Guillermo Penalosa: People Moving Cities: Part I

Guillermo Penalosa presented at the Vancouver Urban Forum, but we were lucky enough to drag him to a cafe for an interview. (Photo: Brendan Hurley)


Guillermo Penalosa is considered one of the premier voices on the vitalizing nature of human powered transportation and public spaces in Cities. He is the head of 8-80 Cities a non-profit organization that looks at the what “contributes to the creation of vibrant cities and healthy communities, where residents live happier and enjoy great public places.”

Brendan Hurley and Yuri Artibise of SpacingVancouver were lucky enough to sit down for an evening coffee with “Gil” directly across from the Vancouver Art Gallery and the active Hornby Bikeway, shortly after the Vancouver Urban Forum this summer.

The conversation focused on the experiences and best practices he has observed here in Canada and around the World, as well as, how Vancouver is holding up in those contexts.


Spacing: In a statement made earlier today during your address to the Vancouver Urban Forum you said that there is a “magical bug that bites you in Vancouver”. Could you speak about the bug that bites about cities.

GP: Well actually the bug that bites you about cities, is also the one from Vancouver. It is for me, because Vancouver in 1976 hosted the biggest World Conference, the Habitat Conference on Human Settlements. Up until then it was the biggest conference that the United Nations had ever done, and the person in charge of the Conference was my father. He was the Number 2 at the United Nations at the world level, and as Under Secretary he was in charge of this conference.

One of the things that took place in the 2 or 3 years before was that he went to every single country around the world, meeting with heads of state. One of my brothers was at the time studying at Duke in North Carolina, and I was studying at U NC in Chapel Hill – we were like ten minutes apart, and there we started hearing and thinking about cities. We came when I was in 1st Year University and he was in 3rd. We came to Habitat, and we got to hear so many things about cities. So that bug is from that time, but also because I think there is a lot of really good things that have happened in Vancouver.

Actually, I think the biggest threat that Vancouver has is that it is a good city. All of a sudden cities when they are good they become very complacent. Many times people are very reluctant to change. I mean change is hard work. Change doesn’t really happen by consensus anywhere.

But when cities are deemed good and they come out with world rankings, where they keep putting you in the top ten, or saying you are the best, then people are becoming more reluctant [to changes], I think.

For example, something I heard last time I was in Copenhagen: One thing I loved is the bicycle highways that they are building now. They already have 38 out of 100 trips that are on a bicycle. That is the most of any big city around the world. I mean, Vancouver may have 3 or 4 of a 100, but they have 38 out of 100. But, never the less, they continue to improve. Now they are saying they want to go from 38 to 50 by 2015, and they are moving forward. So there is no use saying, “just because we are good, just because we have the best cycling we don’t need anything new.” No, they want to do better.  Hopefully that is something Vancouver should do, not just with cycling, but in general.

We are one of the most livable cities in the world, but also we want to be even better.

I think that would be great for all of Canada and for the world, because Vancouver would be pushing many cities, in many areas. It would be like a Benchmark, like a point of reference in everything. Then many activists across Canada would say: “Oh, Vancouver is doing this, why cant we?” I think that would be fantastic.

Vancouver also has to realize that on these issues you are never finished. You can always improve. So that really needs to be an attitude of people.

For example Cycling in Vancouver is mediocre, at best. I remember about 3 years ago I came to Vancouver and I was meeting with a head of an NGO and I said “I don’t know,Vancouver is so nice for pedestrians and so horrible for cyclists.” Oh, it seemed like I had insulted his mother. He was so upset, and he brought out his helmet and said. “WHAT DO YOU MEAN! I bike everywhere”. Then, on the way out of the office we past his assistant, a 50-60 year old woman who was a bit heavy, so I said to her: “Do you also bike to work?” and she said back “Oh, I wouldn’t dare to! I wouldn’t risk my life biking to work.” So I said: “Look, she made my point.” I said, “I’m not talking about you; It’s not about me, I don’t need the infrastructure (I bike all over the world.). I want my daughter biking… I want my mom biking. It’s for the others.” Sometimes people in Vancouver become too reluctant to change.

