Thursday, 18 August 2011

We're all in this together

The real difference between an advanced city and a backwards city is not, as they think in developing countries, that it has highways or subways. No, the real difference is that high-income and low-income people meet as equals in public spaces. Access to public space is perhaps the most important element to create inclusion and equality, and that in turn helps to lower the crime rate and to reduce violence.

Things that will make a city better are things that make a city more egalitarian, things that get rich and poor meeting together as equals, things that make a city more friendly to pedestrians, that restrict more and more car use, a city more for the most vulnerable citizens, for children, for the elderly. If children can be safe in more areas of the city, if people can ride bicycles safely in more areas of the city, if a city is friendlier to the elderly, to the children, to the lower-income people, if you can create more integration, if you can improve public transport, this will make a city that is better, I think a city that is more fun. And I cannot go into specific projects, but what is it that we need? We need not to feel inferior, we need to play, we need a city which is good for the more vulnerable citizens, for the poor, for the elderly, for the children. We need to have contact with nature, with trees, with grass, with water. We need to see people - we need to see people - so we need density. We need to be able to walk to buy milk and bread. If somebody needs to get into a car to go and buy milk and bread then the city is not working. These general principles work for any city anywhere in the world.   

I never knew a city which looked upon itself more negatively than Bogotá. People thought their own city was horrible, and that it was going to get worse. They had no self-esteem, they were completely without hope, and what we did completely transformed - maybe not so much the city - but people's attitude, so that they began to feel it was possible to improve, to dream and to make their dreams come true.   

Our main driving force was to construct equality, and in cities, public space is equality. I mean, you may think, 'Is this an important thing for a country where there is so much poverty, to think about these apparently ridiculous things?' But on the contrary. During work time, both the high-income people and the low-income people are more or less equally satisfied or dissatisfied. It's when they go into their leisure time that there is a huge difference. The high-income person goes to a large house with a garden, to restaurants, on vacation, and so on, but the low-income person, and his or her family, go sometimes only to a room where the whole family lives, or at least, at best, to a very small house, and the only alternative they have to television for their leisure time is public space. So you see the least of the least that a democratic society must offer its citizens is the possibility to walk, to be able to go around the city safely, to - hopefully to ride a bicycle. 

A segregated cycle path is a very powerful symbol of equality in a city, because it shows that a citizen on a $30 bicycle is equally as important as someone in a $30 000 car. I would say the increasing use of bicycles in Bogotá was as much due to the fact that we increased the social status of cyclists. I mean, before people were ashamed to use a bicycle.

To have the infrastructure, to have the segregated cycle paths, completely gave a new importance to cyclists. They had never imagined that they had a right to these things. 

The foregoing is a précis of an interview that the former Mayor of Bogotá, Enrique Peñalosa, gave to Sustainable Cities. What he is saying towards the end is particularly familiar to me. As the University of Lancaster study acknowledges: 'Many people barely recognise the bicycle as a legitimate mode of transport: it is either a toy for children or a vehicle fit only for the poor and/or strange. For them, cycling is a bit embarrassing, they fail to see its purpose, and have no interest in integrating it into their lives, certainly not on a regular basis...'

The situation in Bogotá was, it seems, fairly drastic when Mr Peñalosa took office. He had to do many things in a relatively short space of time, and it was, he says, 'difficult and painful'.  For fifty or sixty years the largest roads had been built without pavements. Where there were pavements, cars would park on them.

One of the first actions he took was to prescribe limits on the number of cars allowed to use the roads during the morning and evening rush hours. Of course, imposing such restrictions was very difficult, because in a city like Bogotá it is only the upper-income people who own cars. But what was amazing, to keep the story short, was that afterwards even these people grew to see the changes in a positive way.

Another project they undertook was to develop a 24km pedestrian and bicycle street through some of the poorest areas of the city. It is like an elongated plaza. It is 15m wide. The effect, as you can imagine, has been utterly transformative.

Mr Peñalosa is the first to acknowledge that these changes were forced through. There was not much in the way of democratic debate. They did what they thought was right. Sure, they had evidence and reason on their side, but nevertheless it was still a risk.

Now, much as I would like to see a similar sort of step-change here in London, I recognise that the nature of our planning process necessarily means that high-engineered solutions take time to deliver. The important thing, in my opinion, is that we take a purposeful step towards the development of a comprehensive, city-wide cycle network, and having done so, not allow ourselves subsequently to be 'thrown off the track by every nutshell and mosquito's wing that falls on the rails', but to keep going, gently and resolutely, and keep on going, until London has a very decent cycle infrastructure.

I accept that these sorts of changes 'must go hand-in-hand with planning for a prosperous future.' As Andrew Boff explained, 'The reason we're able to pay for things like the Blackfriars development and improvements is because we are in an extremely wealthy country, in the wealthiest part of that wealthy country, and the reason we're wealthy is because of the economy, and if we start taking steps that damage the economy of London then we're shooting ourselves in the foot. There will be no more future improvements if we make this place poorer as a result of decisions about traffic.'

This is important. But if that is Mr Boff's final word on the subject, as it seems to be, then he's taking a very narrow view, and it leaves me wondering where exactly his priorities lie.

One of the things about travelling by car is that you are, to a large extent, cocooned from the outside world. No problem for you then, if you're travelling back and forth between the big house with the garden and the office. No problem at all. But spare a thought for the 'communities' that you drive through, and the poor buggers who have to deal with the shit and stink that you leave behind.

The LCC's chief executive, Ashok Sinha, writing in the latest issue of London Cyclist, points out that the capital's poor air quality leads to an average reduction in life of 11 years. But here's another statistic you might find just as startling. As a teenage boy in an inner city, you are twenty times more likely to commit suicide because of depression than be stabbed in gang-related violence.

As the Prime Minister said recently, 'Whatever the arguments, we all belong to the same society, and we all have a stake in making it better. There is no 'them' and 'us' - there is us. We are all in this together, and we will mend our broken society - together.'