At Moving the Future conference, mayors and experts envision transportation-friendly city

We don't just work in the city. We play in the city. We hope, dream, laugh, love, and cry in the city. How Metro Vancouver develops has to take this into account.

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You gotta fight for your right

In his keynote, Gil Peñalosa tied many of these thoughts together by presenting the city as a shared life experience. Therefore, he said, everyone who lives in a city should be able to move around easily and safely. His company, 8-80 Cities, takes its name from the idea that an eight-year-old and an 80-year-old should be able to navigate an urban landscape with ease. As he put it, "We gotta stop building communities as if everyone was 30 years old and athletic!"

Peñalosa got switched on at Habitat Forum 76, during his first visit to Vancouver. That event brought about a fundamental change in how its attendees saw life in the city, and what that life could be.

Peñalosa would go on to plan and develop over 200 parks in Bogota, Colombia; as well as consult on human-friendly urban development all over the world. He clearly loves his work.

In dissing Toronto Mayor Rob Ford ("Arrogant and ignorant"), Peñalosa stressed the value of a proactive mayor. Bogota has 1/8 the GDP of Vancouver, insisted Peñalosa: a healthy transit system is a political problem. You can't half-ass these things: a single bike lane is useless unless it's part of a larger grid. Walking and cycling, said Peñalosa, "should be a right."

If you want rights, you have to do what the song says and fight for them. In Peñalosa's ideal city, the car is the first casualty of that fight. This is so it can inflict fewer casualties on people (over 270,000 pedestrian deaths a year caused by cars: Stephen King wrote a book about that, right?).

While nobody would take your car away by force, the city's development path would make driving the least attractive option: you'd have buses, subways, buses that behave like subways, bicycles, and, of course, your own two feet: that's how all journeys begin and end. Peñalosa said, "Birds fly, fish swim, people walk."

Dollars and sense

For her part, Nancy Olewiler, Chair of the TransLink Board of Directors, also pointed out an aspect of transit ridership that's both responsibility-deflecting and sanity-nurturing: “Nothing is your fault anymore. If you’re late, it’s the driver’s fault.” Congestion still exists, of course, but you have no control of it at all. All you can do, and therefore all you should do, is sit back and finish your Sudoku.

Expanding a transit system costs money, and that's the crux of the political problem. Exacerbating it is the fact that, as Peñalosa said, politicians and public-sector decision-makers are rewarded for avoiding change, or at least enacting change as detrimentally as possible. That won't be good enough, though, he added.

In contrast, he pointed to Cheonggyecheon, a two-level mega-freeway that was torn out and replaced with a linear park. A slap in the face to car culture, and a profound reimagining of space usage in the big city.

Imagine if the High Line replaced the West Side Highway instead of an unused railway. Insane? Yes, so much so that then-Mayor Lee Myung-bak went on to become Prime Minister of South Korea.

New York Metropolitan Transit Authority Chair Tom Prendergast, who once ran TransLink, put it bluntly:“You don’t run public transportation systems at a profit, that’s why they’re in the public sector.”

New York City's transit system moves around eight million people a day  The concept of Bridge and Tunnel doesn’t only provide stereotypes, but also tolls. Prendergast said that those tolls added up to a $950-million cash infusion last year.

Where are the ladies who move the future?

Peñalosa and Prendergast both mentioned the New York City dream team of Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan and Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden, who were instrumental in New York's people-friendly makeover.

Why weren't they on a Moving the Future panel? In fact, no women appeared in any of the panels; it was like going to a stereotypical tech conference. When asked why the ladies were restricted to a few short speeches and TransLink Chair Nancy Olewiler was only on moderation duty, a staffer for the Pace Group, which organized the conference, said that she had “no idea” why there are no women on the panels. A (female) TransLink attendee with whom I was sitting noticed it as well. She  told me, “Transit is traditionally male-dominated, but that’s changing.”

Hopefully we'll see that reflected in our urban development conferences.

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