Pedaling Slowly Toward A Livable City

Les Ishimoto is the most loyal of my 11 regular readers. On Wednesday mornings, he emails me with an always critical, occasionally scathing critique of that week’s effort.

Most recently he’s grown tired of my preoccupation with Leeward traffic. “Get off it,” he writes. “Go out there and dig up some dirt.”

First of all, I’ve never done dirt well. Secondly, who is he to say? Les lives in Kapolei, a five-minute commute from his job as financial aid director at University of Hawaii- West Oahu — five uncongested minutes from his breakfast table to his desk.

I bring this up because of a recent conversation with a longtime friend and former UH-West Oahuan. We met for dinner in Kaimuki. I arrived at the restaurant in my four-cylinder Honda Civic Hybrid. Oh, virtuous me.

My friend awaited, leaning on her well-used bicycle. She looked terrific, a new “do” since last I saw her. And fit, an athlete’s level of fit — evidence of her devotion to a cyclist’s life.

Between chews, we talked about our kids, hers in school on opposite coasts of the continent, mine in Hawaii and often at Sunday dinner; about old times at UHWO, where our employment overlapped for a decade or so; and about what we’d been reading of late.

Then, somewhere between pupus and dessert, we were talking, animatedly, about traffic. She questioned the construction of rail, deplored our national obsession with automobiles and skewered Mayor Caldwell for “bending over for developers.”


No politicians appear on my friend’s list of heroes (although neither does she accuse all of “bending over”), but near its top is a man named Gil Penalosa.

Penalosa is the former commissioner of parks, sports and recreation for the city of Bogota, Colombia, and a tireless advocate of livable cities where the automobile is kept in its place and citizens walk, cycle and bus.

In two TED talks and various speeches given worldwide (including at least one in Hawaii), Penalosa acknowledges that change is hard and requires first a “sense of urgency.” Traffic gridlock, obesity rates, population growth, climate change and ever more cars all should create that.

“Streets,” he says, “have become car storage areas” rather than places for people.

The movement toward livable cities also requires political will. Too often, Penalosa says, politicians talk their allegiance to the goal, but what’s needed is less talk and more action. Elected officials complain that there are too many financial roadblocks to effecting urban change and “why we can’t get things done.”

“We need doers,” says Penalosa. He cites some of his own accomplishments in Bogota, a city where the average income is one-tenth of that of New York City residents.

“We closed roads on Sundays and urged cyclists and walkers to take them over. More than 1 million people came out to walk, run, skate and bike.

“This is not about 30-yearold men in Lycra on their expensive bicycles,” Penalosa insists. “It’s about women in skirts and heels cycling to work. It’s about kids riding their bikes in safety. It’s about cities livable for everyone, age 8 to 80.”

Why not? Certainly the bikepath that stretches from Waipahu to Pearl Harbor in Leeward Oahu is a start. My friend agrees. How about the bikeway along University Avenue?

“A joke,” she says. The mayor’s trial bike lane along King Street? “He’s moving too slowly, but I admit I’m a bicycle anarchist.”

With that, she pedaled off into the night.