Bogotá-Gate

Step aside Jack Abramoff. In the pantheon of palm-greasing, backslapping political fixers, you’re a pale imitation of Gil Peñalosa.

bag_check.jpgSources say that a recent bag search at JFK revealed contraband including planning notes, renderings and other "big ideas" from "somewhere else."

Peñalosa is the head of a group based in Mississauga, Ontario called "Walk and Bike for Life," a non-profit dedicated to raising awareness of "the benefits of walking and cycling as activities and of urban parks and trails as great places." Sources place Peñalosa at the center of an international ring of transportation and planning professionals trafficking in ideas to make cities safer, livelier, more sustainable, and less choked with gridlock.

Through a complex network spanning at least four continents, Peñalosa funnels innovations from one city to the next. Formerly the parks commissioner of Bogotá, Colombia — where his brother, Enrique, is known as the godfather of "Bus Rapid Transit" — Peñalosa is the mastermind behind the "Mexico City hop," an intellectual property route whereby Latin American BRT cartels reach massive North American markets with an unslakeable thirst for surface transit improvements.

The appetite for transportation innovations steers product in myriad directions. When New York City produced a bumper crop of pedestrian plazas in fiscal year 2008, Penalosa whisked the city transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, on a coach flight to Toronto for a debriefing session with local government officials. (New York City has also served as global headquarters for Wall Street investment firms, Bernard L. Madoff, and David Berkowitz, so, you know, draw your own conclusions.)

Meeting minutes show that the group discussed "planning for pedestrians." Expense records obtained from Walk and Bike for Life reveal that Sadik-Khan was plied with free coffee and hot water for the purpose of steeping tea, which was provided gratis in little bags. According to a source who attended the session, she went with Earl Grey.

When reached for comment, Peñalosa initially had trouble recalling the meeting, then admitted that the transaction of ideas and strategies "all went according to plan."

In the real world, here’s what actually happened…

I spoke to Gil Peñalosa today and he told me that Sadik-Khan’s airfare and lodging for the one-day junket were funded by a grant from the Ministry of Health Promotion, an agency of Ontario’s provincial government. At a midday event hosted by Rob MacIsaacs, chair of Toronto’s regional transportation agency, Metrolinx, Sadik-Khan addressed a crowd of more than 200 transportation and planning professionals. Afterward, at a one-hour meeting with Toronto Mayor David Miller, Peñalosa says there was a good deal of "sharing ideas in both directions." In the evening, Ontario Health Minister Margarett Best hosted a public event at which Sadik-Khan spoke and drew another crowd numbering in the hundreds. Admission was free. There were "no professional fees, no parties, no drinks," said Penalosa, because in Ontario, "we’re very boring people."

"It was work, work, work, work all the time," Peñalosa said of the trip. "People are still talking about it. New York is doing a lot of innovative things, and it’s good to learn from other cities. There are many, many cities paying attention to what is happening in New York."

So, in all seriousness: Michael Barbaro, New York Times editors — what were you thinking?

  • Jason A

    Of all the malfeasance that goes on in government (Albany!), this is what the New York Times chooses to “expose?”

  • Geck

    The Gray Lady looks a bit ridiculous from where I am sitting.

  • Is there a city commissioner who doesn’t do this?

  • vnm

    Big Walking flexes its muscles again!

  • fdr

    “Is there a city commissioner who doesn’t do this?”
    Most city commissioners probably charge it all to the taxpayers.

  • In Portland, the Mayor and a crew went overseas for about a week to study what was going on in other countries.

    It happens in any city trying to learn positive policies from other cities. Mayor Bloomberg himself went down to check out light rail in Miami. Ray LaHood our U.S. Transpo commissioner is currently on a tour of American cities.

    What is the NY Times thinking? Why not investigate the millions of dollars in campaign contributions from auto companies – two of which just got one of the biggest bailouts in history? I’d love to see something on that.

  • Very funny piece. The picture reminds me of the time I was caught at the airport metal detector with a bicycle pump in my bag. They made me throw it out . . .

  • FLP

    @ Bicycles. . . you got caught!? i recently boarded a transatlantic flight unknowingly packing my bike multi-tool, pump, long wrench and a pair of tire irons without getting caught. i was truly amazed!

  • @vnm,

    Hilarious!

    The Times has yet to editorialize against the MTA’s giveaway of tens, if not hundreds, of MILLIONS to Bruce Ratner, but they write this story? Amazing.

  • Larry Littlefield

    When I worked for City Planning I used my own car to do surveys and didn’t put in for reimbursement. Too much hassle, and somehow they could always use it against you. God help you if you do anything in government. But if you do nothing? NO PROBLEM!

    In government, you have gotchas over nickels and billions walk out the door, with the state legislature voting 212 to 0, all payable in a future no one cares about, because the people who matter would be gone.

  • This “controversy” and the mildly-worded article about it are the biggest (smallest?) non-issue Streetsblog has ever dedicated two posts to.

  • Alex Marshall

    The larger story here is why is the city requiring or encouraging its top officials to get private groups to pay for travel? A top commissioner like Sadik-Khan should be able to travel to wherever to do her job well. People always want government to act more like business. A top business would never make a top official go through such penny-pinching.

  • Bogotá, Colombia has received lots of attention for its progressive transit policies, including those promoting cycling. Those things are true. But Colombia is also a very frustrating place to be a cyclist or a cycling advocate. For more info and commentary, see:

    Mike’s Bogotá Bike Blog

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