Gil Penalosa: Cities for People

Gil Penalosa came to town to talk about how to make cities for people.  One councillor in Ottawa showed up.  One.  (Maybe they had already heard Gil speak when he was here earlier in November as part of Downtown Ottawa Moves.)

(I’ve uploaded some videos of Gil’s presentation: Part 1 and Part 2)

Gil Penalosa is an internationally recognized speaker and city planner who is known for transforming cities into bustling places where people want to be, to stay, to enjoy and to live.

Gil Penalosa

The event last night was inspiring and frustrating.  Energizing and demoralizing.

During the hour long presentation, he included slides from around the world.  Examples of cities that have transformed themselves to favour people over cars: through accessible transit, multi-use public spaces and improved facilities for walking and cycling.

His slides from Bogota, Columbia demonstrated equality of transit among the classes.  Communities – rich or poor – were given equal treatments of sidewalks and cycling paths.  In one slide he showed, the sidewalk and bike path were completed before any work to build a road had started.  His rationale?  Once we get our priorities  (walking and cycling) dealt with – then will we look at roads.  In his examples – everyone deserves access to great transit and safe streets.  He considers these a human right.

The solutions to our city’s problems are easy.  They’ve already been solved elsewhere.  Because Ottawa’s problems?  They’re not unique at all.  Our biggest obstacle?  We lack a cohesive vision about what we want the city to be.  While Vancouver sets their sights on being the world’s greenest city by 2020, Ottawa doddles about waiting for the NCC to tell them what to do.  And then shrugs their shoulders that there is no money.

In Vancouver, that vision filtered down through all the decision makers and public servants.  Everyone is playing to win the same game.  So far, the NCC’s extensive consultations are telling us what Ottawa residents have been saying for a long time: give us good transit, green spaces, culture, bike lanes, heritage and walkable communities.   For these desires apply to every modern city.  Ottawa’s urban desires are not unique.

In Ottawa, we undertake pilot projects where they are at odds to succeed from the start.  He gave an example of a city (not Ottawa) that built a kilometre of bike lane that didn’t connect to destinations.  At the end of the pilot, the example city was quick to illustrate that the lane had failed.  It’s like paving a driveway but not connecting it to any roads.

Let’s take our own Laurier Bike Lane – wonderful plowing, accessible every day of the winter.  But how is the winter access from the designated cycling lanes that surround it?  Not the greatest.  We can do better.

Here is what one looks like at the underpass by Catherine Street.  Under the six-foot snowbank is a bike lane.

Bike path obstacle

Our city stacks the odds against sustainable progress.  They do transportation studies in November.  The Origins Destination Survey started at the end of September 2011 and ran for 10 weeks.  By the time some people were contacted, it was November.  People who may have chosen active transit a month earlier, may have switched to public transit or their cars.  The survey had an inherent bias against active transportation.  If the city wanted a accurate picture of all travel modes – this survey should have taken place over the summer.  The city will then use the data (skewed in favour of motorized transportation) to inform their next transportation plan.  It doesn’t seem fair.  Or right.

People get frustrated.  They start marking their own bike lanes.  And leaving trails in the snow where they would like to walk.


(Pretoria Bridge, 2005)

Florence and Bank path
(Bank and Florence, 2012)

Cities take threats to motorized transportation seriously – there are pothole hotlines, the media jumps on the surge of potholes each Spring and holds contests for the biggest/worst pothole.  People are losing hub caps out there on the mean streets.  Meanwhile, dangerous intersections that threaten pedestrians and cyclists throughout the year do not gain any attention.  Until someone is killed.

We build sidewalks that make it easier for cars to drive across – that make for difficult walking situations for pedestrians.

This sidewalk makes me seasick
(Renfrew Avenue, 2011)

I go to public “consultations” to revitalize streets that have already been finalized.  New designs are developed by consultants from other cities who design based on numbers, traffic patterns and LOS rates.

What they see and what I see are often at odds.

So Ottawa? What are we going to do about?  When do people become part of our equation as a measure for the success of the city?

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