Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


Putting Cars Behind

Transportation policy today means how to reduce car use.

Transportation is not an end in itself. Very good transportation will not make us happy. It is a means to a kind of city. So what we really are talking about with transportation is what kind of city do we want. What is a good city?

There is a wonderful Danish urbanist, Jan Gehl, who says that a good city is like a good party – people do not want to leave. It is a city where people want to be out of their houses. We have to go out into the public space to work or to buy groceries, but the good city is the one where people want any pretext to be in the parks, on the sidewalks, in the cafes.

We have to chose between a city that is friendlier to cars or a city that is friendlier to people. I am not a car hater, but if you are with a three-year old walking next to an eight-lane highway it is clearly not a pleasant environment to be in. The slower the traffic, the narrower the streets, the wider the sidewalks, the more pleasant the city.


Adam Smith told us that each person seeking his own benefit will yield the best results for society. In the case of cities, that does not work. We cannot let every individual decide if they want to live next to a wide sidewalk or a narrow sidewalk, or what the height of the building will be

There is often a contradiction between private rationality and social convenience. What is good for the bee is not always good for the beehive. It is very logical for someone to try to use a private car. It is more comfortable than public transportation, you don’t get pressed next to people who don’t smell as you would like. But if everybody does the same thing at the same time, society will collapse. There has to be a collective decision on how we want to organize our lives.

What city model are we creating? Who benefits? What is our objective – efficient mobility for all and a certain kind of city, or do we simply want to minimize traffic jams?

Transportation is the only problem in developing countries that gets worse as we get richer. If we had three or five times the income per capita that we have today, we would have much better health, much better education, much better culture, but with our current model of transportation we would have much worse problems if we had more money.

Transportation cannot be solved with money. It has to be changed with changes in our way of life. This is why it is so difficult.

Almost by definition, a Third World city is one where only a minority of people own cars. And so all investments in road infrastructure are very regressive. We are taking money away from schools, from libraries, from parks, in order to solve the traffic jams of the upper income people.


How would New York be if we had a magic wand? How wide would sidewalks be? Why not have districts just for pedestrians? If we could do anything, what is our vision of New York for 2300? What is our dream for at least 100 years from now? Is it the same as today? Are we going to have the same FDR Highway in front of that beautiful river – just like that, nothing else?

What would make a New York where children could feel better? Today we talk about London in the 1800s as a horrible environment. It was polluted. People lived in overcrowded housing. Yet at that time, it was considered the most advanced city in the world. I wonder if, in 200 years, people will talk about our cities as horrible environments. When we tell a three-year-old child anywhere in the world, “Watch out -- a car,” the child will jump in fright -- and with good reason because more than 200,000 children are killed by cars every year.

Today we still talk about the wolves because a few children during the Middle Ages in Europe were eaten by wolves. In any month today, there are more children killed by cars than were eaten by wolves all through the Middle Ages. But we have come to think that that’s totally normal. As soon as our children come out of their houses, we are afraid they might get killed. After 5,000 years of cities, is that where we are?

How would our lives change if we were to enter a pedestrian street 40 miles long, one, two or three blocks away from our house? If we could just go jogging, riding a bicycle, children could go play? It would tremendously improve our quality of life.

Whenever people use public transport, as in New York, it is not because they love the environment. It is because there is some kind of severe restriction on the use of private cars, either because they have congestion charges, such as in London, or because it is very difficult to park, as in New York or Hong Kong. In Bogotá, we started a restriction that 40 percent of cars have to be out of the streets during peak hour every day.

Traffic jams provide another way to restrict car use, not the most intelligent one perhaps. If we want to achieve density in public transport use, traffic jams should not be seen as a problem.


Bogotá has a similar population to New York – about 7 million inhabitants – and if you fly south from New York you will hit Bogotá. It would take us about 150 years with very good growth rates to have the income per capita that New York has. Regardless of the relevance of our experience to New York, it is important to consider the Third World urban challenge because over the next 30 years, there will be more than 2 billion new inhabitants in Third World cities. The world’s sustainability depends to a large degree on what is to happen in the Third World.

When I arrived at City Hall in Bogotá, there was a proposal to put seven elevated highways over the city. In my opinion, that would have destroyed the quality of life and would have not solved anything. Instead, we decided to restrict car use and invest in public transport. We were able to build schools and housing projects because we did not invest in these seven elevated $5 billion highways. There were hundreds of community projects done by the people -- nurseries, community pools, libraries.

Space for People

And we created a lot of pedestrian spaces. Is public space in the Third World a frivolity? I would say no. Public space is fantastic, not only because of the obvious thing that we meet as equals in public space but also because upper income people and poor people at work in the Third World are more or less equally satisfied. The difference comes when they have their leisure time. The upper income person goes to a large house, to clubs, to country houses, to restaurants. The poor people and their children have no alternative to public pedestrian space for their leisure time.

Therefore a democratic society should have quality pedestrian space. People can go walk and at least see their city.

Bogotá does not have a big river as in New York, but we made a 45-kilometer greenway where thousands and thousands of people go to work by bicycle every day.

