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Cities should be for people, not cars: Enrique Penalosa

By Darryl D'Monte

Denver, San Francisco and Seoul are demolishing their freeways and highways and attempting to return their cities to their people, not their cars, says Enrique Penalosa, former mayor of Bogota and founder of the BRTS in his city, advising India to learn from the mistakes of these cities

The greatest people, although hardboiled journalists hesitate to use that superlative, are able to come to the heart of a problem, to cut to the chase. Enrique Penalosa, the mercurial former Mayor of Bogota, in Colombia, is one such person who has carved out a niche for himself in promoting environment-friendly cities in general, and bus transport in particular.

He was in Ahmedabad and Mumbai recently. The former has just launched its bus rapid transit system (BRTS), which is a lot better than that in Delhi, the pioneer in India, which has come in for a lot of flak. Much of this, one must hasten to add, is the outrage of the influential motorists’ lobby and is often irrational, if not plainly wrong, factually.

Penalosa, who started the world-renowned Transmilenio bus system in the capital, praises Ahmedabad for possessing the best BRTS in this country so far. Around 83 cities in the world have adopted BRTS; nine Indian cities have, or are about to.

Penalosa is a highly respected urbanist and was elected Mayor of Bogota -- one of the world’s most violent cities, due to the presence of drug cartels and guerrillas, between 1998 and 2001. He could have been a presidential candidate for 2010 but decided instead to stand for a second term as mayor. He lost by 15 percentage points. He is now president of the board of directors of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), based in New York. On November 24, he shared the Goteborg award, considered the environmental equivalent of the Nobel, in the Swedish town of that name.

As a canny one-time politician, Penalosa is too sharp to deal head-on with his pet theme: how buses are the lifeline in any city of the world, irrespective of how rich or poor. He cites how the earliest quests in history were for acquiring land in the colonies. Subsequently it was to acquire capital, which is the bedrock of modern-day capitalism, however much it is cloaked today in sophisticated terminology like derivatives and the like. Today, he almost muses aloud, it could well be about acquiring a good quality of life.

He illustrates this with a telling example. Ask any graduate from a top business or engineering institution here which city he would like to get his first job in, given any choice in the world, and the chances are he will opt for London, New York or Paris, not necessarily in that order. The reason is that these are well-planned and orderly cities with terrific public transport, parks and so on -- in a word, an excellent quality of life. Incidentally, even a senior-most executive posted in these cities will think nothing of taking a train or bus to work, something unimaginable in Mumbai or Delhi. Can one measure real economic development therefore by the quality of life rather than per capita income (rather like Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index)?

Penalosa draws a parallel between Mumbai and Bogota. Between 2010 and 2060, Maharashtra’s urban population is expected to grow from 40% to 60%, just like Colombia’s grew between 1950 and 2000. Colombia’s cities grew by 1,000% in that half-century, however, which is not the case in this country which doesn’t suffer from “primate” capital cities. Indeed, the National Commission on Urbanisation, headed by Charles Correa, pointed out 20 years ago that contrary to popular impression, India’s urban growth is not rapid and quite evenly dispersed.

Penalosa is keen that India learns from the mistakes of Latin American and North American cities. There are no excuses for repeating the craziness that is epitomised in Los Angeles’ interminable sprawl of highways. “You start up with transport and end up in almost ‘religious’ issues,” he observes, referring to the choice between quality of life and speed. For him, the ideal city is “a city where people want to be outside,” the first of many profound statements. This is precisely the opposite of Indian cities, where the rich have cocooned themselves at home against the chaos, heat and dust outside.

He lists these amenities, which seem obvious but are worthy of repetition: the provision of plazas, parks, facilities for the elderly, handicapped and the poor. “Most cities are planned by adult males with cars for adult males with cars!” he complains. Cities ought to be planned for people, not cars; pedestrians ought to get the biggest priority (most trips by private or public transport involve some amount of walking).

This columnist, who moderated Penalosa’s talk to the Urban Development Research Institute at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Museum, informed him that 55% of Mumbaikars -- the population as a whole, as distinct from ‘commuters’ -- walk or cycle to work, an astonishing proportion. In Delhi, it is 40%. “Cycling is only a more efficient way of walking,” says Penalosa. “People should not feel inferior if they are on a cycle. The public good must always prevail over the private.”

