Enrique Peñalosa: Democracy Is Bus-Only Lanes and Protected Bikeways

I lived in Bogotá, Colombia, for about half of 2002. While I was there, a political party headquarters near my house was car-bombed, guerrillas attacked the presidential inauguration, and thousands of people were killed in routine violence. It was a stressful place to live.

Adding to that stress was the speed and chaos of traffic. Every taxi ride I survived was a minor miracle.

And then there was Sunday.

Sundays and holidays, 75 miles of major roads — normally choked with diesel-powered kamikaze vehicles weaving in and out of lanes in a cacophony of car horns — were closed to motor vehicle traffic for the ciclovía. Filling the void were families walking dogs, teenagers on skateboards, couples on bikes, and one freaked-out gringa who finally found a place in Bogotá she could breathe. Those car-free rides saved me.

Mayor Enrique Peñalosa didn’t start the ciclovía but he expanded it and made it a vibrant, exciting activity enjoyed by two million people every week. He flatly rejected the argument that it wasn’t worth building bicycle infrastructure for the tiny fraction of Bogotanos who rode, knowing that “if you build it, they will ride.”

In a TED talk posted yesterday (but filmed in September), Peñalosa pushes the boundaries of what most people think is possible in a city. Reserve every other street for transit, bikes, and pedestrians? Dedicate bus-only lanes in dense, congested cities? It’s not only possible, Peñalosa says, it’s also necessary for a healthy democracy. If you’ve never seen this man speak, do yourself a favor and spend 14 minutes with him in this TED talk.

In the talk, Peñalosa asserts that “an advanced city is not one where even the poor use cars, but one where even the rich use public transport.”

He compares the over-allocation of street space to private motor vehicles to the prohibition on women voting — a blatant injustice that seems normal when you’re used to it. Today, most people don’t think twice when they see a bus stuck in traffic. But that injustice will also one day seem like a relic of a misguided past.

Carving out adequate space for people on foot was even harder than dedicating street space for buses, Peñalosa said — his hair went gray and he was almost impeached during that fight. But it was worth it. “What really makes the difference between advanced and backwards cities is not highways or subways, but quality sidewalks,” he says. “In no constitution is parking a constitutional right.”

And while American bike infrastructure is often portrayed as an amenity for the elite, Peñalosa views protected bikeways — like the 220 or so miles he built — as a mark of true equality. “They show the citizen on a $30 bicycle is equally important to the one in a $30,000 car,” he said.

The rapid pace of urbanization makes it all the more important to get the allocation of street space right. More than half of the city fabric that will exist in the year 2060 has yet to be built. And the growth won’t just happen in developing countries — 70 million new homes will be built in the United States in the next 50 years.

Peñalosa suggests three strategies to make future cities better than the ones we have now:

    1. Build extensive greenways. Every other street should be only for pedestrians and bicycles.
    2. Reserve some streets for buses only (bike and pedestrians would be welcome too).
    3. Stop the sprawl caused by rapid urbanization and poverty.

The “misery belts” around cities in the developing world are filled with illegal developments of poor people who have moved from the countryside and can’t afford to live in the part of the city with infrastructure and services. So this is perhaps Peñalosa’s most radical proposal: In countries that have yet to urbanize, governments should acquire all land around cities, then cities could grow in the right way. It may sound far-fetched, but according to Peñalosa, these cities will determine the quality of life and even happiness for billions of people — if they’re built well.

  • jamesbeaz

    Enrique Penalosa is a good man — and we should listen to him — but his vision for the future is very ‘tower in a park’-ish.

  • Bolwerk

    There needs to be a word for when politicians just want to throw buses at the problem. Peñalosa basically offers a variation on Garden City or City Beautiful planning for the neo-liberal palette that craves building highways but can live with calling them busways.

    And WTF is he equating highways and subways for? Subways actually improve walkability, and complement buses (in cities so big they have subways, buses probably aren’t particularly useful without the subways). Highways destroy walkability, and work at cross purposes with buses.

  • I am immediately skeptical of any visions of the future that look radically different from anything ever seen in the past.

