Car wars: learning from Bogota

Posted: 28 March 2003

Author: John Whitelegg

Traffic accidents are killing millions in the developing world - but there is a solution from which the west should learn.

There may be plenty of transport problems in Britain, but the world's transport crisis has reached such catastrophic proportions that road traffic accidents now kill more people each year than malaria.

By 2030, it is predicted, 2.5 million people will be killed on the roads of developing countries each year and 60 million people will be injured. Even now, 3,000 people are killed and 30,000 seriously injured on the world's roads every day.

Traffic congestion, Bangkok, Thailand© Hartmut Schwarzbach/Still PicturesAir pollution from traffic claims 400,000 lives each year, mostly in developing countries, and some 1.5 billion people are exposed every day to levels of pollution well in excess of World Health Organisation recommended levels. Particulate pollution and levels of cancer-causing pollutants have already damaged the health of hundreds of millions of children. This will follow them through to later life and directly affect their economic potential and the health budgets of already strained national administrations.

Car deaths

More and more research finds that the problems of the world's poor are multiplied by the car. The deaths and injuries take place mainly in developing countries and mainly to pedestrians, cyclists, bus users and children. The poor suffer disproportionately; they experience the worst air pollution and are deprived of education, health, water and sanitation programmes because the needs of the car now soak up so much national income. Road transport absorbs massive public investments for building and maintenance.

In short, the car has become an instrument of oppression in developing countries as national budgets are hijacked to cope with the demands of car users.

The inexorable rise of the car and the lorry in these countries produces problems totally out of scale with the numbers of people owning cars. Most of the air pollution in Asian cities comes from traffic, yet only a very small proportion of the population owns a car. In Calcutta, more than 1,000 pedestrians are killed each year, and air pollution is 10 times worse than the worst conditions in any European city. In Nairobi, 4,000 pedestrians are killed each year. And in both cities car ownership and use is growing at more than 20 per cent a year, with little effort made to protect those not in cars.

Advances in vehicle, engine and fuel technology are of little relevance in Asian and African cities, where the growth of car and lorry numbers is dramatic and where highly polluting diesel and two-stroke engine vehicles are the norm.

Bicycles for Bogota

Yet one city in the developing world has broken the vicious circle of transport growth, poverty, pollution and inequality and has turned transport policy upside down to benefit the poor and reward the pedestrian.

In Bogota, Colombia, Enrique Penalosa, the mayor from 1998-2001, held a referendum and reallocated transport budgets to improve the quality of life for the poorest. The results were staggering. The city embarked on an intensive programme of building cycling and pedestrian-only routes, including a car-free route, 17km long, connecting some of the poorest parts of the city with the facilities they need to access, including jobs. Parks were built on derelict land, canals cleaned up and car-free days implemented. In October 2000, the citizens of Bogota voted in favour of excluding cars from the city in the morning and afternoon peaks from 2005.

TransMilenio bus system© Peter Danielsson/WRIPenalosa introduced a car numberplate system that required 40 per cent of the cars to be off the roads during peak hours on two days a week, and this produced a reduction in pollution. More than 80 miles of main roads are now closed for seven hours every Sunday and, each week, up to 2m people come out to enjoy the clean air, the freedom and the safe environment. On one weekday in 2002, a car-free day was set up and 7m people went to work without a car. In a subsequent poll, 82 per cent supported the concept.

Affordable transport

Bogota's approach is based on creating an equal and vibrant city where no one need fear the oppression that pervades so many other developing countries' transport systems. Penalosa wanted a reliable and free-moving bus system that was affordable and that used road space on the surface. An underground or metro, he reasoned, was simply too expensive for a poor country and, in any case, was supported only by rich people because it keeps intact as much road space as possible. Now the buses carry more than half a million people every day, are reliable and affordable, and give the poorest groups in Bogota as much accessibility to jobs and facilities as the rich have. The bus system also covers its cost and makes a profit while every metro in the world swallows up huge subsidies, which are further losses from health education and sanitation programmes.

Traditional transport policies simply do not work for the poor - whether in Colombia or Britain. Western countries can learn from experiences such as this and we should stop sending our transport consultants to developing countries. We need the radical approach pioneered in Colombia, with its emphasis on equality, democracy, openness and citizen participation - especially of women, the elderly, children and those who walk, cycle and travel on buses.

Britain has so far failed to do this, but there is still time to encourage a people-centred approach in developing countries. It can only work, however, if we "put our money where our mouth is" in Britain and reduce our car use dramatically and then use our influence with the World Bank, the US and Japanese governments and all lending banks to stop peddling the disastrous and failed model of western motorisation in developing countries. It did not work for us - and now it is killing millions of them.

John Whitelegg, a research leader at the Stockholm Environment Institute, University of York, co-edited the Earthscan Reader in World Transport Policy and Practice (£19.95). (March 26, 2003) © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003. Reproduced with kind permission. All rights reserved.See also: