Livable Communities Interview

5 Questions for Gil Penalosa

The globe-trotting creator of ciclovias and open streets explains why people ages 8 and 80 are "the indicator species" for good places to live


Livability expert and advocate Gil Penalosa

"The annual cost of owning a car is about $8,700," notes Gil Penalosa. "So if a person can live without a car, or a household can live with one less car, it's like winning the lottery." — Photo provided by Gil Penalosa

Gil Penalosa has traveled to more than 200 communities across the globe scouting for the best ideas to improve life for people of all ages. He believes the measure of a good place is whether we'd feel comfortable with an 8-year-old biking alone to the neighborhood park or someone in their 80s walking to the grocery store. 

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That's why he founded and is board chair of 8 80 Cities, which works internationally to make it easier and safer for people of all ages to walk, bike and enjoy parks, trails and public spaces. From his travels and research, Penalosa has distilled five essential ingredients for a great city or town: 

1. lively public spaces and parks

2. streets that are safe for everyone who uses them

3. comfortable options for bikers and walkers

4. convenient, speedy public transportation

5. public officials willing to collaborate with neighborhood residents

The one-time parks commissioner of Bogotá, Colombia, Penalosa dashes around North and South America spreading the message that public health, environmental protection, social connections and economic vitality all increase in communities where everyone's needs are taken into account. 

"He's the pied piper of sustainable transportation," declares Janette Sadik-Khan, the former New York City transportation commissioner who transformed the city with new bike lanes, pedestrian plazas and street safety improvements. Penalosa, 58, lives in Toronto, where he gets around by bike, foot or transit.

1. Much of your work fits with that of the AARP Network of Age-Friendly Communities. How can towns and cities better serve their older residents?

There are 43 million older adults in the U.S. now — by 2050 it's going to be 85 million. That's a doubling in the next 35 years, which means huge changes for our society that we urgently need to start planning for right now. As the Chinese proverb says, "The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now."

Older adults I talk to are scared of losing their driver's license. It's not because they love their cars, it's because they love mobility. They want to be able to continue going to the places they want — to the grocery store, to see their friends. They want to have the same lifestyle they enjoy now. In a lot of communities the only way to do that is to drive everywhere — and not all of us will be able to keep driving as much when we get older, even if that's what we want to do.

Today's growing numbers of older people want to have a variety of ways to get around. That's why it is so important for communities to have walking, transit and biking that's safe and convenient. When older people have transportation options they can age in place and not depend on others to drive them everywhere.

Community-based transportation improvements have economic benefits, too. According to AAA, the annual cost of owning a car is about $8,700. So if a person can live without a car, or a household can live with one less car, it's like winning the lottery. People are living longer now so they may have less money for their later years. Access to more transportation options can help.

In fact, there is nothing that government could do that would have a higher impact on middle-class families than to enable them to switch from two cars to one, and for poor families to switch from one car to none. In many American communities, two-car suburban families spend about 25 percent of their income on transportation.

2. How are baby boomers different from older generations in the past, and how does this affect policies and planning in our communities? 

Older adults are healthier, wealthier and more active than older people of previous generations — this is very important to understand. Fifty years ago, 14 percent of Americans were poor and 29 percent of older Americans were poor. Now the level of poverty is still about 14 percent, but the rate among older adults is 8 percent.

Baby boomers have a lot of social conscience — they were the young generation of the '60s and '70s. That's why I am so hopeful that we can enlist an army of older people to transform our towns and cities. For example, everyone should have a park within a 10-minute walk from his or her home. We need better connected grids of sidewalks, bike paths and urban trails so people can get where they need to go on foot or bike. We need better transit.

An estimated 40 million new homes (the equivalent of all existing homes in the United Kingdom, Canada, Denmark, Belgium and Chile) will be built by 2050, which is when the U.S. population is expected to level off. Will these new homes be built with parks nearby? Will they be near schools kids can walk to? Will these homes be located with access to public transit? Will it be easy for people to bike and walk?

There's a sense of urgency that we do these things right. We need to improve the communities we have today, but we also need to be creating great communities for what will be 100 million more people.

In the U.S., 75,000 people are hit by cars every year and at least 4,500 die. Two out of three people killed in crosswalks are older adults — that's four times as many as they should be in proportion to the population. What if millions of older American became champions of Vision Zero, the new idea now taking hold in Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Pittsburgh and other places that we should not tolerate any traffic deaths — not to pedestrians, bicyclists or motorists? We need to upgrade our streets to keep everyone safe. Someday we may look back at our tolerance for traffic fatalities in the same way we do now about women not being able to vote 100 years ago.

And remember that anything we do for older adults helps everyone else. People who are 8 and 80 are the indicator species for good places to live. Redesign our cities to keep them safe, healthy and happy, and we'll have a place that works well for everyone, even those younger than 8 and older than 80.

Baby boomers are very engaged in their communities. They go to public meetings. That's why they are so transformative and valuable. Politicians listen to them. Older adults can get better results for society, for everyone.

Also, boomers are doing different activities than in the past. In the most recent London marathon, there were 5,000 runners over age 60. Many older Americans are doing the same activities they always have. The stereotype of people going to Florida and playing shuffleboard is all wrong.


Get a taste of the weekly Bogotá Ciclovia, which was founded in 1976 by Open Streets pioneer Gil Penalosa. (See an interview with Penalosa in a video that appears on the next page.)

Note: The following video is in Spanish

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