Tom Eblen

How to improve Lexington? Redesign it for 8-year-olds and 80-year-olds.

After rendering of a section of Town Branch Commons along Vine Street near Rose Street in downtown Lexington, featuring a sidewalk and separate bike lane.
After rendering of a section of Town Branch Commons along Vine Street near Rose Street in downtown Lexington, featuring a sidewalk and separate bike lane. SCAPE

The problem with most cities is that they are designed for cars instead of people. And even when they are designed for people, it is rarely the people they should be designed for.

Lexington is a typical example, according to Guillermo “Gil” Peñalosa, an influential city design consultant who spent the past week here as a guest of the Town Branch Commons project.

“I think it’s clear that walking, cycling and public transit in Lexington have a lot to improve,” Peñalosa said in an interview. “The perception is that the city has invited the people to drive and people are driving. Very wide roads. And the city has not invited people to walk, to bike and to use public transit. So very few walk, bike and take public transit.”

Town Branch Commons will be a downtown linear park with Lexington’s first protected urban bikeway, which will connect with the Legacy and Town Branch trails. It also will include a privately funded park beyond Rupp Arena on what is now a huge parking lot. Peñalosa, chair of the World Urban Parks Association, is advising the Town Branch Fund.

Peñalosa had a busy week in Lexington, meeting with city and University of Kentucky officials, including Mayor Jim Gray and President Eli Capilouto. He spoke to the Rotary Club, city employees, young professionals and senior citizens. And he quickly got a pretty accurate grasp on Lexington, its strengths and weaknesses.

“I think there are some interesting things happening, but I also think a lot more could be happening,” he said, noting that local leaders seem to lack a sense of urgency about change.

Peñalosa first became famous for city innovations in his hometown of Bogota, Colombia, where his brother, Enrique, has been mayor for many years. Remember Lexington’s popular Second Sunday program, where a downtown street was closed one afternoon a month for people to walk, bike and play? Peñalosa created the concept in Bogota, and it has spread around the world.

Peñalosa now lives in Toronto, Canada, and wears many hats. One is as head of 8 80 Cities, a non-profit group he founded. Its philosophy is that if cities are designed for the safety and usability of its most vulnerable citizens, they will work for everyone.

“What if everything we did had to be great for an 8-year-old and an 80-year-old?” he said. “Not 8-to-80, but 8 and 80 as indicator species. If it’s good for the 8-year-old and good for the 80-year-old, it’s going to be good for everybody from zero to 100.

“We need to stop building cities as if everyone were 30 years old and athletic,” he added. “And I think in many ways Lexington is built that way. It’s not an easy city for 8-year-olds or 80-year-olds to walk or to bike. But it’s doable. The size of the city is such that it could be.”

A lot could be done here to increase walking, biking and the use of public transportation without huge cost, he said. The benefits would include reducing traffic congestion and improving public health in a city where the obesity rate has skyrocketed in recent decades.

One key problem in Lexington: there are few benches along sidewalks for pedestrians to rest (most likely because authorities fear homeless people will use them).

“Older adults will not walk if there are no benches, because they want to make sure if they get tired after two or three blocks they can sit, rest and do another two or three blocks,” he said.

Another problem is a public transit system that needs more frequency and connectivity. It also needs more dignity, such as removing advertising from bus windows, which also would improve safety.

“People think the public transit is only for the poor people,” he said, and until that perception changes many people in Lexington will avoid riding buses.

It is good that bicycle lanes have been painted on some streets, Peñalosa said. But the city should take the next step, which would not be expensive, to put up plastic posts along those lines on some key routes to create protected lanes. That would encourage more people to make short trips by bicycle they now do in cars.

But the most important thing Lexington could do is to slow down the speed of traffic in many urban areas and residential neighborhoods. That would reduce traffic deaths and injuries and encourage more people to safely walk and bike.

Peñalosa’s ideas make sense — and they work. I saw that firsthand recently when I helped lead a group of Transylvania University students on a 200-mile bicycle tour of Holland. I saw many strategies there that would work well in Lexington. I’ll write more about that soon.

Tom Eblen: 859-231-1415, @tomeblen