  • john

    Enrique is right and by the way Bolwerk, subways-trains can add to walkability if designed to augment pedestrian routes. But in my neighborhood, the new mass transit train route blocks former walking routes. Buses would have been a better solution. Consequently what use to be a walk of 500 meters to numerous stores like WholeFoods, TraderJoes, restaurants, etc. from hundreds of homes now requires a 1.8 mile walk, one-way.

  • Bolwerk

    Assuming this anecdote is even true, what on Earth does that have to do with the mode? A busway is at least as capable of blocking a walkway as a railroad.

  • coolbabybookworm

    well the video was sponsored by chevrolet…

  • Kenny Easwaran

    The radical difference between these proposals and the Manhattan grid system of 1810 is that on this proposal, half of the streets would be set aside for motor vehicles, while in Manhattan in 1810, every street would have been primarily dedicated to people on foot, with occasional horse-drawn vehicles. The 20th century has shown us that streets with cars on them can work, so I wouldn’t be too worried about this radical departure from the past.

  • fkg

    Well if john’s railroad is at grade with a third rail that could hurt walkability more than a busway.

  • davistrain

    “Even the rich use public transport”? Admittedly, there are some celebrities who should let a trained professional do the driving, and there may be some who want to establish their “green credibility, but one of the advantages of being rich is that you don’t have to “share”. As I recall, the last time the Academy Awards were staged at the Hollywood & Highland facility once known as the Kodak Theater, Metro closed the subway station below the theater and had trains running non-stop through there.

  • valar84

    I agree with Peñalosa in terms of the need to reallocate road space to other users and not just to prioritize cars over everybody else. That being said, I am highly annoyed by his “buses everywhere” and “rail nowhere” vision. His insistence on portraying rail as an inferior mode of transit that is always useless really gets on my nerves, and gets me to wonder exactly where his ITDP think thank gets their funding.

    As a pedestrian and transit user, I will take tramways, subways and trains over buses any day of the week. As a pedestrian, these modes of transport do not pollute the place where I walk and live, buses keep emitting hot diesel fumes, their rubber tires also erode gradually, spreading rubber particles in the environment, they are noisy and their trajectory isn’t always evident. By comparison, rail forms of transit have a predictable trajectory that makes me feel safer as a pedestrian, and they do not pollute, they integrate perfectly with pedestrian life. As a transit user, the problems of buses are compounded when you’re stuck inside one.

    I get that BRT was the best way of doing things in his native Bogotá. For years of authoritarian modernist car-centric planning had given that city huge highways that crisscrossed it, separating neighborhoods from one another. And this in a city where 80% of people do not even own cars, a clear example of injustice, all the money being spent on a rich minority who owned cars.

    Reassigning lanes on these huge highways to buses was a matter of social justice. All the infrastructure money had gone to build these highways, it was only fair to give priority to transit users who formed the vast majority of road traffic, and to create a faster transit system. People were stuck using buses anyway, at least these buses should be fast and well organized.

    But the reality is that this Transmilenio is essentially a 4-lane highway only for buses. It is 20-meter wide. Rail transit can achieve similar or better capacity and speed on a right-of-way of half that. I don’t think highways have any place in pedestrian-friendly cities with narrow streets, and that includes bus highways.

    Furthermore, though BRT works perfectly in developing countries where bus drivers are barely paid and most people have no cars (so they can’t opt out of transit if the ride is uncomfortable), in developed countries, rail transit is more efficient since less manpower is need to run a line for the same capacity, and its better comfort is essential in attracting ridership (30 to 50% higher than bus lines with similar operational characteristics according to most literature on the subject). In terms of operating costs, rail costs much less than buses, even frequent, heavily-used BRTs. In Canada, the cost per passenger to provide transit in Toronto, which has subways and kept some streetcar lines, is nearly 30% less than in Ottawa (2,75$ per rider vs 3,90$), which has North America’s best and most heavily used BRT system, despite transit share being around 20% in both cities. Ottawa is also converting its BRT to light-rail in its downtown area, a move which will save them 70 to 100 million dollars ANNUALLY in operating costs.

    BRT is fine for the developing world and for some cities that have overbuilt urban highway systems, but for properly built pedestrian-friendly cities in the developed world, rail transit is essential.

