Public transport revolutionary speaks in Brisbane

By: Chris Smith

The mayor who transformed a Colombian city from a dangerous, third-world gridlock of traffic snarled-streets to a "poster child" for

The mayor who transformed a Colombian city from a dangerous, third-world gridlock of traffic snarled-streets to a "poster child" for sustainable cities will speak in Griffith University on February 7.

Former Mayor of Bogota, Enrique Peñalosa, won for his city a Stockholm Challenge Award — the environmental equivalent of the Nobel Prize — for his work implementing a radical public transport and open space plan.

He will brief Australian state and local government officials on achieving these radical results, and will speak at a public event on what other cities can learn from his experience.

Peñalosa says on election he was handed a transport study recommending a $6 billion elevated highway program. He replaced this with a dedicated bus way system, the first line of which cost US $300 million and moves 800,000 passengers daily and a massive network of 'greenways' – 1,200 parks and 300km of bicycle paths and hundreds of kilometers of footpaths.

His controversial methods included banishing private cars from sidewalks where they were used for parking and establishing a restriction to car use through which each car has to be off the streets twice weekly during 3 peak hours in the morning and in the afternoon peak hours, extending a traditional Bogota ritual closing 120km of roads to cars for seven hours each Sunday, and adopting through a referendum an annual car-free day on the first Thursday in February.

"A million and a half people of all ages and incomes come out to cycle, jog, and simply gather with others in community," every Sunday he says.

Peñalosa says transport was the only urban problem that grows worse as a city grows richer.

"In order to solve it, more than money it takes political will to implement long term behavioural change.

"Building more roads because you have traffic jams is like throwing gasoline on a fire. Nowhere has bigger roads meant less traffic. It has long been found that bigger roads stimulate farther out development and longer trips and for traffic, longer trips have the same effect as more cars on the road"

He advocates a carrot and stick approach: Better public transport and some sort of car use restrictions.

"People in Zurich, Paris or New York don't use public transport because they like it — they do it because they have to. Driving is either too slow, or too expensive, or it is too difficult to park. Public transport it's faster and cheaper than driving.

"First the stick — there must be disincentives such as not rushing to alleviate traffic jams as they occur; levies on car use and parking. People who sit in traffic watching buses whizz by on a dedicated busway will soon decide it is wiser to take the bus. But if the car is faster and more convenient, they will never shift modes.

"In Bogota 20 percent of public transport users are middle class car owners, which is unheard of in a developing country.

"The carrot is simple — high-quality, fast, dedicated transport, plus a beautiful, compact and quiet city of parks in which to live.

"Ask people what makes them happy, and they never say roads. They say parks, squares and trails, because cities designed for cars are horrible to live in. Who wants to walk or cycle with their child beside a 10-lane highway? A study by Nobel Prize Daniel Kahneman with Texas women found that sex was what gave them most pleasure and commuting what gave them least pleasure.

"Roads take up valuable living space, making cities sprawl. Take away that highway space and you have more compact cities and more money for parks, bicycles and sidewalks. What kind of city will make us happier? Most likely it will be one with great pedestrian spaces and people in them. There is a conflict between a city very friendly to people and one very friendly to cars.

Peñalosa says governments need to start with a plan for the city they want in 50-100 years.

"For 5000 years people designed cities for people. But in the 20th century we designed them for cars. That is beginning to change all over the world," he says.

"Refocussing a city on long-term human happiness rather than short term traffic solutions is the only way.

" Urban planning has to be centered around human beings, preferably on children, the elderly and the handicapped and not around cars’ needs."

Peñalosa’s visit is supported by Griffith University's Urban Research Program, Queensland Transport, Queensland Health, Brisbane City Council and PedBikeTrans, the Pedestrian and Bicycle Institute of Australasia.

He will speak at Griffith University Queensland Conservatorium, Ian Hanger Recital Hall, Grey St, South Bank on Thursday Feb 7, 6-8pm.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Sign up to receive the ABC e-newsletter, digital magazine and other offers we choose to share with you straight to your inbox

You can also follow our updates by liking us on Facebook