Bogotá's green revolution

Posted: 4 August 2005

Half the world now lives in cities and two-thirds of its population, mainly from developing countries, are set to become urban dwellers by 2030. In facing up to this reality, former mayor of the Colombian capital of Bogotá, Enrique Peñalosa, describes how a green revolution is helping to transform this developing country city into a more liveable place, providing a better quality of life for its residents.

Developing country cities, which will double or treble their built area during the next few decades, have an opportunity to create better human environments than existing ones. These environments, fertile for happiness, would attract and retain highly qualified and creative people and thus promote economic development.

In our post-communist age, the way cities are created and organised can build on social inclusion and equality in the quality of life. A different urban model can be created, adopting - as a guiding rule - a basic democratic principle: the prevalence of public good over private interest.

Bicycles rule in Bogotá.© Chicago Critical Mass

Although Bogotá - where I was mayor from 1998 to 2001 - is still far from being a model, we and others were able quickly and radically to transform the attitudes of its citizens towards their city, prioritising people's happiness over cars' mobility.

Car crunch

As developing country cities become more economically developed, the automobile becomes the main source of deterioration of the quality of life. Wide, high-velocity roads, dangerous to cross, become like fences in a cow pasture, separating neighbourhoods and making the city less humane.

Children are kept enclosed at home, in fear of motor vehicles, and can only go out unaccompanied when they really cease to be children. Often there are no sidewalks. Even when there are, parking bays are carved out of them, or cars simply park on them in a symbolic ritual that illustrates society's inequality: members of the car-owning minority are first-class citizens, pedestrians are not.

If car use is not restricted, it demands unlimited investments in road infrastructure which devour scarce public funds that should instead go to water and sewage supply, schools, parks and meeting the other basic needs of the poor. Road infrastructure also facilitates migration of upper-income groups to low-density suburbs, making it impossible to provide quality, low-cost, high frequency public transport. As traffic worsens, decisions may be made to invest in extremely expensive rail systems instead of taking road space away from private vehicles for quality bus systems to transport people to work. These dent public finances still more profoundly and thus impede solving the needs of the poor even further.

Public management

Bogotá began by instituting responsible public management - which meant reducing bureaucracy, increasing tax revenues and privatising some government tasks such as garbage collection. Essential needs for human survival, such as water supply, were met through efficient non-politicised utilities management and cross-subsidies, charging those with higher incomes much higher rates than the poor. Almost half of Bogotá, a city of seven million people at 2,600 metres altitude, grew spontaneously and illegally, often on mountain slopes that are hard to reach. Yet 99 per cent of the population now have clean water on tap at home.

Slum improvement, with high community participation, was made a priority. Improvements included property titles; quality nurseries and schools; parks; and public spaces proposed, designed and built by communities financed by the municipality but contracted with community organisations.

The goal, however, must be not to improve slums, but to avoid them. In Bogotá we created a city-owned company that acquires land around the city and urbanises it well. Large parcels of land are assigned to private developers who are given a maximum of two years to build and sell houses at low pre-arranged prices. Most land around cities should be part of land banks, assuring low-cost housing in quality urban environments so as to avoid slums.

Pedal power

We went beyond meeting the basics of survival by creating a different model from the one presented by advanced cities. Car use was restricted, with 40 per cent of them forced to be off the streets during six peak hours every day. We explicitly said that peak-hour traffic jams were not a problem, but a useful tool to promote high-density urban development and the use of public transport. In response to a referendum, the first Thursday in February each year was decreed to be car-free, with everybody having to get to work by public transport, bicycles or on foot. Tens of thousands of cars - which used to park on bays carved out of sidewalks - were removed, and hundreds of kilometres of wide, well-lit tree-lined sidewalks were built.

Since 1982 the main streets of Bogotá have been closed to traffic on Sundays so that cyclists and joggers can enjoy them. We extended the closures to 120 kilometres of roads for seven hours: every Sunday more than 1.5 million people come out to use them. More than 350 kilometres of protected bicycle ways were built; as a result bicycling rose from almost nothing to 4.1 per cent of the city's population. It goes beyond numbers. A low-income helmeted cyclist riding on a protected bikeway symbolises that a citizen on a US$30 bicycle is as important as one in a US$30,000 automobile.