    Then again, there has been riots on the Transmilenio when users got fed up with the poor quality of the ride experience, the insecurity of the buses and the cost of tickets.

  • He’s not equating highways and subways. He referred to them in the same sentence to say that the most important improvement cities can make is far simpler and less expensive than these major infrastructure projects: it’s a sidewalk. That’s all. His larger message is that mass transit deserves a far greater share of urban space than private automobiles, and I’m sure that’s a message you can get behind.

  • s

    And if your highways are already maxed out with private vehicles and at a crushing standstill, the only way to make them more efficient and equitable is to retrofit them with busways.

    If you’re starting from scratch, of course it’s dumb to bisect a city with a highway even if it’s a bus highway. A subway is much better in that case. But if you already have that highway running through the middle of your city…

  • Bolwerk

    I’d buy that, except assigning labels like “more important” or “less important,” or that he refuses to even acknowledge the importance of rail as a mode while acknowledging every other mode, is a red flag for a naive or sinister agenda.

    What should be important is having good transit, which isn’t possible with just buses, even with busways.

  • Jame

    I don’t think that rail is the only solution. You can definitely design a nice bus that has high capacity and lower environmental impact. (SF uses electric buses). There is a point where capacity is an issue on the bus, but it is pretty far along when they buses have dedicated infrastructure. But considering the cost efficiencies, a bus is a great way to get speedy high capacity service, without permanent infrastructure as a precursor to the billions and billions of dollars required to get a rail project going. We have a lot of bus bias, since a lot of our buses are purposely crappy.

  • valar84

    Much of what makes a bus crappy is based on bus technology itself.

    Buses have the advantage of being able to exploit and take away roads from cars, roads that cost billions of dollars to build too. That’s their big advantage. Rail isn’t more expensive to build than roads, for the same capacity, they’re even cheaper, and if you need to build in tunnels, they’re a bargain. Just think of the 22-billion 5,6 miles of underground highways of the Big Dig (3,9 billions a mile), compared to that, even the most expensive subway project in the world, the Second Avenue Subway, is cheap (2 billions a mile).

    One thing that most people in North America get wrong is the idea that transit needs be reactive. Present demand only can justify transit investments. But the reality is that development follows transport links, so if you under-design a transit system with low capacity to start with, you will never attract transit users and transit-oriented developments to justify better transit. Just like if urban highways had never been built, sprawling exurbs would never have been built in the first place.

    The phenomenon of induced demand for highways is now recognized by nearly everyone, certainly everyone in good faith. The next step is understanding that induced demand isn’t unique to roads, but the reality of all manners of transport. If you want to induce developments that are transit-friendly, you need to invest in transit FIRST. You cannot wait on the sideline waiting for developments to develop in a transit-friendly manner by themselves, they will not do that, it isn’t random.

  • Jame

    Investing in places without existing roadways in North America would mean encouraging sprawl. Your proposing build it and they will come. Infill areas already have existing infrastructure that can be used or reallocated to transit.

  • valar84

    No it wouldn’t. Sprawl is more than just urban areas extending, which they will naturally do if population increases. Sprawl is about a certain form of sprawling urban developments, with very low density, separation of uses and where cars are a requirement for any trips.

    A neighborhood built around transit but with poor road connections would be the opposite of that. People would tend to want to live as close to transit stations and the high amount of people passing through them would lead to businesses and offices wanting to be located next to the transit stations which would therefore become the heart of a small downtown area.

  • HKpdx

    He starts off by saying the free market is proven to be the best way to allocate resources but then he says it fails to create cities that are pedestrian and bike friendly, then he seems to suggest that governments should step in to implement his ideas. Since governments can only do this by using violence and force, he’s making a critical logical and moral error.

    For example, he ended by saying that governments in developing countries should “aquire all land around cities” to eliminate suburbs. Assuming the land is privately owned which is likely, the state would have to either seize the land through eminent domain or buy it with funds acquired through taxation or fiat currency printing. These are both examples of violence through theft and are inherently evil even if they have a good outcome.

    The free market on the other hand could accomplish this without violence. One way would be to set up a non-profit that would use it’s funds to purchase the land and develop it along the lines he suggests.

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