By the way those superhighways [in Copenhagen] are really nice. Basically thay said “we have 40% of the people cycling… we want to go to 50. How do we do that?”  And then they developed a study, where they found that the trips that are 5km or less, they already have 61% of the people. The ones that are more than 5 km they only have 20% of the trips by bike. They said, y’know its very hard to go from 61% to 70%, it’s a lot easier to go from 20% to 30% or to 40%. So they are focusing on those longer trips. It is interesting because cities like Vancouver or like Toronto, which have a lot of municipalities around their centre. They are involved with 16 municipalities around Copenhagen.  All of them had to sign and to make an agreement that in these cycle routes the Bicycle was the top priority. So they had no excuses.

Cycle counter on one of Copenhagen’s many separated cycletracks. [Image: James Cridland]

What does top priority mean?:

1 The pavement is better quality.

2 If you go 20 km per hour all of the traffic lights are green. So you will never have to stop.

3 They are the most direct route.

In many of the suburbs people don’t want to have roads for cars because they generate noise, and pollution, but a bikeway doesn’t create any of that, so they can be put on the most direct route [through neighbourhoods].

4 They have priority for maintenance. So that even when it snows, before they plow the streets for cars they have to plow the bike highways.

5 Then they have to have the lights [which in Copenhagen are timed]. The lights go 5 seconds for the pedestrians and cyclists before the cars. That makes it very safe. When you are driving a car and there is a pedestrian or cyclist, you don’t know if they are just waiting for someone or if they are going to cross. If they have a 5 second head start, you have a better sense. On these bicycle highways they have a 12 second head start.

Cycle Superhighways around Copenhagen and its suburbs [Image: Projektsekretariatet for Cykelsuperstier]

All 16 municipalities signed the agreement with the region and the national government. They are building them.

By the way, they are building a little bit an extension of the subway in one part. And they have found, that when they are doing this 300 km of bike highways, it is less than 1km of  subway. So the cost benefit is high for this state of the art highway. Throughout the system they have sensors, to let you know if you are going too fast or too slow to help you if you want to catch all the traffic lights in the green.

It is really nice that even though they are so good already, they want to be even better.

I think that’s one of the things we need in Canada.

When you take a look at the rankings of economies. All they are saying is that the Cities are the most livable for Senior Executives of Companies when thinking about moving their headquarters. So, it is not for anybody. The city might have areas that are a dump, that are horrible, that don’t have parks and are dangerous or whatever, but that is not where the senior executives are going to live. They are saying, “From the point of view of senior executives they look would that be a good city or not?”

Spacing: On the subject of cycling and making it friendly, one of the topics in Vancouver that is getting a lot of Media Attention, lately [especially with VeloCity coming and our long announced bike share program] is the idea around helmets and our BC Helmet Laws. What are your thoughts on the impact of that to cycling in the City?

GP: I think, personally, that helmets should not be mandatory, but on the other hand I don’t agree with the stances like the European Cycling Federation, who are aggressively promoting: NO HELMETS. They even have campaigns: “Ask me why I don’t wear a helmet.” I think that in general helmets should be promoted, but be mandatory. As for bike share, I don’t think bike share will work in any place that helmets are mandatory.

Unless helmet manufacturers come out with a folding helmet, that you can put in a back pack or your pocket. But as long as helmets are so bulky, I don’t think that the public bicycles will work.

Monday of last week I was in Brisbane Australia. In Brisbane it is mandatory, so all of the bikes have a helmet attached to it, but people don’t rent the bikes. You don’t know who has used that helmet, y’know. Maybe some guy who was drunk at midnight, went by and was spitting or even peeing on the helmets, or who knows. I mean, who is going to wear a helmet that 50 other people have worn before. It’s almost like a health issue.

