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