World-famous consultant brings cycling expertise to Victoria

Gil Penalosa believes streets can be used for more than just cars.

Gil Penalosa believes streets can be used for more than just cars.

In his birth place of Bogotá, Columbia, Penalosa said it was a dangerous city for motorists, pedestrians and cyclists.

Working as the commissioner of parks, sport and recreation for the City of Bogotá, he slowly transformed the city into a safe place for all people.

He established the program called “open streets” where they closed a few blocks to cars and opened them to pedestrians on Sundays. The program has since expanded to 121 kilometres and draws 1.3 million people to walk, skate and run every week.

In just three years, Penalosa also established a sophisticated network of more than 280 kilometres of bike lanes that increased the number of cyclists from 30,000 to almost half a million people daily.

Now, he is bringing his vision to Victoria.

“It was a change of mindset. Columbian people understand that streets are public spaces and they belong to everybody and that it doesn’t make sense to move only cars 24/7,” said Penalosa, who has worked as a consultant in more than 200 cities around the world and is the founder of 8 80 Cities, a Toronto-based organization that aims to make cities more walkable.

Penalosa is part of a group being dubbed the cycling “dream team” tasked with identifying four to eight priority corridors in Victoria for construction over the next three years. Earlier this summer, the city approved the first protected bike lane on the north side of Pandora Avenue.

The team also includes Andreas Røhl, cycling specialist with Gehl Architects & Studio and former bicycle program manager for the City of Copenhagen, and Mia Birk, president and CEO of Alta Planning + Design and former bicycle program manager for the City of Portland.

The focus will be encouraging people aged eight to 80 to ride their bikes.

“I thought staff were pulling my leg when they told me about the team we’d attracted to work on this project,” said Mayor Lisa Helps. “People are often saying, ‘look at Copenhagen to help shape the future of cycling in Victoria.’ With this team, we’re quite literally bringing Copenhagen to Victoria, along with other world-class expertise.”

Penalosa, who was in Victoria last week with the rest of the team, believes the two guiding principles will be developing a cycling infrastructure that is safe for all ages and abilities, and connect people to most places in the city.

“Victoria has the potential to be one of the best small cities in the world and I think that’s what’s so exciting,” he said. “They’re calling it the dream team, but I will say the citizens are the ones that are great. The citizens are the experts to decide what they want.”

The networking planning and conceptual designs are scheduled to be complete by the end of 2015. The city has dedicated $7.75 million to cycling and pedestrian improvements over the next three years.