An Interview with Gil Penalosa: What Does Knoxville Need to Do to Build a Culture of Health?

Tennessee Bike Summit With Gil Penalosa, Knoxville Convention Center, April 2015

Tennessee Bike Summit With Gil Penalosa, Knoxville Convention Center, April 2015

Last April the Tennessee Bike Summit convened in the Knoxville Convention Center and I was allowed to attend the two-day event to learn more about improving biking culture in Knoxville and other urban centers. Numerous seminars dotted the agenda, vendors set up kiosks to tout their wares, a reception was held at the Standard.

The centerpiece of the seminar, however, was the presence of Gil Penalosa, former Commissioner of Parks and Recreation for Bogota, Columbia. During his tenure 200 parks were designed and built and a weekly event in which over 55 miles of roads are closed to vehicular traffic and opened to bikers, walkers and exercisers became a Sunday staple in the city. In Bogota it’s called the “Ciclovia,” as it has been emulated around the world and in the US, it has come to be called “Open Streets.”

Tennessee Bike Summit With Gil Penalosa, Knoxville Convention Center, April 2015

Tennessee Bike Summit With Gil Penalosa, Knoxville Convention Center, April 2015

Tennessee Bike Summit With Gil Penalosa, Knoxville Convention Center, April 2015

Tennessee Bike Summit With Gil Penalosa, Knoxville Convention Center, April 2015

I had an opportunity to interview Mr. Penalosa just before the conference began and to hear him several times during the conference.  His message is powerful, dynamic – and very consistent. He feels cities should be designed with an 8/80 concept in mind. In other  words, is the city safe and comfortable for an eight-year-old and an eighty-year-old? If either  would have trouble moving about safely and comfortably in the city, then it isn’t designed properly.

I asked him what he hoped to accomplish in two days in our city and he said he, “hopes to be able to plant some seeds. I’m not an expert on the city, even if I stayed two weeks. Sometimes it is good to have an outside person to look at benchmarks and how we are doing.” A focus for him was the importance of developing a “sense of urgency” surrounding the issue of “sustainable mobility.” He insisted, “the issues are more political than financial.”

Tennessee Bike Summit With Gil Penalosa, Knoxville Convention Center, April 2015

Tennessee Bike Summit With Gil Penalosa, Knoxville Convention Center, April 2015

Tennessee Bike Summit With Gil Penalosa, Knoxville Convention Center, April 2015

Tennessee Bike Summit With Gil Penalosa, Knoxville Convention Center, April 2015

He decried the major investments cities are making to build ever-larger highways. He noted that San Diego had recently spent $4 Billion to widen highways, which he called, “crazy.” Connecting the issues of traffic and public health, he pointed out that traffic continues to get worse and where that is true, health is negatively impacted. In terms of public health in developed countries, “the US is in the lower half and Tennessee is near the bottom. Clearly we need to live differently.”

Connecting the economic realities of our state to the same issues, he points to mobility being a critical component of our economic and physical health. “One in four dollars of income is spent on mobility (cars) in Tennessee when you have little for education. There is nothing that could improve family economies more than reducing cars. Low income people are spending maybe 1 of $3.” He repeatedly insisted that urgency is critical, for in communities where people feel pretty good about the way things are, there is little energy for change.

Tennessee Bike Summit With Gil Penalosa, Knoxville Convention Center, April 2015

Tennessee Bike Summit With Gil Penalosa, Knoxville Convention Center, April 2015

His Open Streets initiative has spread to 100 cities in the US. Typically staged on Sundays in order to minimize the impact to automotive traffic, he calls it “a real day to change minds.” About 1.3 million people come out into the streets of Bogota each week to exercise by biking, running, walking, doing yoga and martial arts as well as other activities – in the middle of the street. It’s now a monthly event in LA.

He promotes it as a vehicle not only for health, but for social integration, and forgetting his earlier profession of knowing little about the city, pretty much proceeded to nail us, “one of the few places you would see the wealthiest people of Knoxville with the poorest people of the city. We need to move from talking to doing in Knoxville. There is not as much action as is needed. How are we going to grow? The population will increase from 700,000 to 1,000,000, what kind of city will we have for them? Plan ET is a good idea. Good intentions. We need to move from talking to doing.”

He had us pegged in many ways and had more facts in his back pocket that most of us encounter in a day at the library. “More than 90% of trips in Knoxville are in cars.” He said every community has “Civic Cadavers” who do nothing for the community – as if they are dead – but when someone tries to do something they miraculously resuscitate and try to block the change.

