle of the street, seats, outdoor cafés…free wi-fi.