Enrique Peñalosa Urges SF to Embrace Pedestrians and Public Space

Enrique_small.jpgPhoto: Matthew Roth

Celebrated Colombian urbanist and former mayor of Bogotá Enrique Peñalosa told a standing room audience of more than one hundred people at the San Francisco Public Library last night that San Francisco can be friendly to cars or to people, but not both. Further, he argued that there is no fundamental technical reason why streets have to function only as free-flowing arteries to move cars, but that the state of our cities in America is a political decision that we can overturn and that American’s perceptions of what is possible in cities will follow suit.

"I don’t say this as a car-hater–I have a car, I think cars can be wonderful to go to the countryside–but clearly the faster cars go in a city, the wider the roads are, the less pleasant is it to be around. The narrower the street, the slower the speeds, the wider the sidewalks, the better you can feel. High-velocity urban roads are sort of fences in a cow pasture."

Road space, he argued, is the most valuable asset in a city and it is a resource that society can use as it pleases, distributing it between all transportation modes or only one. He stated what is obvious, but what seems to rarely be acknowledged by traffic engineers and politicians in San Francisco: less space for cars will mean less cars. "There is no such thing as a ‘natural’ level of car use in a city. There is nothing technical about how much space you should give to cars or to pedestrians. It’s not like you have to ask a transport engineer permission. What is clear is this is a political decision."

Peñalosa’s trip was underwritten by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) and was part of the kick-off of the Great Streets Project, a join initiative between the SFBC, SPUR, Project for Public Spaces, and The Livable Streets Initiative (parent company of Streetsblog). Peñalosa earlier in the day met with Mayor Gavin Newsom, which he said went quite well.

"I think [Newsom] was very sensitive to all these issues and he even told some of his people to look into how these things are being used in other cities, the designs that are being used to improve the pedestrian and bicycle spaces there," he said.

In a nod to San Francisco’s Freeway Revolts, Peñalosa argued that one of the most important citizen movements in the last fifty years has been the slow reclamation of cities from private cars and freeways. He also stated emphatically that there is no reason that we have to be inured to the number of people who die from cars, particularly children. Citing the statistic that 250,000 children die on streets every year worldwide, he said we should rethink our fairy tales where the big bad wolf is actually a wolf.

"We are living in an environment where our children are constantly in danger of being killed, but what is shocking is that we think this is normal," he said. "A good city is good for children, for the handicapped, for low-income people, for the elderly, for the most vulnerable citizens."

In addition to changing the physical boundaries of streets and sidewalks to privilege vulnerable populations, Peñalosa spent a good deal of his discussion on the need to remove parking at curbside to open up the space for other users and to make transit as convenient and cheap as possible, two issues particularly relevant in San Francisco.

"All constitutions have many rights, pages and pages of rights. With so many rights, I’ve never found that any constitution includes the right to park," he said. "Governments have the obligation to provide health, to provide education, to provide housing, but not necessarily to provide parking. This is a private problem."

Instead of providing so much curbside parking, Peñalosa suggested that sidewalks should be widened as much as possible, that sidewalks are extensions of parks and public space that should be treated with the same regard as actual parks. "People tend to think sidewalks are relatives of streets, because they live next to each other," he said. "But in fact, sidewalks are not for getting from one place to another. Sidewalks are for talking, for doing business, for playing, for kissing. Sidewalks really are relatives of parks."

As for transit, he clearly sees public mobility as a public right that trumps the right to private mobility and he believes that car drivers should pay more to subsidize transit.

"Whenever people use public transit, it’s not because they love the environment. In advanced cities in Zurich or in London, most people use public transit, even the rich. Why do they use it? Because they have to. If we want people to use public transport, we have to improve transit but we also need to restrict car use, a little bit of the carrot, a little bit of the stick."

The easiest way to restrict car use is to restrict parking, he said. "Most cities in the world where people use public transit it’s difficult to park." Other strategies he liked were charging for car use, such as congestion pricing and higher gas taxes, provided that money is used to subsidize transit.

In closing his presentation, Peñalosa urged the audience to set its sights as high as possible to completely re-imagine cities so that not only "those who have a private motorcar have the right to safe mobility. People in government will have to take a risk, they will have to make decisions that are unpopular to at least some people. You have to do uncomfortable things."

"If we’re going to talk about transport, I would say that the great city is not the one that has highways, but one where a child on a tricycle or bicycle can go safely everywhere."

  • Pat

    I especially enjoyed his mention of the crime rates in Bogota. He claimed that the reduction of murders from mid-80’s per one hundred thousand to about 15 per one hundred thousand was almost directly attributable to the greenways and open spaces constructed in poor areas. I believe it.

    He also appealed very well to emotion about our city asking several times whether we would enjoy our city much more if we could walk a block from our homes and be in an open pedestrian plaza with no cars passing by. It was kind of funny that he could not gracefully put an end to a train of thought though.

