Bogotá designs transportation for people, not cars

Posted: 17 February 2003

Author: Curtis Runyan

When Enrique Peñalosa became mayor of Bogotá, Colombia in 1998, he asked a question that is changing the way people all over the world think about cities: "In Bogotá, where 85 per cent of the people do not use cars for their daily transport, is it fair that cars occupy most of the space on the streets?"

The answers he came up with have reshaped Bogotá, home to 7 million people, into a city so easy to negotiate by public transportation that people actually voted in favour of outlawing cars in the city during rush hour by 2015. In just a few short years, the city has become a success story that cities around the world - from Mexico City to Shanghai - are aiming to copy.

Bicycles rule in Bogotá.© Chicago Critical Mass

Booming population

For decades Bogotá has been inundated by urban problems typical of a major city in a developing country. Pollution from cars and buses shroud the city, much of it trapped by the surrounding mountains. The city's population has boomed-more than 140,000 people move to Bogotá each year. About half of them immigrate from the countryside, many displaced by Colombia's civil strife. Rampant crime and corruption have hampered past reform efforts. Rising incomes have lead to more cars and more gridlock. About 70,000 new cars hit the roads in this old colonial city every year.

"Once everyone could afford to have a car, no one could get anywhere because of the traffic," said Peñalosa, who is now a visiting scholar at New York University. Traffic congestion and transport is a major problem in Latin America, the most urbanized region in the world. More than 75 per cent of its people live in cities. Mexico City, Sao Paolo, Brazil, and Buenos Aires, Argentina rank among the world's 10 largest cities.

After taking office Peñalosa implemented a number of simple measures designed to make living in the city easier. He built schools, paved roads, ran sewers to poor neighborhoods, repaired parks, and instituted policies to restrict automobiles. "At first, I was almost impeached for getting cars off sidewalks," he said.

But Peñalosa pressed ahead with his transportation reforms. And as the city became easier to navigate, support for his efforts grew. The city built 70 miles of bicycle routes and closed several streets to cars and converting them into pedestrian malls. More drastically, the city began to restrict car use during rush hour, banning each car in the city from the downtown area 2 days a week, based on the license plate number. The results were dramatic: the average commute time dropped by 21 minutes, and pollution was reduced significantly.

Transport triumph

And then came the TransMilenio. The city had been debating a multi-billion dollar subway system for decades. But Peñalosa decided to copy the significantly cheaper rapid transit bus system that had turned Curitiba, Brazil into a model city for effective public transportation.

The initial $350 million, 38 kilometre TransMilenio system was up and running in less than two years. The buses, running in separate lanes down the center of the city's main arteries, are able to carry 780,000 people a day at an average speed of 26 kilometres per hour - considerably outpacing cars and private buses. Estimates have found that the system saves people an average of 300 hours of commuting time annually.

TransMilenio bus system© Peter Danielsson/WRIUnlike expensive subways or elevated trains, the TransMilenio actually runs at a profit. And the city plans to add a number of new lines to the system by 2015, so that 85 per cent of residents will live within 500 meters of a bus station.

Not only is Bogotá now easier to travel around, Peñalosa's reforms have helped make the city considerably safer. Since 1998, crime rates have dropped dramatically. For instance, seven years ago there were 84 homicides per 100,000 people; today the rate has dropped to 30. In comparison, Washington, DC had 52 homicides per 100,000 people in 2002.

"The transformation in Bogotá is providing important cues for other cities around the world," said Dr. Lee Schipper, co-director of EMBARQ, the World Resources Institute's Center for Transport and the Environment. "The growth of population in cities has outpaced all attempts to provide for roads, mass transit, and other forms of public transport."

Three years ago, 14 of the world's 19 megacities (cities with populations of more than 10 million) were in developing countries. And that number is rapidly increasing as developing-country cities are expected to receive most of the world's population growth in the next quarter century.

There are already about 292 cities in the developing world with populations of more than a million. These cities are not only saddled with the problem of how to move their people around, but also how to reduce air pollution. Transport is the primary source of air pollution in Latin America and third in Asia.

Peñalosa attributes his success in Bogotá to focusing on improving the lot of people, not their cars. "All over the developing world resources are used to help the affluent avoid traffic jams rather than mobilizing the entire population," he says. People ask him why this is not done everywhere, if it is so simple and inexpensive. "I tell them the only issue is a political one. They don't want to take space from cars and give it to buses, bicyclists, and pedestrians," Peñalosa said.

Curtis Runyan ()is the managing editor of WRI Features, a monthly international news features service on environment and development issues.