Democracy and the Quality of Urban Life

Speaking to a sizeable crowd at Duke last Thursday night, Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogotá, shared his vision for and thoughts on “Democracy and the Quality of Urban Life.”

As mayor from 1998-2000, Peñalosa radically transformed the physical form of Bogotá. He worked to incorporate the city’s remote, illegally-constructed slums into the city by building new public spaces, parks, and pedestrian and bicycle connections. He implemented aggressive policies to limit car use by eliminating parking and creating dedicated bus lanes to improve public transit. He spoke at length during his talk about how the work he carried out as mayor was designed to make Bogotá a more inclusive, equal, and democratic city.

I was struck by much of what Peñalosa accomplished during his three-year term, especially given the fact that he was mayor in the ‘90s, a time when urbanism and its tenants did not have the kind of support it does today. Unfortunately, much of what Peñalosa was able to do doesn’t translate directly to the United States and our local communities, as cities here simply lack the kind of authority and autonomy that Bogotá enjoys. But despite this, I think there are many things our communities can take away from Peñalosa’s experience and his take on democracy and the quality of urban life.

First, there’s the kind of leadership Peñalosa demonstrated as mayor. He set out to radically transform Bogotá. Unsurprisingly, he found himself rather unpopular during his term for taking on powerful interests that did not want to see the city change in form and structure. But this resistance and initial public skepticism didn’t stop Peñalosa from providing visionary leadership to reshape the city. And it worked. He left office with a fairly high approval rating, and subsequent mayors continued his efforts to improve and expand public transportation primarily because his efforts improved the quality of life for most of the city’s residents.

Second, Peñalosa said something during his talk that has stuck with me for days. He said if you tell a 3-year-old, “Watch out! A car!” that 3-year-old will jump back in absolute terror. What’s disturbing about this, he says, is not that this happens, but that we think this is perfectly normal. Living in a society where it’s normal for us to fear cars but rely so heavily upon them is where the real problem lies, Peñalosa says. Building cities for people and providing better, more democratic ways to get around--that’s what we need to do looking to the future.

Third, he talked at length about the importance of using our cities to provide greater equality. He spoke about how we can do this by ensuring that there are real public spaces, like parks and wide sidewalks, where anyone, regardless of background or income, can be and spend time. He talked about doing this by prioritizing buses over cars through dedicated bus lanes that move large numbers of people far faster than cars ever can. And he talked about doing this by building and prioritizing structures that reflect our values, like schools and libraries, in the poorest parts of our communities.

These are all examples of goals and tangible priorities that our elected officials and that we as a community can strive to achieve. The future of cities could be something incredible that reshapes how we live and think about our lives. Our cities could reverse the growing inequality in our world through the ways we build them and interact with them. But we can only achieve this if we have leaders who understand the power of city form and who are willing to provide the visionary leadership required to go up against powerful interests to move all of us, not just the most wealthy and powerful among us, forward to a better future.

Our elected officials cannot replicate what Peñalosa did, but I hope they can see the inspiration he can provide for municipal leaders everywhere.



Yes. Enough with cars and having to LEAP out of their way whenever we come across them. Even in places we should never even dream we would have to.
I get that not everyone wants to ride their bike everywhere, especially on hot, muggy August afternoons. However, we need to rethink how we do development, and roll those thoughts back into existing places when plans are submitted to renovate.

Some examples: Why do I have to begin dodging cars the moment I walk out of a grocery store? Why are cars even allowed to drive that close to an entrance? People fly past. You cannot change bad drivers behaviours, but you can change the design.  Why *do* we need drive up businesses? Yes, I understand there are people who have trouble getting out of their cars to get their prescriptions filled. Somehow, they managed to get them before we had drive up everything. And, why not just send someone out to the lot to deliver the occasional prescription? Hand held tablet checkout devices are well developed.

Urban design should have the facilities ranked in this order: (1) Pedestrian : (2) Bus: (3) Bike : (4) Car  We have surrendered too much and too long to making cars be available just a step away of everything we build. We have created ugliness in these sprawling plazas, ringed by parking lots.

