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21 June, 2012  ▪  Enrique Peñalosa

How to Be Happy in a Megalopolis

Urban planning is impossible without organising a transportation system. Striking a balance between cars and pedestrians is a political, rather than technical, issue.

Every year tens of thousands of children die in car accidents, and yet we continue to view it as an element of progress. We are all passengers on one ship, Earth, but are divided by state borders. The holiest of spaces on this planet is our pavements, and they need to be treated correspondingly. A good city is one in which people can move about freely on foot rather than just survive. In order to be happy, we need to walk, just like birds need to fly, and have contact with nature, water and trees. This is especially important for old people, children and the disabled. But in modern times it is a sad fact that our cities are primarily suitable for drivers and cars.

Before cars became widely used, Kyiv was quite liveable. If I say that cities without cars are the coolest, some of you will decide that I am a mad hippie. But there are more and more of them and real estate prices in these places are the highest. Pavements are simply not parking spaces. They are a territory for people, kisses, communication, trees and encounters. Striking a balance between cars and pedestrians is a political, rather than technical, issue. London has so few cars not because its residents want it to be so, but because they were forced into it through limited parking space in the city centre. Normally, people take space away from cars, not the other way around.

Kyiv is a beautiful city that has great potential but at the same time it faces many urgent problems that need to be resolved, especially the fact that pedestrians here have to navigate around vehicles. The constitution of virtually every country speaks above all about the right to live, but none of them mentions the right to park. This is what every car owner has to sacrifice in the name of the human right to walk on foot. “Where will I park my car?” you will be asked. Ask them back: “And where do you put away your laundry?”

If trading centres are located in public places in the city centre and function as a pastime, the city is ill. “Sir, can we help you with anything?” shop assistants politely ask, “No, thanks. I’m just looking around.” This is a symptom of globalisation. There are countless shops in New York and Madrid, but you will not see so many huge trade centres. If after coming to Kyiv and asking where I could go for a walk and watch people, I hear from the concierge: “Go to a shopping mall on the central street,” I will never want to come back here again. City squares must be pedestrian zones with coffee shops and small stores. For example, cars were banned from city centres in Germany a long time ago.

Investments in new city highways are regressive. If you fail to make a city attractive for living, an increasing number of people will escape from it. They will buy personal vehicles and will drive to work. Invest in bicycle lanes and pedestrian routes! When we tackled urban reforms in Bogotá, we built pavements in poor quarters, rather than roadways, because we wanted to show respect for the human personality. Creating pedestrian and bicycle routes is much more beneficial from both environmental and material viewpoints. The finances we saved on roadway construction were spent on building kindergartens and schools in poor neighbourhoods.

New bridges create more traffic jams. The city is a bottleneck. There is no need to build more vehicle bridges. Believe me, you have enough of them. At the same time, adding lanes to roads is more efficient than building new levels above a highway.

The transportation system deteriorates as the population becomes wealthier. This problem is precipitated with each passing year in all American cities. Meanwhile, the correct transportation policy permits easing of vehicle traffic. Some countries have a separate lane for public transport that is not used by private cars. The result is that urban passenger transportation becomes faster, and it is easier and more comfortable to move about the city.

The more space that is reserved for cars, the greater their number, and vice versa. The TransMilenio system introduced in Bogotá is a cross between the metro (it has separate road lanes) and the bus, because on the outside this transport actually looks like a bus with several sections. Moreover, it has some comfortable seats reserved for the disabled. This new type of transport does not know what traffic jams are and works faster by using different types of routes.

Also, do not build roads along bodies of water – other cities spend millions of dollars destroying them to open access for pedestrians. In the 20th century, engineers built roads along river banks to enable cars to comfortably travel without intersections or traffic lights. But in the 21st century, urban planners across the world realised what a mistake it was, and backed away from rivers.

The policies are created, above all, by organised people, not by city administrations. It is much simpler to protest and rebel than encourage and support successful projects or suggest innovations, and this is where many activists go wrong. Public expression of residents’ opinion is very important to officials and influences them, even when they pretend otherwise as hard as they can.


Enrique Peñalosa is a former mayor of Bogotá and President of the Board of Directors of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. He is one of the best known urban reformers in the world. When he was in office, the capital of Colombia limited the use of cars and parking places. Instead, wide pavements, bicycle lanes, parks and libraries appeared, and in addition the crime rate also dropped. Peñalosa was recently on a visit to Kyiv, which unfortunately is growing in the exact opposite direction.

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