He then makes one of those profound statements, but so matter-of-factly that anyone not paying close attention may almost miss their import. At the very least, he asserts, it should be possible for the state to provide “quality of life equality, at least for children to realise their potential.” Thus, public city infrastructure by way of good schools, swimming pools, football pitches (in Latin America; cricket for our sub-continent!), could be made available to all citizens at a not very considerable cost. As he keeps emphasising, this is a political decision rather than an economic one.

This columnist observed first-hand such an egalitarian approach in Sao Paulo, Brazil, last year at the Urban Age conference. One must realise that Bogota and Sao Paulo are two of the most dangerous cities in the world (my Brazilian journalist friend cautioned me to return to my hotel at 5 pm in Sao Paulo, some 15 years ago; he also warned me never to catch a taxi on the road, for fear that I might never reach my destination…). However, the slums we visited in Sao Paulo had excellent gymnasia and football grounds, which have kept the youth away from drugs and other petty crimes.

Penalosa reminds us, as he did before his speech when he interacted with a range of city and state government officials in Mumbai, that under the Indian Constitution, all citizens are equal before the law. It wasn’t as if citizens with cars were more equal than others! All the infrastructure on city roads, most of which in Mumbai and other Indian cities caters to motorists rather than public transport, amounted to diverting funds away from the poor. In Bogota, he turned down a recommendation by the Japanese official aid agency that the city should have more highways. “Having a high-velocity road in the middle of a city is like keeping an electrified fence in the middle of a cow pasture!”

He repeatedly cites how the mere mention of the warning “Watch out, a car is coming!” is sufficient to send children scurrying for cover. As many as 250,000 children are killed by cars on the world’s roads every year -- the number escalates if you add those killed in cars -– but this is treated as “normal”. (This is reminiscent of Hannah Arendt’s phrase, in relation to the Nazi extermination of Jews, as the “banality of evil”.) Cities like Denver and San Francisco are now demolishing their freeways. In Bogota, he pedestrianised a 24-km-long street. “We must show respect for human dignity,” he believes.

Penalosa would love to see promenades for pedestrians and cyclists only. “Footpaths are the most important element of a democratic city. Parking isn’t a constitutional right, unlike health or education. It’s a private issue.” Motorists should provide for their parking at their own cost, not that of the state. “Road space is most valuable (he had earlier asked me how much the most expensive apartments in Mumbai cost. When I mentioned that a flat in the National Centre for Performing Arts building had exchanged hands for $2,000 a square foot, he exclaimed that the most expensive flat in Bogota would only cost three-quarters as much).

In his demonology, malls hold a high rank: “They are the same shops everywhere in the world, with the same temperature.” At the same time, he is candid enough to examine why people visit malls. It isn’t only because of the sanitised atmosphere, as many may imagine; it is also because it provides, surprisingly and contradictorily, “pedestrianised space” where children can walk without fear of being run over.

He extols New York for having carved out Central Park in 1880, when the city was poorer than Mumbai is today. “Mumbai should create a Central Park every year!” he exhorts, though his is a cry in the wilderness. The 300 hectare park was bought by New York City when it was outside the city limits. “One can have a completely different alignment elsewhere: for example, a park could be 300 metres wide but 10 km long, which would completely transform a city.” Access to green is something that low-income people should always have; otherwise it could be the most important factor in exclusion, since the poor don’t have access to gymkhanas and private clubs where the rich have appropriated green space.

Waterfronts in world cities are another instance where land could be turned over to the public. Unfortunately, city planners have traditionally built highways parallel to waterfronts in cities like Paris -- “a huge mistake” because there was no need for intersections. They are now tearing them down, like in Seoul at a cost of $9 billion, to revive a central city waterfront along a river. In Paris, one highway along the Seine is converted for a whole month in summer into the “Paris beach”, replete with sand on the pavement for sunbathers, to humanise this most iconic precinct of the city.