You might enjoy this Smithsonian article on driverless cars. "By the early 1920s, anti-car sentiment was so high that carmakers and driver associations—who called themselves “motordom”—feared they would permanently lose the public.....

Charles Hayes, president of the Chicago Motor Club, fretted that cities would impose “unbearable restrictions” on cars.

Hayes and his car-company colleagues decided to fight back. It was time to target not the behavior of cars—but the behavior of pedestrians. Motordom would have to persuade city people that, as Hayes argued, “the streets are made for vehicles to run upon”—and not for people to walk. If you got run over, it was your fault, not that of the motorist. Motordom began to mount a clever and witty public-relations campaign.

Their most brilliant stratagem: To popularize the term “jaywalker.” The term derived from “jay,” a derisive term for a country bumpkin. In the early 1920s, “jaywalker” wasn’t very well known. So pro-car forces actively promoted it, producing cards for Boy Scouts to hand out warning pedestrians to cross only at street corners."


Indeed Enrique Peñalosa, former Mayor of Bogotá, was an inspiring speaker.  The take home message for me was that bus rapid transit is far more cost effective than rail.  He said it a number of times. 

How can we grow our bus system if we are out of money?  Take it back from all these TTA assessment studies that do little to help Chapel Hill transit grow!!

John Pucher's presentation last week, hosted by CHALT, brought this home.  He suggested reducing Franklin Street to one lane each way and adding bike lanes and.attrctive separations.   He mentioned that a high number of trips are less than a mile or two.  with good bike/ped infrastructure is provided, people will leave their car at home.

Of course LRT adds nothing to the 2020 focus areas.  You have to wonder why the town isn't pushing to get their money back from TTA so it can be invested in a local complete streets infrastructure and bus or BRT connections.


Eliminate on-street parking on Franklin Street. Then there's plenty of space for a buffered bike lane and more space for people to walk.

It woudl be interesting to experiment with closing Franklin St. (between Columbia & Hillsborough Rd.) to vehicle traffic. Maybe once a month or for an occassional weekend. I bet it would have some postive effects.

The same could easily happen with Weaver Street in Carrboro. Our annual Open Streets event has been a good way, I think, to introduce people to this idea.

Who are we trying to accommodate downtown? People from out of town (visitors) who just want to find a quick and easy parking place so they can stroll Franklin Street? Students? Students may want the bike lanes but during lunch hours and weekdays, there are more cars parked on the street than in the parking lots.

and expect to park on the street and eat lunch?

How often are they actually successful in doing that?

Looking at google maps, I counted 31 spots on the prime section from Henderson to Columbia.  Already, the south side up to the Carolina Coffee Shop has no spots.  When I have gone past heading west, there are often commercial vehicles in spots on the north side.  It would be interesting to do a parking study to see just how many of those spaces really serve the businesses nearby.
I'm willing to bet the many of 13 or so on the South side towards McCorkle server University purposes

In terms of Chapel Hill -Durham (and the Triangle) both light rail transit and bus rapid transit were analyzed. When all costs are considered bus rapid transit is not as cheap as people might think. The analysis concluded that Light Rail was the best solution. Of course, light rail has to interface with bus transit and other modes of traffic.

From a Chapel Hill perspective the TTA LRT proposal is a very bad deal.

LRT is not as flexible as a bus is in schedule or in routes. TTAs LRT requires new infrastucture to be built through a watershed. TTAs LRT ignores the existing business corridor on 15-510 as well as ignoring the new economic development in E-F and Obey Creek. 

TTAs LRT is starving CHT of funding.

Chapel Hill Park n Ride lots are now charging, but you can still park free at South Square or Southpoint and do your shopping there moving economic dollars to Durham. 

LRT is historically regressive. It will drive the rents and property costs up along the route resulting in even more traffic congestion and parking difficulty for those who can least affford it. The TTA LRT proposal is there to serve the interests of UNC and those who live around the Friday Center with billions of dollars of taxpayer money that could be far better invested elsewhere. At the end of the day, the 1.4 billion will only serve to enrich devlopers and the well off.

Too bad.


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