Bikes and Buses in Bogotá

Bogota, Colombia keeps coming up in my cycling research when it comes to sustainable urban development. It seems a lot of people are and have been concerned about the extreme congestion and pollution in the city–the road system was not built to handle the 1.5 million cars that were on Bogota’s streets in 2009. It seems to be another place where a car is valued as the ideal mode of transportation, both a sign of status and an efficient way to get around. A car for everyone! To maintain this ideal is to doom our cities to ever-increasing congestion and pollution. More cars, more highways = less walkability, bikeability, livability.

Former Bogota mayor, Enrique Peñalosa, dreams of a transportation revolution where buses, bikes, and pedestrians rule the day.  According to the WWF, “Peñalosa rejected a proposed city beltway, and began building a 300+ km bicycle network instead. He used saved and remediated land for parks, playgrounds, libraries, schools, and sports areas. To solve transportation bottlenecks, the city began limiting car-use with a number-plate regulation, and set up a high-capacity BRT system (TransMilenio Bus Rapid Transit).” This TransMilenio system is being used as a model for cities around the world (see video and commentary below).

He and his brother were also responsible for expanding Colombia’s ‘Ciclovia,’ which first began in Colombia in the 1970s (the first of anywhere in the world!). Imagine a full day of car-free streets, where roads are instead dedicated entirely to bicycling and walking. It’s a movement that started in Bogota and has been spreading to cities all around the world. Every single Sunday and holiday, 100 km of Bogota’s streets are closed to cars. Imagine taking that initiative beyond the weekly day of leisure…

Penalosa’s dream, as articulated in this TED talk, is that there are greenways with bicycle highways in all parts of his city, that every other street is dedicated solely to walking or biking, and that streets exist only for buses. In this car-dominated city, this may be a pipe dream, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be working towards and advocating for these types of streets. How we move will define our future sustainability, and building more and more highways to accommodate more and more personal motorized vehicles is not the way to increase liveability in a city. It’s bad for congestion and for public health. I love his argument in this TED talk that “an advanced city is not one where even the poor use cars, but rather one where even the rich use public transport,” argues Enrique Peñalosa.

The key part of this transportation initiative is the mulit-modal emphasisThe revolutionary Transmilenio bus rapid transit system is incredibly efficient and, importantly, is tied to the the network of bike paths throughout the city. “For transportation, it’s really important to integrate transportation means,”  Eduardo Plata told the videographers of Streetfilms.org. For that reason, they have secure bike parking INSIDE the bus station. And for every 20 people who bike to the Transmilenio bus station to hop on the efficient red buses, that’s one less feeder bus they need to send around the city to bring to the larger Transmilenio bus stations. This video made by StreetFilms highlights the initially successful Transmilenio bus rapid transit system implemented in 2000.

Before you watch, though, it should be noted that the work of any public transportation system–even good ones–is never done. There were protests over the system in 2012 because, to name a few of many reasons, expansions aren’t being implemented fast enough, because there isn’t enough funding to deal with existing issues and speed up the expansion, and because many people in the city want a metro system that would be much more expensive and time-consuming to build and implement than this bus rapid transit system.

Bus Rapid Transit: Bogotá from Streetfilms on Vimeo.

While there has been a lot of emphasis on the public transportation bus system, I’m very interested in the bicycle initiatives. The recent Biciciudades report by the Interamerican Development Bank highlights Bogota’s Ciclovia and ranks the city as the more bikefriendly cities in Latin America. (Read the report here). Also worth paying attention to- just this past September, The Guardian highlighted local think tanks and community organizations working actively to increase cycling and cycling safety in Bogota.

La Ciudad Verde:

La Ciudad Verde members identify places in the city where cycle lanes don’t join up (of which there are plenty) and using social media bring citizens together to paint the connecting lanes themselves. The activity usually attracts plenty of local media coverage and ultimately has caught the attention of the city authorities, who have responded positively and offered to work with La Ciudad Verde.

“We empower people to change cities with their own hands,” says Carlos Cadena Gaitán, a member of La Ciudad Verde (The Green City)  an activist think tank born in Medellin, but now active in Colombia’s three main cities.

Mejor en Bici

Also, if you understand Spanish well, here’s this well-stated argument…. that I can only partially understand:

NOTE: This blog post has been updated on August 27, 2014 to reflect the fact that Colombia’s ciclovias went back to the 1970s; Penalosa wasn’t the one to first implement them.

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