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Bogota crowdsources better transport

ENVIRONMENT

When Colombian community leader Veronica Fonseca raised her hand to speak at a meeting hosted by Bogota’s mayor, she never expected her ideas on improving transport in the capital would be included in the city’s plans.


Fonseca, 52, told a forum convened by the city last year that her hilltop neighbourhood, almost 3,000 metres above downtown Bogota, needed better transport links, suggesting a cablecar to ferry residents. “I’d seen cablecar lines working in other areas of the city and I told the mayor that’s what our community needs too,” she said at the time.


When officials added her suggestion to their plans, “I felt included. I never imagined my ideas would be taken into account,” she told Golden Times.


Fonseca is one of 50,000 residents who have contributed to plans to redesign a 23-km, car-choked major thoroughfare through the capital. Most had their say in dozens of meetings, online or through door-to-door surveys carried out by the city. Adding virtual forums at the burrough-level, it’s estimated just over 115,000 people were involved in the process. Overwhelmingly, they shared their “deep interest” in trees, and relying on bicycling, walking, skates and skateboards to get about.


The Carrera Séptima (Seventh Street) Green Corridor initiative is a flagship project of Bogota’s first female mayor, Claudia Lopez, and aims to better integrate the city’s transport network, part of a broader effort to cut pollution. She and other officials see shifting residents towards low-carbon travel as a key pillar of the city’s climate and development strategy.


In Bogota city and surrounds (pop. 11 million), transport accounts for nearly half of all air pollution. To reduce it, the city is expanding bike lanes and pedestrian paths, using more electric buses and extending the reach of electric cablecars — some partly solar-powered — that serve poorer areas in the city’s south.


Many of the ideas have come from residents, whose views were collected and prioritised as a core part of the US$620 million Carrera Séptima.


Juan Pablo Caicedo, who heads the initiative, says the city “listened a lot” to a diverse range of city dwellers, partly through an open-source online platform that allowed people to submit their ideas by editing and adding to draft plans. The effort ultimately drew 7,000 proposals from citizens, some as young as 10-years-old.


Greening the city’s transport remains one of Bogota’s biggest challenges. With no nationwide railway system, food and other goods are mainly transported by trucks traversing Colombia’s high Andean mountains. But efforts to get truck drivers and private bus companies to switch to greener options continues to spark “heated debate”, admits Carolina Urrutia, the city’s environment secretary. Numerous attempts by previous mayors to rid Bogota of old polluting buses have met with strikes and street protests by bus and driver groups, and ultimately the city has backed down.


Now, officials are providing incentives to get rid of old polluting buses, with the city in some cases buying them. “This is a political battle that others have lost in the past, and it’s one we can’t lose this time,” Urrutia says.


Bogota is also boosting its electric bus fleet, says Felipe Ramirez, who heads the city’s Transmilenio bus system. Bogota now has about 350 electric buses circulating, used by about 180,000 people a day. It plans to roll out 1,485 such buses by 2022, which would give it the largest city fleet outside China, he adds.


“Despite the pandemic, we’re on schedule,” says Ramirez, showing off a newly-built charging station near the airport, its parking bays blissfully quiet compared to the typical bus terminal. The city’s electric bus fleet is equivalent to taking 42,000 cars off the road each year, he notes, and offers phone-charging and free wi-fi.


The other part of the initiative is bike riding. Even before the pandemic, Bogota was crisscrossed by a 550km network of cycle lanes, the longest in Latin America. The city added another 80km of lanes at the start of the pandemic, to ease crowding on buses, and plans 280km more by 2024.


At a spacious new school in the poor neighbourhood of Bosa, in south Bogota, staff are now encouraging a new generation to take up riding. The Bike College, which opened in February, aims to put the bicycle at the centre of education, says head teacher Jose Willington. On a sports court at the school, which serves more than a thousand primary and high school students, children learn about road safety from instructors, while others practise riding. “Riding a bike gives students an equal status” to those living outside the poorer districts, he adds.


Being part of Colombia’s cycling culture — the nation has produced Olympic gold-medal cyclists and a Tour de France winner — can offer teenagers an alternative to joining the small-time drug gangs that plague the city’s neighbourhoods, Willington says.


At the bike college, older students learn to repair high-end and electric bikes, make sportswear and build road safety apps, and can earn a qualification in bicycle mechanics alongside a high-school diploma.


“You get to learn new things like how to take apart and assemble bikes,” says Isabella Vargas, a 16-year-old who wants to become an engineer. “We also learn that helping to create a sustainable environment is a duty we citizens have.”

TOP Cablecars in Bogota, Colombia

PHOTO AFP

BOTTOM One centre car lane on Avenida Séptima has been replaced by a bi-directional bikeway

PHOTO Carlos F. Pardo


The city “listened a lot” to a diverse range of city dwellers, partly through an open-source online platform that allowed people to submit their ideas by editing and adding to draft plans. The effort ultimately drew 7,000 proposals from citizens, some as young as 10-years-old.


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