Tennessee Bike Summit With Gil Penalosa, Knoxville Convention Center, April 2015

Tennessee Bike Summit With Gil Penalosa, Knoxville Convention Center, April 2015

Tennessee Bike Summit With Gil Penalosa, Knoxville Convention Center, April 2015

Tennessee Bike Summit With Gil Penalosa, Knoxville Convention Center, April 2015

He interjected quite a bit of humor to a topic he obviously takes very seriously. While lamenting the fact so few Tennesseans walk or bike, he offered this definition of a walkable neighborhood: “Where a child can safely walk to get an ice cream and get home before it melts.”

It turns out that 27% of our trips by car cover one mile or less, while a full 43% are three miles or less. In Tennessee 93% drive to work while 1% bike. In Copenhagen, for contrast, 41% bike or walk to work. “We’ve been building cities for people for thousands of years. It is only in the last eighty years we have been building them for cars.”

Quick question: If a pedestrian or cyclist is hit by a car going 20 miles per hour, what are the chances of survival? What if the car is going 40 miles per hour? In the first case the pedestrian or cyclist has a 95% chance of survival. In the second case, the pedestrian has a 15% chance of survival. He insisted we need lower speed limits and protected bike lanes. He ridiculed the highways with 50+ mph speed limits and a thin white line separating bikes and cars.

Money is often cited as the reason more can’t be done to build protected bike lanes and Mayor Rogero recently increased the city budget from $285,000 to $1,000,000 for cycling infrastructure. Before she took office there was no designated budget and no long-term plan. Gil Penalosa would push for even bigger thinking, noting that “Buenos Aires “built ninety miles of protected lanes in three years – and they are broke! You don’t have to justify it on usage: they don’t use it because it isn’t there!

Tennessee Bike Summit With Gil Penalosa, Knoxville Convention Center, April 2015

Tennessee Bike Summit With Gil Penalosa, Knoxville Convention Center, April 2015

Tennessee Bike Summit With Gil Penalosa, Knoxville Convention Center, April 2015

Tennessee Bike Summit With Gil Penalosa, Knoxville Convention Center, April 2015

Then he called us fat. That isn’t in quotes, but he did mention that Tennessee is the fourth most obese state in the union. He claimed that in 1990 no state in the union had an obesity rate above 20% and that in 2015, every state has an obesity rate of at least 20%. You can check that out here. In Tennessee the obesity rate is 33.7%. Just eleven years ago it was 25.6%. He doesn’t have to call us fat.

So, put it all together and what do you have? A nation, state and city in need of a culture that encourages an active lifestyle. Cities should be built to encourage walking and biking. They should not be built for the automobile. Protected bike lanes should become a norm. He said it will take a sense of urgency, political will, leadership, people who are willing to take action and broad citizen engagement.

So, are we up to the challenge? Are we willing to spend the money and effort to support a healthier culture or are we happy with having a third of our citizens obese? What about starting with an Open Streets event in Knoxville?

 

Comments

  1. Best post I have read this year!

  2. It was great to hear someone tell it like it is, even if it had to be an outside perspective. I live downtown and, most hours of the day, don’t even feel safe riding a few blocks to get to a greenway. Too much pressure from motor vehicles. Until it’s safe to cruise around town without a helmet and at low speeds, the “bike friendly” designations mean nothing. This would entail protected bike lanes, narrower streets, and much denser development and I just don’t see there ever being the political will for that here.

  3. Grew up in military housing that would shut down traffic on the entire base at times. And that was 40 years ago. It was awesome. Everybody felt compelled to get out and move. People just paraded. Some folks would just pull up chairs close to the street and watch.

  4. Cities that take actions to promote healthy lifestyles and provide opportunities for social integration are the kind of places that thrive. I hope Knoxville goes beyond extolling the aims so effectively promoted by Gil Penalosa and actually pulls the trigger.

  5. Chris Eaker says:

    There will be an Open Streets event on October 25 on N. Central. I hope it’s the first of many.

  6. Leticia Flores says:

    I loved this particular entry. I have been in some of the cities that have hosted the Open Streets events, and they are amazing ways to connect with each other. I think we do that a fair bit of mixing with our many festivals (although we may counter the healthy factors of street closing with the fried goodies that are often for sale at said festivals). There is nothing more delightful than seeing Union Street closed for the Market Square Farmers Market on Saturdays. We have a ton of potential for opening up many of of our thoroughfares for pedestrians to walk, talk and just enjoy the day. Imagine the Henley or Gay Street bridges closing one day a month, so everyone can enjoy the river views for more than the few seconds it takes to cross in a car? Or closing Cumberland (for purposes other than construction) to allow college age and other students of life to mix and mingle? Part of healthy living is social interaction- we are a social city- Open Streets is a natural extension of that quality we already possess. And if we can spend just a little less time in the car and off our tuckuses, it’s worth it.

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