We started to build bikeways. In developing countries, the only means of individual transportation available to everybody is a bicycle. A bikeway in Bogotá is important maybe 20 percent because it protects cyclists, 80 percent because it is a symbol that a citizen on a $20 bicycle is equally important to one in a $30,000 car.

We increased bicycle ridership, and we now have about 350 kilometers of bikeways. Of course, we have to increase this more, but now there is consensus that this should be done.

Bus Rapid Transit

We tried to get people to use public transportation, but it is very difficult when people getting on buses were running against each other and buses were dumping people – ladies with children -- in the middle of the street. We cannot dream of having a rail system. So, we created a bus rapid transit. This is a very low-cost system.

After only five years of operation, we are moving 1.4 million passengers per day. We copied the idea from the Brazilian city of Curitiba. The station is in the middle of the road. People pay when they enter the station, not when they go into the bus. When the bus comes, it opens four doors at the same time as the station doors open. You can get 100 people out of the bus and 100 people onto the bus in seconds because they have already paid and the bus is at the same level as the station, so it is accessible to wheelchairs.

The station is in the middle of the lane because if it is at the side of the road you need to have two stations, and there are cars coming in and out all the time. Buses have a bad image in developing countries. We call our buses TranMilenio because we had to have a system that is sexy. It’s marketing.

Sometimes people told us, “Some roads are too narrow downtown. We cannot put a city bus system in there.” So we said, “You are totally right. The road is too narrow. So cars cannot go in.” So we put the system along the main artery downtown -- with no cars.

Half of this the infrastructures is financed through a gasoline surcharge of 25 percent. We first put it in Bogotá so, of course people, were getting their gas in the municipalities nearby. With the help of Congress, we put this surcharge all over the country.

The bus system is moving more passengers per kilometer than 85 percent of rail systems in the world at similar speed and a fraction of the cost.

We have a car-free day. People voted in a referendum to have the first Thursday of every February in this 7 million inhabitants city with no cars. This is marvelous because people can realize that the city works without cars. It is just a game but it is an interesting game.

We also asked for a referendum on something very radical: that where citizen want, they could totally ban cars during peak hours every day -- all private cars, leaving just trucks and taxis and so on. We were going to win by a landslide, so there was a campaign by some businessmen not to ask people to vote no but to ask them not to vote so we would not reach the necessary threshold. This is going to be left for another time


A long time ago, explicitly or implicitly, in Manhattan they decided the scale of vehicle use in the city. There was nothing natural about the amount of cars. Some space was allotted. There could have been much bigger roads or much smaller roads. The amount of car use in this city exists because there was a decision, and the decision can be changed. Just as today’s behavior is determined by the given amount of road and parking space, tomorrow’s behaviors will be determined by lesser amount of street and street parking, for example.

Better Sidewalks

How wide should a sidewalk be? How about if in New York we simply took away one lane of curbside parking and made sidewalks bigger?

New York’s sidewalks are the best, the liveliest sidewalks in the world. But New York’s sidewalks could be much better. For example, it is assumed that allowing all vendors to set up on streets and sidewalks is very democratic. But they are a small minority, and the extent that they are now taking over the public space in New York is deteriorating the quality of public space.

In Bogotá, every Sunday we closed 120 kilometers of main arteries for people to go out and ride bicycles and jog. We get more than a million and a half people every weekend. I dream of making Broadway a permanent pedestrianway. Initially it could just be a few hours on Sunday—not for markets as is usually done here, but for people to go out riding bicycles, jog, even to have some sort of aerobics outdoors. Forty-second Street as a pedestrian promenade with tramway would be a beautiful project.

Faster Buses

There could be a bus rapid transit on Second Avenue while the subway line is built. It could be extended to many other areas outside Manhattan. This is not so sophisticated but it does make buses go much faster than cars. Manhattan has beautiful buses but they are too slow.

More Bikes

Manhattan could be one of the most bicycle friendly cities in the world. Bicycles are amazing machines. Sometimes I see a fantastically athletic person, a marathon runner, and on my bicycle, I can go faster. Bicycles are silent and they don’t pollute. So why haven’t more cities used bicycles.

Why isn’t Manhattan excellent for bicycles? The distances are short. It’s relatively flat. So why don’t more people use bicycles in Manhattan? Simply, because it is extremely dangerous. A bikeway that is not physically protected, a bikeway that is not safe for an 8-year-old child, is not a bikeway.

Today we consider it obvious and natural that we have sidewalks on every street. Bikeways should be the same. If we are a democratic society, everybody has the right to the same mobility. So, in the future we have to think as bikeways not as something cute or nice but as a right. A quality city is not one that has great roads but one where a child can safely go anywhere on a bicycle.

Enrique Peñalosa was mayor of Bogotá from 1998 to 2001, when term limits forced him to leave office. He has advised other world cities on transportation and is a senior fellow at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. This article is adapted from comments he made at “Manhattan on the Move: A Transportation Agenda for a Growing City,” a conference presented by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer.

See also: Faster Buses, Safer Cycling, Better Pedestrian Protection And Other Plans For The Future by New York City Transportation Commissioner Iris Weinshall.  

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