In advanced cities, the upper class use public transport not because it is fashionable to do so but because they are forced to. Penalosa would like to see a system where 40% of cars by the three last digits on their number plates every day are restricted from entering the central business district during the two-hour rush in the morning, and again in the evening. He castigates planners for permitting cars or motorcycles to be parked on footpaths. Cars ought to be taxed higher than public transport -- in India the converse is true. At the same time, with his penchant for pragmatism, he is against banning cars per se, only their use. In New York, some 30% of citizens own cars, but only 6% use them daily.

He had done his homework on Mumbai and met the chief minister the previous day to enquire about the city’s BRTS. It isn’t just the number of cars on the roads that matter but the number of trips and the length of each. Mumbai adds 150,000 cars per year (far less than Delhi), which, if put back-to-back, would form a line the distance from Mumbai to London!

“There is no ‘natural’ level for cars in any city,” Penalosa explains, doubtless in answer to such queries in countless cities across the globe. It is always a political decision rather than a technocratic one. “London has some of the best public transport in the world, but this doesn’t mean that there’s no congestion on the roads.”

With his political shrewdness, he turns to his pet theme -- the bus as the preferred means of city transport -- only towards the end of his speech. If he introduced the concept without first spelling out his vision of the humane, democratic city, it would encounter opposition. Rather than propagate buses, he turns to a critique of the metro (underground/overground railway). Only in Mexico City does the proportion of commuters anywhere in the world using the system exceed 12% of the total (Delhi, which is admittedly incomplete, has 8%), and it costs $1.20-$1.30 per person per trip to build and maintain. A typical underground metro costs $150 million per km to build; a BRTS only $5 million. London has the oldest and one of the best in the world, with 1,800 km of track, but this doesn’t prevent 1 million more commuters using buses every day in the British capital.

Penalosa’s pride and joy is the Transmilenio -- true to his pitch it should always be grandly branded and appear state-of-the-art technology, whereas buses have a battered, dirty reputation otherwise. In the Bogotá busways, all four doors of a bus, with at least another attached to it, open simultaneously so that 50 people can exit and enter at the same time, in seconds. They carry between 140 and 200 passengers at a time. The entire system carries twice as many people as the Delhi metro, at a fraction of the cost.

Delhi’s BRTS, advocated by Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, who was re-elected recently, was “heroic” in that it reserved road space for buses, much to the ire of motorists. In a typical BRTS, commuters have to walk shorter distances to and from the bus station than a metro station. They also travel at a higher frequency. “It is painful to take space away from cars,” Penalosa observes, “but that is a political decision.”

The mother of all BRTS systems will open in Guangzhou in December, which will carry a staggering 1 million passengers. The “father” of these flexible and dynamic bus systems is Jamie Lerner, the former architect-mayor of Curitiba in Brazil, whose experience Penalosa learned from. In Sao Paulo last year, Lerner, now in his early-70s, explained to this columnist, drawing on a notebook somewhat shakily, how a “bi-articulated” bus -- one main vehicle with two joined to it -- has the same capacity as a metro (because of higher frequency and high speed due to reserved lanes).

Nine cities in India have got one, or are about to under the National Urban Renewal Mission, though planners pay lip-service to it, like in Mumbai, with half-baked, domestically-designed hybrid systems. But prejudices abound, typically whether the streets in a congested city like Mumbai are too narrow to accommodate such a system. The point is, as Penalosa never tires of explaining, cars are occupying too much of this space; restrict them and the bus is the way to go.

Asked if there is a minimum density in a city that makes the BRTS possible, Penalosa responds by pointing out that commuting corridors with 120 people per hectare is good for a public transport system. Bogota has 220 people per hectare on average, half that of Mumbai. In a typical US suburb, with its sprawl and excessive reliance on the automobile, it is only 50, which obviously rules out the BRTS.

Questioned about how open areas and parks in his ideal cities of the developing world aren’t squatted upon by slum-dwellers, he recalls that he had never removed a single slum during his tenure in Bogota; on the contrary, he legalised 400 neighbourhoods. Every home has running water and sanitation. If people are assured that they won’t be evicted, he believes, they will protect such areas because they and their children stand to benefit most from them. It has all to do, as he endlessly reiterates, with one’s vision of a city: who is it meant for?  

Infochange News & Features, December 2009