Mount Pleasant residents taking a leisurely ride. The uptake of casual cycling has often coincided with flouting of helmet laws. [Image: Brendan Hurley]

In Melbourne, it doesn’t work either. There, in every 7-11 they sell helmets for $5, but it is not sustainable, because those helmets are probably cost maybe $30 or $40. So how many helmets can they subsidize? When the helmet is only $5, people buy it, they ride their bike, and then they throw the helmet away. People are not going to carry around the helmet, so it hasn’t worked.

The other thing is that I think people sometimes, regarding cycling, pay too much attention to the public bikes. I think the public bikes are really not that important. From the point of view of promoting cycling, I think there are some things that are Nice to Haves, and only two things that are Must Haves. If you want additional cyclists, the Nice to Haves are: painted bike lanes, bikes on the busses, bicycle parking, and public bikes. Those might make things a little bit nicer for the existing cyclists, but does not get the new cyclists.

So if you have 2% of the trips they will stay at 2% or may you will go to 2.5 or 3%, but you are not going to make any significant gains.

The only two things that are really Must Haves are: [One: To lower the speed in all of the neighbourhoods, and Two: To create a network of Physically Protected Bikeways.]

The first Must Have is to lower the speed in all of the neighbourhoods.

I think in the neighbourhood streets, for everyone, the speed limit should be below 30km per hour. Everyone. It’s amazing, we see that in front of the schools we put 30k zones. What, do we want the children to be safe in front of the school, and no where else? I think it should be everywhere.

For example, in England there is a very good campaign. There is a group called: “Twenty’s Plenty”, because they do it in miles, and they have done a lot of surveyes. They asked people: “Would you like the street in front of your house to be 30km per hour?”, and over 90% of the people have said “Yes”. When they asked: “Would you like everybody’s street to be at 30k?”, then it goes down to 50%. Still, 50% of the people are saying “Yes”.

So, I think that is very important, not only for cycling, but for quality of life. We walk at 5km per hour, we bike at maybe 12 or 15 km per hour, so when the cars are going at 25 or 30 km per hour we feel at ease. When the cars are going at 40 or 50 km per hour we don’t. It is very important information to know.

By the way the World Health Organization, last year recommended that all cities in the world lower their speed. So it not just something crazy, that nuts like Gil and others are saying. The European Parliament Plenary, a 3 or 4 months ago recommended, again they recommended that it should be lowered, as well.

The other Must Have is to have a network of physically protected bikeways. Some cities, sometimes they do 1km that doesn’t go from anywhere to any where, and then they say: “Oh, see here we don’t have a bicycle culture, because we made a bikeway and people are not using it.” Well if you don’t connect anything that’s how it is. If you were to do a soccer field, and you don’t have enough money, so one year you do one goal, the next year you do a little more money and you do the middle of the field, and then in the third year people say: “Oh, don’t waste any more money, because we don’t have a soccer culture here. You see, people aren’t playing games.” The same thing happens with cycling.

You need the Grid. When I am talking about the grid it is very important that it ideally should be a physical separation, in concrete, that is permanent. But if the city doesn’t have the funding or the political will to do it on a permanent basis, then they can do it on a temporary basis for 2 or 3 years. This is what I tell politicians.

Today [at the VUF] there was this councilor Paul [Harris] from Red Deer, Alberta. Red Deer just approved a fantastic grid. The city is little over a 100000 people, about a 150000. They approved 18km of bikeways in the downtown. 18 km, I saw the may, and it covered the whole city. It is really, really good.

The difficult thing is to have the political decisions to put in the bike lane, to create space for the bicycles.

So, now that you have made that difficult decision, make it an enhanced bike lane. What do we mean by “enhanced”? Some kind of physical separation, whether it is planters that we have here [on Hornby street] or whether it is the plastic bollards, anything. Any kind of physical separation where the car driver will say to themselves “I am not going to go in there, because it will scratch the paint on my car. Any physical thing that gives the cars a reason makes a huge difference.

The cost is minimal compared to just painting, so I think that cities should do that. I think if Red Deer does the 18 km, I think they are going to have the best bicycle infrastructure in Canada, per capita. It would be great, because they have really nice trails and parks. The 18 km is without counting those connected trails.


