Time to Make a Change

8-80 Cities Gil Penalosa was the keynote speaker at The American Public Transportation Association’s Public Transportation & Universities Conference and spoke on what it takes to create vibrant, sustainable, healthy cities.

Being in the Midwest for the conference, he began his presentation saying people in this area say walking and biking doesn’t work because it’s too cold. And then last summer when he was in the Caribbean he heard walking and biking doesn’t work because it’s too hot. To both of those he said, “There is no such thing as bad weather; it’s bad clothing.”

8-80 Cities is dedicated to contributing to the transformation of cities into places where people can walk, bike, access public transportation and visit vibrant places. They aspire to create cities that are easily accessible and safe for all, whether they’re 8 years old or 80 years old.

Penalosa asked attendees 1. Think of a child that you really love. 2. Think of an older adult you love. 3. Would you send them to walk or bike on the streets? 4. Would you send them on transit? If you would, great. If not, “You have work to do,” he said. He also said, “We have to stop building cities as if everyone was 30 years old.”

On the screen Penalosa showed a collage of pictures of broken swings and playground equipment and said people see that sort of thing and they say it’s important to go do some fundraising to somehow get that fixed. And then when he shows people a pothole, they go crazy like a car’s going to fall in. He spoke of in Toronto there’s a woman in the media that goes out twice a week just to measure potholes. The city will organize, all sorts of groups get behind the repair and then when they take care of it, they all celebrate.

“What is the role of the streets?” he asked. From the air it’s easy to see that the streets are the largest public space. Are your streets for cars? For people? For car storage? Penalosa breezed through a collection of slides showing the diversity of what streets can be. On one end of the spectrum was streets cluttered with parked cars or empty, desolate streets. On the other end were streets that had a mix of people sitting at sidewalk café tables, pedestrians, bikers, buses and cars.

Penalosa talked about the reality of cars on the streets. In the United States, last year there were 2,860,000 additional cars. And with it taking about 25 feet just to park a car, it’s an estimated 17,771 miles of street space just to park the additional cars: seven times the distance between New York City and Los Angeles.

“We seem to be facing a perfect storm,” he explained. Traffic congestion, climate change, obesity, economic crisis and population growth are all things facing cities that are demanding attention. U.S. population projects are more than 30 percent growth in the next 30 years. People are also living longer and the aging population is growing. By 2050, 26 percent of the population will be over 60 years old. He added, “There’s nothing as predictable as the aging population.”

Projections are that in the next 30 or 40 years, the population is going to level off at about 9.5 billion. There is tremendous opportunity and responsibility that will have an impact on hundreds of years and millions of people.

Five Elements to Create Change

  1. Sense of Urgency - There are major issues coming up; how do we want to live? When we define our cities around cars, all we get is more cars. If we define our cities around people, we get healthier, happier people.
  2. Political Will - Cities do change and there are some that have redesigned their streets for the 3-mile per hour person, not the 60-miles per hour car.
  3. Leadership - It doesn’t require only world leaders to make a change. Penalosa’s examples were Rahm Emanuel making a difference in 30 days in Chicago to encourage biking and a gym teacher in Ontario to get more people walking to school.
  4. Need Do-ers - His example was New York City, where people used to say nothing could change. With Janette Sadik-Kahn and Amanda Burden’s visions, they transformed the streets to focus on places, walking and transit.
  5. Public Engagement - Penalosa told of a public meeting in Ontario where it was -35 degrees and still 60 people came. “Baby boomers are coming … they want to improve their communities,” he said.

Make a Change

Change is challenging and it’s going to require a change of mindset. Penalosa flipped through a series of slides that showed some of the ironies of today, such as people driving to the gym to hop on a stationary bike. Or, in another slide, there were stairs and an escalator leading to the entrance of a gym and people were riding the escalator to get to the gym.

“Happiness” is hard to define but to illustrate what makes a place people want to live in, Penalosa showed a picture of plain, cooked pasta. While most people wouldn’t want plain pasta, the next slide showed pasta with a rich tomato sauce with garlic, basil and other fresh ingredients. “People don’t like to live in spice-less cities,” Penalosa said.

And the most important ingredient to a city, he said, was pedestrians. “Every trip begins and ends with walking. Every car trip, every bike trip, we walk to places, we all walk.”

Twenty-seven percent of trips in North America are less than 1 mile. The amount of kids biking to school in the U.S. is 1 percent. Amenities aren’t built to accommodate walking or biking in most areas. When looking at schools, Penalosa said most have few bike racks, the racks are in the back of the school against a wall where it’s at risk of vandals. There was one school he was at that had 23 percent of the students biking to school. At this school, scores of bike racks were prominently in the front of the school, and in front of the principal’s office. The quality, quantity and location helped in shifting the mindset.

The next slide showed two well-dressed business people at a bus stop that had extravagant furnishings and a white-gloved butler offering a drink. The image illustrated what a bus stop would look like if decision makers used the bus.

“Walking, cycling and transit infrastructure investment is a symbol of respect for people,” he said. “A developed city is not the one where the poor have cars,” said Penalosa, “It’s the one where the rich use public transit.” 

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