Urban highways costing hundreds of millions of dollars, proposed by a Japanese agency, were rejected. A 32-kilometre greenway with bikeways was put alongside a creek where one of them was to have been built; it linked low- and high-income neighbourhoods and served as a daily transport corridor for tens of thousands of bicyclists. Similarly a 15-metre-wide tree-lined pedestrian street, 17 kilometres long, was built through low-income neighbourhoods in another part of the city. The goal is to create a pedestrian-and-bicycle-only network hundreds of kilometres long, which will make the city more pleasant and humane.

Rapid transit

We rejected costly rail systems, and instead put in operation a Bus Rapid Transit system, inspired by one successfully pioneered in Curitiba, Brazil. We called it TransMilenio, to avoid the negative connotations of buses. It is boarded at stations with doors opening as the buses arrive: it is accessible for wheel chairs, and it provides speeds and capacities similar to rail systems. It moves more than one million passengers daily - and more passengers per kilometre/hour than most rail systems. Other lines will soon be in operation and, by 2020, 85 per cent of the then nine million strong city population will live within 500 metres of a station.

TransMilenio bus system© Peter Danielsson/WRI
TransMilenio bus system© Peter Danielsson/WRI
TransMilenio bus system© Peter Danielsson/WRI

A referendum proposing the banning of all private car use during the peak morning and afternoon hours, beginning in 2015, achieved a majority vote - but failed to achieve the 33.3 per cent voter participation needed to become mandatory. However this continues to be a goal for many of us concerned with our city's future.

If safe mobility for those not having a motor vehicle is a right, the providing of quality sidewalks and protected bicycle-ways on all roads is not an option, but a basic element of democracy.

Restricting car use and creating a more pedestrian-friendly city is an end in itself. But it also frees resources that would otherwise be spent on constructing and maintaining road infrastructure. In Bogotá this allowed us to build a formidable number of quality nurseries, schools, libraries and parks.

Green spaces

Some question the importance of public pedestrian spaces in a poor developing city with many unmet needs. Yet it is precisely in such societies that they are most important. During work time a high-level executive and the lowest paid employee are equally satisfied; they meet work companions, do useful tasks. It is when they leave work that enormous differences arise.

Upper-income persons go to large homes, often with gardens, and have access to clubs, country houses, vacations, restaurants, and concerts. But low-income citizens and their children have no leisure time alternative to television - except for public pedestrian spaces. So providing quality ones must be high on the agenda of a democratic government.

With economic development lower-income groups get goods which once seemed inaccessible to them, such as cell-phones, televisions, audio equipment. But they will never have access to green spaces unless governments act judiciously. Governments must make sure a large reserve of parkland is created, and should never allow waterfronts to be private and exclusive.

Public space is also space for equality. When different people meet, they are usually separated by their hierarchies, such as when the apartment owner meets the doorman and the Financial Vice-President meets the woman who serves coffee. But in public space everyone meets as equals: this is particularly powerful in highly unequal developing societies. A good city must have at least one great public space - one so marvellous that it is frequented even by the rich. By contrast, a city is sick when shopping malls replace public space as the place to meet, and when tourists are referred to them when they ask for a place to go to walk and see people.

Most developing country cities are not constructing quality environments. Many have no vision of their future: too many of those which believe they do, only unquestioningly envisage a version of a traditional advanced city. Bogotá suffers from most of the ills that affect developing cities. We have not yet solved all our problems, achieved a new vision, or even been freed from the risk of a relapse to the traditional model. But at least we began discussing some fundamentals.

Enrique Peñalosa is a former mayor of Bogotá. He is now a consultant on developing world cities.

Source: Third World Network Features (no. 2839/05). The above article originally appeared in Our Planet (Vol. 16 No. 1), the magazine of the United Nations Environment Programme.

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