GP: Even though I am often talking about Cycling, I also think that we have to pay much more attention to walking. I think that much of the time we talk about walking and cycling at the same time. When you talk about both at the same time, some how it feels that 99% of the discussion will be about cycling. I don’t know if Cycling is sexier or what, but if you go to events like pro walk pro bike and 99% percent is cycling. Y’know, everybody is a pedestrian. Every trip begins and ends by walking. People walk to the coffee shop, walk to their car, walk to their bike, and walk to public transit. Everybody is a pedestrian, but maybe 2% are cyclists in Vancouver.

The Hornby bike lane has made for a more active and comfortable pedestrian realm. [Image: Brendan Hurley]

Spacing: I’ll add my own observation. Both of the notable protected cycling lane streets here in Vancouver [Hornby and Dunsmuir] were dismal places to walk before the bikeways came in. The number one improvement beyond even the amount of cyclists that have entered the area and downtown since the bikeways were introduced was that the pedestrian activity of these streets is incomparable to their previous existence. These are walking streets now. More than even cycling streets they have retail that has focused around the at-grade activity.

GP: That is the other thing. If streets are good for walking you will have a good city. You may have good biking infrastructure without necessarily having a good city. Because when we are just moving from point A to point B, little happens between. But with walking you are going to have nice stores and plants and people to interact with, and so on. I think we have to pay more attention to that.

In Canada we have twice as many pedestrians killed by cars as homicides by firearms. Never the less, when there is a homicide by firearm, like yesterday at Eaton’s Centre in Toronto, there was a homicide by firearm, and all the news all the media focused around that. My wife works in that area, and at her office they are offering free psychological advise and counseling. We’ll there were twice as many pedestrians killed by cars, yet no one cares about the pedestrians being killed by cars.

By the way, with the homicides by firearms, half of them are gang related, 35% are the spouse, so unless you belong to a gang or your spouse is very upset with you there is not that much of a chance. Pedestrians are everybody. They are our young and our old, our rich and our poor, they get hit at daytime and in the nighttime.

The other day I heard the chief of police of Toronto say that when a pedestrian was killed: “Oh, I’m amazed that how almost everytime there is a pedestrian killed, I see those white iPod ear buds on the street.” What a stupid thing to say. As if the pedestrian was at fault because he or she was listening to music.

In the US in the last ten years there has been 47700 pedestrians killed. The University of Maryland did a study that finished like two months ago. They went through the police reports of the 47700. In those, they found that in only 116 either talking on the telephone or the music had anything to do with the death. Not even half a percent, 0.3%. So the university concluded that they should focus on the 99.7% that had nothing to do with electronic devices and not on this 0.3%. Because, all of a sudden, people with those comments, like the police chief are making everybody blame the pedestrian. Because now when you hear about a pedestrian getting hit, people say: “Oh, he was probably talking on the telephone; Oh, she was probably not paying attention.” But even if that was the case, would it be OK if it was your son or daughter, your mom or your dad, would it be OK if they get killed because they were talking on the telephone while walking.

So, I do think we should be paying more attention to pedestrian issues.

Spacing: Continuing on with the idea of pedestrian issues and paying more attention to them. Some of the programs you’ve been involved with, some of which were pioneering, have become mantles that have been taken up across Canada and the World. In Vancouver, we have the Car-Free Days, and Viva Vancouver, which we showed you just a little earlier that blocks off Granville Street on weekends in the Summer, and in other Cities in Canada there are street festivals that block vehicle activity on an increasingly regular basis. I just wanted you to speak a bit more about bringing communities together through pedestrian connection and how that can be continued.

GP: There are a number of things that we had a lot of involvement with.

One is creating the Cyclovias or ‘open streets on Sundays’, and another is the ‘Car Free City’. The Car Free Day in Bogota is very interesting, because the whole whole city doesn’t have any cars for the full day. Not one block, not two blocks, the whole city! 7000000 people with no cars, from 6am-6pm.

Spacing: How does that work?