  • My favorite part of his talk: instead of envisioning our sidewalks as an extension of the road, the part that you walk on rather than drive on – envision our sidewalks as an extension of our parks. Thin, linear parks, stretching on both sides of every street throughout the entire city. Nice!

  • Colin Hughes

    I liked it when he asserted that if every citizen has an equal right to the road, then a bicyclist has a right to as much space as a driver, and a bus with 40 passengers has 40 times as much right to the road as a driver in a car. Keep rolling out those BRT and bike lanes!

  • Virginia Balogh-Rosenthal

    Many SF homeowners feel they are justified in parking in their driveway as long as there is room for people to pass. They truly don’t get the fact that looking down the block and seeing car after car on the sidewalk creates an environment hostile to pedestrians.

    If we could actually convince San Franciscans to agree with Peñalosa that sidewalks are park land, the parking-on-the-sidewalk issue would go away!

  • Does anyone know of the state of Bogotá after he left office? Peñalosa clearly ignited an energy within the city–is his predecessor supporting the progress he made, I hope?

  • Barna Mink

    I enjoyed reading this, thanks! Unfortunately with my schedule there’s little chance that I could ever make an event in the city at 5:30.

    @Colin Hughes, “I liked it when he asserted that if every citizen has an equal right to the road, then a bicyclist has a right to as much space as a driver, and a bus with 40 passengers has 40 times as much right to the road as a driver in a car.”

    I have pondered this often. Such as when riding with my wife on our bikes, and encountering a car occupied by a single person who clearly thinks that bikers are street debris and proceeds to bully us to the side. Or when I am sitting on Muni metro that is standing at a red light for an equal amount of time as a car.

    @Virginia, this is very true. I live in probably the worst neighborhood in SF when it comes to sidewalk parking. Unfortunately most people here are not interested in livable streets. They spend their time inside, watching TV (I guess). The only time I see them on the sidewalk, is when they are washing their cars. I do hope this attitude will start to change, though. I so wish the city / DPT would help by actually enforcing the law.

  • How many fellow SOMA residents would like to see Folsom Street turned into a Barcelona Las Ramblas type pedestrian way with the middle 3 car lanes turned into a ped/bike area? Sign me up! Folsom Street is the root of pedestrian safety issues in Rincon Hill.

  • marcos

    Does Folsom have the density, residential or commercial to support a Las Ramblas?

    Is that level of density in any of the wildest, most ambitious plans?

    Market Street has the activated critical mass to make a Las Ramblas style promenade work but it has all of that transit on it, which presents its own challenges.


  • I’m not sure how the Rincon Hill Plan and Transbay Redevelopment Area plans for adding around 20,000 residents east of 2nd Street will pan out over the next decade, but I sure would like to see traffic calmed on Folsom … at least east of 2nd Street … give cars one lane east and one lane west on the outside edges like Las Ramblas. I’m a dreamer. 🙂

  • marcos

    @Jamie Whitaker, planning for Folsom is a patchwork affair. The MTA is on board with adding enhanced transit (proposed TEP 11 and 27 lines) to a two-way Folsom. Heights might approach 85′ throughout most of Folsom, 65′ was the last I saw from 7th to 13th, but the Mayor’s Office and SPUR are salivating over 400′ heights around 4th Street under the rubric of Central Subway TOD. There it might actually make sense within striking distance of both BART and CowTrain, but the economics only make sense for the developers.

    Irrespective of any of this, it is not like a planning process(es) is/are completed, those rules hit the books, and the next morning one wakes to see the entire planning area built out to the envelope. These things take decades to accrete.

    If any street in SF would be amenable to a Las Ramblas approach, it would be Valencia post-26 line, as the critical mass of residents, businesses and intangibles are already in place. It would be wonderful to see permanent Zocalos put into place within a block of each of the Mission’s two BART stations. I’d envision Valencia closed to traffic between 24th/23d and 17th/16th with those two plazas linked by a Las Ramblas that had a few rutted, unpaved portions for the occasional automobile.


  • Sounds good to me … Valencia is certainly less risky at this point in time and ready to roll, if the community wants it. I’ll continue planting the seed for Folsom over the next decade though … suppose we need to get this Transbay Transit Center thing done first. 🙂

  • marcos

    @Jamie Whitaker, lotsa black lines on the SoMa map cross Folsom, each with a mind and plan of its own: Port, Rincon, Transbay, E. SoMa, Central Subway, W. SoMa and Mission.

    Existing plans call for Folsom to be a two way boulevard to one extent or another.


  • Thank you, Penalosa, for mentioning the wolf as an imaginary fear versus the very real threat of the car. I wrote the column linked below in response to media frenzy following a dog mauling in San Francisco in 2005. No higher compliment than to hear this analysis echoed by our hero from Colombia.


  • Fran Taylor

    Thank you, Penalosa, for mentioning the irrational fear of the wolf in the face of the real threat of the car. I wrote the column linked below following the media frenzy in response to a dog mauling death some years back. No higher compliment than to hear this analysis echoed by our hero from Colombia:



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