January 31, 2009

If Bogota Can Do It, Surely We Can

Till a few years ago, Bogota, the capital of Colombia (a Latin American country that has been the scene of much civil unrest for over half a century), and its nearly seven million inhabitants had a quality of life no better than that of large sections of the lower middle class and the poor in urban India. Yet, beginning 1998, Mayor Enrique Peñalosa, over a three-year period, created what has been often called ‘nothing short of a miracle’. And it is a miracle that can happen in any city across the world!

The changes introduced focused on an entire overhaul of the city, recreated on one strong principle – ‘Respect for human life and dignity’ – and on developing a city that gave importance to people, NOT cars. A citywide street development programme that included wide, high quality pedestrian paths, a 300-km network of bicycle tracks and routes, and restricted parking was embarked upon. Most importantly, a low cost, but high quality, public transit system was introduced. Poor areas were prioritised. Redevelopment of poor neighbour­hoods included urban land reform to develop formal low income housing; high quality infrastructure for education such as public schools and libraries; and recreational spaces for children, such as outdoor sports centres and play zones.

A critical relook at the objective of the transport policy reveals its emphasis: to provide efficient mobility for all OR to minimise traffic jams for the higher income groups.

Key issues addressed in the transport sector:

  * Investments in infrastructure to reduce peak-hour traffic jams are regressive.
* The only solution is public transport, not just for those with lower incomes, but for everybody.
* Quality public transport is necessary, but not sufficient; restriction of private vehicle use is a must.
* Quality public pedestrian space cannot be considered a frivolity. When malls replace public space as a meeting place for people, it is a symptom that a city is ill!
* More than sidewalks or ­bicycle paths, the city built symbols of equality and respect for human dignity. (More than 300 kms of bike paths built has meant that cycle riders increased from 0.3% to 5% of the population.)

So was designed Bogotá’s best known export to the rest of world, the TransMilenio Bus Rapid Transit System, a modern system with 400 articulated buses supported by a fleet of small feeders. Operations started in late 2000 and carried 800,000 passengers per day. Since then, the system has been expanded to 82 km and handles 1.4 million passenger trips per day. Eventually the system will have a network of 388 km, will provide convenient access to 85% of the population (85% of the area of the city will be within 500 metres of the trunk system, and the rest by short-distance feeder systems) and handle around 5.5 million passenger trips a day.

Important lessons learnt:

  * More than voting, the essence of democracy is the prevalence of the public good over private interests.
* The way we build our cities and organise city life can be a powerful tool for constructing a more egalitarian and integrated society.
* As there are environmental impact studies for projects, there should be human impact studies.

Providing key inputs for what Bogotá is today has been the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), New York. Since then, it has supported, directly and indirecty, the continuity of the programme including technical support to TransMilenio. And Peñalosa, now on the Board of ITDP, is a key ally in promoting the idea of transforming cities in the developing world!

Shreya Gadepalli, Senior Programme Director, ITDP, says, “Over the last 80 years we have been making cities much more for car mobility than for children’s happiness. It is important to realise that transport is not a technical, but a political issue. Different from other challenges such as health or education, urban transport does not improve with economic development. We need to be clear about the kind of city we want, in order to design an urban transport system. If a city is good for children and old people, by themselves, it will be good for everybody else!” In India, ITDP has provided technical support to several Indian cities interested in promoting Bus Rapid Transit since 2002. Since 2005, it has been providing technical support to the Ahmadabad BRT project, and works closely with CEPT University and Ahmadabad Municipal Corporation (AMC).

‘This place is beyond remedy. No one can do anything about it’, was what was said about Bogotá in the 1990s. In an astonishingly short time the citizens’ image of their city and their relationship to it changed dramatically. Recently, the people of Bogotá even voted positively in a referendum asking whether they wanted ALL cars off the streets every week-day between 6 AM and 9 AM and between 4:30 PM and 7:30 PM from January 2015 onwards!

Bogota is today seen as a great example of sustainable development, a city that embraces equality, sustainability and a happier way of being. And the wonderful thing is, this kind of change is possible in our own cities too if we only change our mindsets. But how many of us want it enough to make it happen is the question?

NOTE: This article is based on a paper presented by Shreya Gadepalli, Director, ITDP, New York, at the recent conclave ‘Utopia and the City’.

To view the original posting, click here:
If Bogota Can Do It, Surely We Can

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