GP: The police enforce it. Totally. They give tickets and cars get towed away. Also, there is little need for them to enforce it, because there is so much citizen pressure, that no one would dare to bring out their cars. People are not going to do something so openly illegal.

Something that was very interesting was that in the first year there was a group of powerful people in the city who didn’t like it. So we avoided battling what they wanted vs what we want. The idea came to do a referendum. And in that referendum over 70% of the citizens said that they wanted it.

The last two mayors, they don’t like the CarFree Day, but when anything is approved by referendum, the only way to get rid of it is with another referendum. It will be impossible for them to win a referendum on this issue.

The other city that is now doing it is Brussels. Brussels does it on a Sunday, not on a weekday. Bogota does it on the first Thursday of February. But even on a Sunday it is nice, because more than anything I feel it is a point of reflection. It gets people thinking. Even the people that hate Car Free Day, they say “Oh man, in three weeks the Car Free Day is coming, what are you going to do? Are you going to go to work or are you not going to go to work? Are your children going to go to school or are they not going to go to school?” So you get into peoples houses, their daily life, and into the culture about what is the role of the car?

For example the children in elementary school, are asked to do drawings about what a city looks like without cars? And the kids in high school or university can do research papers about it. So it becomes like an educational day on the role of the cars.

Can you imagine a city with out Cars? It’s silent. On the day, we measure the levels of the noise. Also on the day we have been working with the US Centre for Disease Control, based in Atlanta, and we have been working with them doing measurements on the levels of noise and pollution.

I think it would be great for any city to do it. Can you imagine Vancouver having one day of the year with no cars? It would be great!

Sunday is Ciclovia a Cycling day in downtown Bogota (Colombia) [Image: MacAllenBrothers 2005]

The other thing is on Sundays is the Cyclovia or “Open Streets”. When I became commissioner it was a very small program that was dying. It was just a few kilometers and a few thousand people. We increased to over 120 km in two years, and we were getting more than 1.3 million people, which is huge.We also set up a whole structure of management and areas for promotion, and so on.

Actually my inspiration for this was central park. I love public spaces and I love parks. At the time I was reading a biography of Frederick Law Olmstead, who created many of the important city parks in North America. In the 1850s, when he was designing and building Central Park. He looked at a New York of the 1850s where everybody hated everybody. The rich and the poor, the blacks and the whites, the locals and the immigrants. And he put forward  that, They don’t know each other. They don’t live in the same buildings, their kids don’t go to the same schools and churches. That we need to find places where we could meet each other as equals. That was one of the things that Central Park was going to do.

One of the things that I thought as Commissioner was that is what the Cyclovia could do fantastically. Create a space for everybody to meet as equals. And in a city with so many issues, like Bogota, like drug trafficking, like Guerrilla’s, general safety… and like in most cities in Latin America there was a big divide between the wealthy that is very wealthy and a poor that is very poor, where there is a social and economic divide, I said “This could be ideal.” And that’s what it is, I think that more than anything, ‘Open Streets’ is a program is like an exercise in social integration. Because you see everybody there: The rich and the poor, and the young and the old, and the fat and the skinny… everybody.

If you know a little about bicycles and you can see someone going by on a $5000 bike, and then the next one is on a $50 dollar bike, but they have just as much fun. It’s not just about cycling, because just as many people are walking or running or skating. So I think that is what is great.


A heartfelt thanks to Gil for taking the time to chat with the Spacing readers.


Yuri Artibise is a public policy analyst and social media specialist. Through his Yurbanism brand, he explores the ‘Y’ of urbanism by sharing ways to make our cities more livable, community-oriented places one block at a time. He currently works with PlaceSpeak, an online location-based community consultation platform.

Brendan Hurley is a local urban designer who focuses on planning for adaptive neighbourhood change. His recent work has been internationally focused, but is strongly rooted in his native Vancouver. Living and working out of the heart of downtown, he remains keenly focused on the region’s development and history. Brendan is acting as Associate Editor of Spacing Vancouver, but also consults as director of the UrbanCondition design collective.