New vision for equality and the real class conflict in urban life

Enrique Penalosa, the former Mayor of Bogata, talked about Urban policy at the LSE this week. He spoke about the need for governments to create socially inclusive cities and articulated a vision of the good city. Before we know what city we want, he said, we need to know how we want to live. Urban planning is about building happiness. And it’s all about politics, about choices.

The speech is online here, and it was inspiring stuff.

Peñalosa put equality as the foundation of his urban vision. He explicitly didn’t mean income equality (because “we all agree that the best way to manage most of society’s resources is private property and the market”), but, rather, equal access to the features of cities that enhance the quality of life.

So he spoke against gated communities, private waterfronts, exclusive parks. But the main thrust of his argument was about mobility in cities:

“If all citizens are equal before the law, a bus with a hundred passengers has a right to a hundred times more road space than a car with one person. This is not communism, this is basic democracy. A child with a tricycle has the same right to road space as a car driver.”

The transport system we have currently prioritises car drivers – it grants them greater legal rights to public space.

Peñalosa spoke about some ways to reclaim this space, including dedicated bus lanes. In London, it strikes me that although bus lanes represent a small attempt to introduce some equity into the road system, they are still accessible, and usually blocked up, by black cabs. Taxis cost £20 a pop and so are only available to the tiniest heights of the social spectrum, and in any case generally cruise around in the bus lanes completely empty. Ironically, the bus lanes for the people become zil lanes for the rich, presumably because the few people who can afford to take taxis also happen to be the ones writing or buying the law.

Peñalosa insisted that segregated cycle lanes are hugely important. They are not “cute architectural features”, but ought to be be a right. Otherwise, the only people who have a right to safe mobility are car drivers.

A segregated cycle lane “shows that a citizen on the $30 bicycle is equally important to one in a $300,000 car.”

Cars were rightly identified for particular opprobrium. Not only do they represent a hugely disproportionate distribution of space and money, they make cities a dangerous place to live.

In 2009, 3,227 people were killed or seriously injured on London’s roads, of whom 1488 were pedestrians or cyclists. 184 people died– 101 pedestrians and cyclists.

Around the world there are tens of thousands of children killed by cars every year. Children grow up in cities in terror of being killed.

As Peñalosa put it: “Even in Columbia where we never had wolves, we tell children about wolves, because Western civilisation is still scared of them, because a few children in the Middle Ages were eaten by wolves in Northern Europe. But I can assure you that in any given month in our time there are more children killed by cars than were killed by wolves in the Middle Ages.”

It’s mad that we think it’s normal and natural because it isn’t – it’s the result of choices.

There is no such thing as a natural level of cars in a city, or a requirement for the privileges the law gives to drivers. This all came about through political choices.

Just one local example for me, as described on Freewheeler’s blog:

“Cyclists and pedestrians have to GIVE WAY to motor traffic on Richmond Road and are not even given a zebra crossing or signalled lights, even though cycling and walking flow is high and traffic flow is relatively light. The message, as always, is that those who choose to travel around London in a car are the top priority, and those who cycle or walk are an inferior species, who must at all times defer to the primary transport mode.”

This was a political, not a technical decision.

Peñalosa said that:

“The real class conflict today is not the Marxist class conflict between proletariats and capitalists and all that story, although it was very beautiful, but between car owners and those who do not own cars.”

The space and resources given to the owners of these dangerous machines is fundamentally inequitable, and ruins cities. It’s because of the car that the twentieth century will be remembered as a disastrous one in urban history. But it’s something we can change.

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Published in: on January 13, 2011 at 9:04 pm  Leave a Comment  

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