Bogotá’s Peñalosa Talks Up Livable Streets, Sans Spandex

Filed by April Greene

Guillermo ("Gil") Peñalosa has a message for you. Actually, he has about 100, but they all packed very nicely into his two hour presentation last Thursday night at Harlem's Adam Clayton Powell Jr. State Office Building.

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The former Parks Commissioner of Bogotá, Colombia, joined by members of the Harlem Community Development Corporation, Project for Public Spaces, Transportation Alternatives, and the NYC Food and Fitness Partnership, plowed through mountains of statistics both scary (in the U.S., 13 pedestrians and two bicyclists are killed by automobiles every day) and encouraging (only six years after implementation, Bogotá's bus rapid transit system now transports 1.3 million commuters daily), peppering the numbers with memorable quips and tips: "I tell my friends, 'Don't wear spandex when you bike!' We need to wear regular clothes so people know bikers are not crazy weirdos!"

Peñalosa's presentation was a comprehensive sweep of the livable streets concept. With the U.S. population slated to experience a 33 percent jump in the next 50 years, he said the need to build ped-friendly new cities and retrofit existing ones has never been greater, and in New York, the timing has never been better, with the mayor and DOT on board for green initiatives with unprecedented zeal. Peñalosa stressed that a city is a means to a way of life: if we build our cities around cars, we will generate more cars, but if we build them around people, we will generate more people. Advocates have a number of arguments to boost the cause, he said, depending on whom they're talking to: livable streets bring in tourism and real estate revenue from sales tax; they decrease instances of obesity, respiratory ailments, and depression; they save lives by separating cars from pedestrians; they help curb carbon emissions and noise pollution; and they build community by requiring that people, outside the shield of their cars, "look each other in the eye."

The diverse crowd of about 30 was motivated to attend by a range of concerns. A woman from the Harlem CDC said she has traveled extensively and wishes there were more ped-friendly streets in NYC like Las Ramblas in Barcelona. Three young women from the Department of Health wanted to hear Mr. Peñalosa's ideas on the link between more car-free public space and less chronic disease. A DOT urban planner said she thinks more people are open now to ideas like congestion pricing than they were 10 years ago, but that it will still take "someone with political guts," like Mr. Peñalosa, to lead the way in implementing such "long overdue" reforms. But some were just in it for the fun. One man offered, "I'd just like to see 1.5 million people outside and physically active on a Sunday."

Photo by April Greene