Simplifying commuting

“We need to stop building cities like everyone is 30 and athletic,” is the mantra that Gil Peñalosa has built the Canadian non-profit organization 8-80 Cities upon. Explaining further he said, “Cities need to be safe for children aged eight to elders aged 80.”

On Mar. 9, the community gathered at Waterloo city hall to participate in the Walkable, Bikeable Waterloo Forum. The day included sessions and workshops as well as a Walkability assessment of King Street. That evening, community members gathered in the council chamber to listen Gil Peñalosa, the executive director of 8-80 cities and director of International Liveable Cities, speak about how to create a more vibrant city and healthy communities. “The end goal is to make people happier and the means to that end is walking and biking,” he said.

Peñasola’s revolutionary plan calls for an emphasis on the pedestrian. “The pedestrian is the most vulnerable… Last year a pedestrian was hit by a car once every four hours and ten minutes in the municipality of Toronto alone,” he explained, raising the question of what kind of city Waterloo wants to be.

“We need to define our cities around us.” For Peñasola that means allocating more space for walkers and cyclists by widening sidewalks, expressing, “People may fit in to two meters. But if you have four you can make friends, if you have eight you can have a party.” But widening the sidewalks comes at a cost of narrowing the streets. Peñasola suggests that we shift our priorities. “A $40 bike is just as important as a $40,000 car.”

Here, Peñasola raises an interesting point on our values as a community. Looking at the students in the room Peñasola said, “I know where everybody was last summer, you were off flipping hamburgers working somewhere. Why were you flipping hamburgers? To pay for your car. Why do you need a car? To get to work.” It’s an endless cycle that is not always rational. Peñasola quoted statistics from the Canadian Automobile Association which showed that two cars purchased in the last four years will cost a family $20,155 of their income versus a family that used walking and public transit which cost $3,375.

Not only are there economic benefits but in Waterloo walking and biking may become a main mode of transport out of necessity. The region faces a population increase of 25,000 people in the next 20 years, which is a 47 per cent population increase. Questioning how Waterloo could accommodate 47 per cent more vehicles on the road, Peñasola asked, “Why not be bolder, be ambitious.”

Peñasola used the example of Velo City in Copenhagen, which has undergone significant change in the last 40 years. Parking lots were turned into public places. Six lane roads were reduced to two lanes and filled with green space. Traffic was slowed to 30 km per hour.

“Biking is not just for men in spandex,” as Peñasola showed that in Copenhagen 38 per cent of people use bikes as their main mode of transportation. Furthermore, the number one reason that people in Copenhagen bike is because it is the fastest, easiest and most convenient way to get around the city.

Peñasola called Waterloo to action, “Today we are talking, but there is not enough doing, tomorrow we have to do.” Peñasola argued, “This is not about money, it’s about a change in culture, you have to have the vision and the guts.”