Bogota: How mobility can lead the way towards a sustainable, inclusive city
Earlier this year, the Colombian capital of Bogotá, home to more than 8 million residents, held its first Sustainable Mobility Week. The week highlighted various projects— like, for example, the city’s annual car-free day— initiated by Mayor Claudia López, and it brought together experts from around the world like Janette Sadik-Khan (formerly with the New York Department of Transportation) and Robin Chase (founder of Zippcar).
The busy, exciting week showed how Dutch transportation planning can be applied to achieve broader effects than just accessibility.
Caption: Melissa Bruntlett, Mobycon, and Niels van Oort, TU Delft
This article, written jointly by Melissa Bruntlett and Niels van Oort, was originally published by Verkeerskunde.nl on April 26, 2023. See the original article (in Dutch) here.
Bogotá is known as a textbook example of BRT (Bus Rapid Transit): high-speed, high-quality bus service with high frequencies and dedicated lanes. The Transmilenio system began in 2000 under the leadership of former Mayor Enrique Peñalosa, who promised to end the informal bus network and improve service. That he did. Ridership skyrocketed, and the service became much less dependent on public funds. The system has often been cited internationally to show that big cities can function without (expensive) metro systems.
However, the system has been on the decline for the past decade. Struggling under its own success, the strict BRT-formula is regularly abandoned. Although the potential capacity is large, the quality has declined, and congestion of both buses and people has become an issue. Despite many empty lanes (often two per direction), traffic jams of buses have become the norm. Every day, around 10,000 buses carrying 4,000,000 passengers ride through the city.
This congestion is one of the reasons for the mayor’s major mobility plan for Bogotá. The plan won’t replace the BRT system, but rather seeks to find an optimal mix of suitable transport modes and services that can meet the challenges faced by the city. These measures include cycling improvements, new metro lines, and more cable cars on the edges of the city with lots of informal housing.
It’s refreshing to see the mayor refuse to participate in the paradoxical bus vs. rail debate, but her clear vision of the goals she hopes to achieve with her mobility plan is even more inspiring. On top of accessibility, there are other, perhaps more important, issues. On average, four people die every day due to the poor air quality in the city caused by all the cars, motorcycles, and freight traffic. Moreover, inequality between different socioeconomic classes in the city is another huge problem.
As the first female mayor, López is also leading the struggle for gender equality, and she’s doing so passionately. Not only has she appointed women to the highest-ranking positions in her staff in the areas of mobility, housing, and environmental policy, but she also centers women in her projects. For example, La Rolita, a local bus company that operates an all-electric fleet, offers special trainings for women seeking to become bus drivers, as well as for administrative and managerial positions, paving the way towards a stable income, independence, and pride. Currently, 60% of the bus operators are women.
Near new transit stops, “Manzanas del Cuidado” (care centers) have appeared, providing 700,000 women living in poverty the chance to receive education and job training, as well as support in caring for children or elderly relatives. In this way, López is changing existing relationships and creating new role models for future generations.
Cycling in Bogotá: An inclusive transport option
When it comes to cycling, Bogotá is globally known for its Ciclovía (Car-free Sundays) – a weekly event where the streets fill with people of all ages on bicycles. The joyful event has inspired similar events in cities like Los Angeles and Mexico City. Celebrating its 50-year anniversary this year, Ciclovía was the catalyst to decades of building a network of over 600-kms for cycling. Sustainable Mobility Week celebrated Bogota’s ongoing success, sharing the plans of a further 499-kms, including 11 Alemedas Cycle, 84-kms of cycling pathways through park areas.
Bogotá’s cycling network is remarkable not only for its (growing) size, but also for its accessibility to people from all areas of the city, regardless of age, gender, or economic means. In the Northwest of the city, away from the historic centre and business districts, is the less affluent neighbourhood of Suba, where a bi-directional cycle track along Calle 139 Av Cali is filled with a constant stream of children, parents, and residents that is reminiscent of Vredenburg in Utrecht. In countless other areas of the city, too, you can see crowds of small business owners, teens, and young adults cycle to work, school, or to meet friends.
Cycling in Bogotá is a mobility option for everyone. It is not stigmatized as something just for recreation or commuting. Much like the Netherlands, cycling is one of several transport options that help people reach their destinations. As the City continues to struggle with vehicular and BRT congestion, it is a sustainable choice to improve air quality, reduce noise pollution, and create more welcome public spaces. The recent launch of the Tembici bike share scheme with 400 station offers even more opportunity, with a combination of standard bicycles, cargo bikes, and even hand-cycles. With many cities in the Global South looking for inspiration in a relatable context, Bogotá is a perfect example of is possible for cycling infrastructure.
Transportation as means to a bigger end
After five days spent touring Bogotá’s impressive transport networks, the importance of the investments in walking, cycling, public transport, and green spaces on the broader scale has become evident. Despite TransMilenio’s current challenges, it will continue to provide vital transit service for millions of residents and visitors, complemented by new metro lines, light rail, and cable cars. Regardless of age and socioeconomic status, cycling is a solution for shorter trips and for getting to and from transit. The current plans are aimed at clearing the way towards further growth, improving not only the quality of transportation, but also the quality of life.
The experience in Bogotá broadened our view of what transportation can be. When done well, it creates the bones for a system where car ownership is not the default, and where one’s age, gender, or income does not have to limit their access to the city. There are certainly challenges to be overcome for a city of 8-million people, and the stresses on the system will continue to grow.
Even after Mayor López’s term ends, much work will need to be done for Bogotá to meet future challenges like climate, economic unease, and continued population growth. But what the week has shown is that well-integrated networks of various transportation modes are not unique to the Netherlands, and we can learn from the broad perspective taken by Mayor López and her zeal to do good for her city and residents through the creation of a sustainable mobility system.
‘I believe that to create cities that work for every one, you have to tell a great story. Promoting multi-modal transportation to a mainstream audience means sharing the stories of the people who benefit from making communities more walkable and bikeable, and showing what is possible if we rethink the way we design our streets and public spaces. I strive to inspire people to create places where children can flourish, and where the simple act of moving through their city is a safe, simple, and enjoyable act.’