Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Transport for Caracas

Ken Livingstone was here today, rubbing salt in my wound.

As mayor of London, Livingstone made a very odd deal: Cheap diesel from Venezuela for his city's bus system in return for providing cheap(er) bus fares for the poor of London, pro-Venezuela propaganda on London buses, and urban planning assistance for Caracas. This deal was a foil for all sorts of political types: People said Chavez was nuts to give aid to a country as rich as England, that Livingstone was nuts to help out a guy like Chavez, that this was a brilliant move combining socialist policies from rich and poor, that the whole thing was hogwash. Yawn. For me, any effort to enhance the livability of Caracas is worthy of attention, no matter the political weirdness behind it.

Sadly, it wasn't to be.

Transport for London, the transit agency, supposedly send some people here and set up a little office. Half the diesel fuel, about $7 million worth, did make it to London. But for all the talk, we will never, Livingstone said, never see any report from the planners. That project is over, he said. Instead he will offer a bit of advice himself, with the goal of making this a "first-world city in a first-world country in 20 years." (The Spanish translator initially translated first-world as "first-class"; "first-world" isn't a popular aspiration for Chavistas. It's like telling a hipster that he could be in wearing a nice suit in 20 years.)

So, even though no one will give me $15 million in funding, maybe I should offer a few thoughts. It seems to me that the most central problem in Caracas is the lack of street life. Most streets are dead from dawn to dark, and the rest from dark to dawn. The busiest streets tend to be those connecting Metro stops to nearby shopping malls or major employers. (For some reason the stops never seem to be exactly adjacent to the most important destinations.) The lack of human presence is an auto-alimentación: a positive feedback loop. (Positive in the cybernetic sense, not the value sense.) The lack of people makes it easier for miscreants to prey on the few who are there, to leave piles of trash in the sidewalk, to park on the sidewalk, to design buildings with curb cuts across the sidewalk, and worst of all to eliminate the sidewalk completely. I'll post some pictures soon of the most depressing lack-of-sidewalks situations, but suffice to say they are manifold. (Was that pretentious enough phrasing for you?)

Happily, we have a role model for some aspects of this just 1,000 km away. Colombia's capital, Bogotá, was rescued with incredible haste -- a three-year mayoral term was enough to turn it from a fatalistic deathtrap into an optimistic deathtrap with many more bicycles. In one term, a mayor fixed a host of my biggest pet peeves: He brought back sidewalks that had been caved out to make unpermitted parking spaces, created a real car-free day, and made a citywide bus rapid transit system. Perhaps instead of Mr. Livingstone with his 20-year timetable, we could use a visit from Sr. Peñalosa?

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