(Or How to Take Your City Back)
"Over the past 80 years we have been building cities for cars much more than for people. If only children had as much public space as cars, most cities in the world would become marvellous." Enrique Penalosa
Let me tell you a little story.
Vicks Vaporub – that doughty fighter of coughs and colds that has been a household name for decades.
Many years ago, this balm was packed in little, indigo-blue coloured glass bottles, made by only one company that had a very curious name – Paisa Fund Glass Works. But even more curious is how that name came to be.
About a hundred years, when the fire of the Swaraj and Swadeshi movement was being stoked, a poor school teacher from Ratnagiri calleded Antaji Damodar Kale came up with a revolutionary idea that would seed India’s first co-operative fund. It was to collect at least one paisa from every person and use the money to finance earn-‘n-learn educational programs that would in turn generate jobs. The idea caught the attention of the great Bal Gangadhar Tilak who promoted it so actively - even writing editorials about it in his immensely popular newspaper, the Kesari – that many people attributed the idea to him. But more importantly, it caught the imagination of the people. And so, travelling all over Maharashtra and parts of Gujarat, Kale collected 14,000 rupees, a huge fortune at the time.
The money was used to set up a small glass-making unit, more of a training centre than anything else, but in about 3 years time, it became a fully-fledged commercial glass manufacturing factory – India’s very first. And they named it the Paisa Fund Glass Works! A hundred years later, even though the little indigo-blue bottles have now become plastic, Paisa Fund Glass Works is the only supplier of the glass lenses that change the colour of the millions of signals regulating traffic of over 18 million passengers and more than 2 million tonnes of freight that travel every day on the 63,327 kilometres of the Indian Railways
All this with just one paisa?
In other words, never underestimate the might of the tiny drop. Not only does it make the ocean, it is also makes something called public will.
Which is nothing but a collection of our individual one-paisa worth of unshakeable, immutable belief that we can change things.
And that brings me to a second little story.
About a city called Bogota.
Capital of Colombia, nerve centre of the country’s economy, accounting for 30 percent of the country's GDP. And like so many such cities in developing countries, the gap between the quality of life of the rich and the vast majority of the poor is a chasm; luxury apartments and glittering shopping malls cheek-by-jowl with huge shanty towns and slums.
Bogota was also one of the 20 most polluted cities in the world, 30,000 tons of contaminants spewed into it everyday, making the New York Times dub it a “snarled, toxic and crime-ridden mess”. Bogotans themselves considered it a divine punishment to live in the city.
But that was till 1998.
When a man named Enrique Penalosa became mayor and decided that it was time to take back his city from the hell that it had been consigned to. And one of cornerstones of his campaign was to declare “a war on cars”. 70% of Bogota’s population did not own a car. Yet traffic congestion and the attendant pollution was one of Bogota’s most crippling problems.
So what Penalosa decreed was close to urban blasphemy.
For two days a week, every car in Bogota had to be off the street during rush hour, three hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon. Every Sunday, he closed 120 kilometers of Bogota’s main roads to cars for seven hours so that people could come out to ride bicycles, jog or simply gather around. (A million and a half people did so joyously!) And he declared the first Thursday of every February as the annual car-free day!
Today, Bogota is one of the most flaunted examples in the showcase of sustainable cities. Penalosa’s policies freed public space for other quicker, cleaner means of transport. Bogota’s TransMilenio Bus Rapid Transit system, set up a fraction of the cost of subways and flyovers, the favourite by urban planning experts, is so ‘rapid” and so efficient (it even has wheelchair lifts) that 20% of Bogota’s car owners commute on it every day! (Penalosa’s inspiration came from the Brazilian city of Curitiba where the green area per inhabitant is four times the World Health Organization standard and where they recycle buildings and trim the grass of their vast parks with a flock of 30 sheep!
And for parks (the largest is 40 acres and was once a slum), bikeways (one that is 340 kilometers long and one of the longest in the developing world) and libraries , places where Bogotans forgot that they were sardines stewing inside a can and remembered they were humans, entitled to happiness.
Forget the prizes and awards that Bogotá has won, the real measures of Penalosa’s success was that Bogota’s crime rate dropped by 35 % and enrolment in schools went up by 30% and the city is now a tourist destination!
Impossible, you gasp. As impossible as India’s glass industry being started by one paisa?
The success of Penalosa and Kale and so many others like them was based only on one thing – the power of that one paisa.
All of us have it – 7 million people of Bogota city and 6 million Bangaloreans.
So, it is time to spend that one paisa to buy this city back
Because even as you read this, there may be a Penalosa or a Kale somewhere in this city, waiting to collect that paisa fund.
And how about we start with the most simple but most brilliant of Penalosa’s ideas – a vehicle-free day?
That each of one of us choose one day of the week when we will not use our vehicle….