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Former Bogotá mayor talks city transit, gentrification
Urban planner and former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, Enrique Peñalosa addresses an audience on Valencia Street during the last Sunday Streets of the year, Oct. 19. Photo Veronica Henao
Urban planner and former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, Enrique Peñalosa addresses an audience on Valencia Street during the last Sunday Streets of the year, Oct. 19. Photo Veronica Henao

On the sunny afternoon of Sunday, Oct.19, urban planner and former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, Enrique Peñalosa, walked down Valencia Street during the last Sunday Streets event of the year, smiling alongside pedestrians, bicyclists, pets and food stands.

The event—held in the Mission District to promote recreation and outdoor activities on the streets of San Francisco—was inspired by the open streets of Bogotá, which became a mainstay in the 1970s. Another important development in transportation in Latin America was the bike routes or bike lanes.

“We started doing bike routes in Bogotá when obviously there were bike lanes in the Netherlands, Denmark and China, but not in San Francisco, New York, London, or Paris,” said Peñalosa. “That did not exist.”

Serving as Mayor of Bogotá from 1998-2001, Peñalosa initiated the construction and operation of TransMilenio—a bus rapid transit system (BRT) serving the city’s seven million people.

“TransMilenio has been copied in more than 200 cities worldwide,” Peñalosa said. “And here [in San Francisco] they are thinking of doing it.”

According to Peñalosa, one of the challenges of implementing the BRT in Bogotá was bringing together the owners of the 35,000 buses that mobilized 85 percent of the population. But another obstacle was taking space away from cars and reserving it for public transportation, which is a democratic issue, Peñalosa said.

“Clearly, a bus with 80 passengers has 80 times more right to use the space on the road than a car with one,” Peñalosa said. “Or a person on a bicycle has the same right to move safely on a bicycle route than the person that has a Mercedes Benz or a Rolls Royce.”

Currently in Bogotá, there are bus lanes and over 124 miles of bicycle routes, which the former mayor claims, “was a major inspiration to many cities around the world.”

In addition to being a Colombian politician, Peñalosa is an international urban development consultant and the board president of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) based in New York City.

“On the topic of cities, the overall challenge in the world is how to make cities more for humans and less for cars,” he said. “For example, in many streets in San Francisco there is more space for cars—not even the ones moving—the parked cars, than for humans. Who decided that? Who voted? Someone voted?”

Peñalosa also weighed in on the city’s eviction crisis, offering the solution that the government can buy homes, subsidize low-income citizens and control prices.

“If the government wants to deeply intervene and decide that poor and rich people live amongst one another, there are some countries that have been quite successful in doing that, such as Canada,” Peñalosa said. “But it requires a huge investment.”

After cycling and walking several blocks, Peñalosa spoke before a crowd of dozens of people at Valencia and 19th streets who applauded, excited to hear him refer to the event as “a ritual for reconquering the city for human beings.”

Story by: Verónica Henao Posada