Why you should care
Bogotá provides a vision for a new kind of city; one that’s livable, sustainable and bikeable. As urban populations soar, other cities would do well to follow its example.
When an alien journalist comes to earth in Douglas Adams’s A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy , he names himself Ford Prefect, mistaking cars for the planet’s dominant life form. That world, in which cities are designed for cars not people, is what Enrique Peñalosa set out to eliminate when he was elected mayor of Bogotá in 1997.
The results have been extraordinary. In the early 1990s, the Colombian capital was crumbling. The city’s population was growing steeply and the infrastructure couldn’t keep up. Large sections of the community were desperately poor and trapped in slums, crime was high and living standards were very low.
Today, thanks largely to the prioritization of people over automobiles, Bogotános are healthier, safer and more integrated . The city’s extensive cycle network stretches from the poorest areas to its affluent suburbs to the bustling city center. Parks, which had largely been privatized by the end of the 20th century, have been re-opened, creating shared spaces for the entire community. On Sundays, large swathes of the city are closed to motorists. Car usage has been reduced by 40 percent during the week by the ”peak and plate” system, which bans certain license plates from the roads on certain days. Since 1998, the number of cyclists in Bogotá has quintupled, and only a fifth of journeys are now made by car.
In 2000, Bogotá became the first city in the world to hold a city-wide car-free day — a day when, for the first time in three years, no one was killed on the roads. Buoyed by success, the residents voted overwhelmingly to continue the tradition and called on other cities around the world to do the same.
Unsurprisingly, this transport system is the envy of city planners and environmentalists around the world, but creating a greener city wasn’t Mayor Peñalosa’s primary aim. Rather his goal was an equitable city that restored the people’s human dignity . Cars are differentiators, according to the former mayor. They physically remove people from one another and from the environment. Also, because expensive cars are off-limits to most Colombians, they separate rich from poor. In contrast, whether they’re on $30 or $3,000 bikes, all cyclists are powering themselves, communicating with one another and engaging with the world around them.
Percentage of daily journeys now made by car in Bogotá (50 percent are by bus)
Of course Bogotá is not the only city to have realized the benefits of cycling. Then why has it experienced such success? Across the developed world, cycle lanes are unused because biking seems like an arduous option. It’s slower, more stressful and, crucially, more dangerous. The defining secret behind Bogotá’s achievement is that the right option is also the easiest option. The quality of the cycling networks and the restrictions placed on cars mean that cycling is quicker and more convenient. Moreover, cycle lanes are more than just lines of paint. They are separate mini-roadways, which vastly increases cycle safety.
However, in order to make life easy for cyclists, leaders have to make life more difficult for themselves. Cycling culture rarely grows organically; someone has to introduce it into the public mind-set. Mayor Peñalosa did that, but he also encountered backlash, especially from the powerful and wealthy who were quite happy with their air-conditioned vehicular privilege. Despite two attempts, he has not been re-elected, and a campaign was launched to impeach him for having banned cars from city sidewalks during his first term. Peñalosa insists that sustainable change is possible anywhere. What he achieved in Bogotá, poverty-stricken and despondent as it was, demonstrates that transformation is not financially or technically beyond reach. It simply requires sustained political interest and leaders willing to risk their popularity for their vision.
Percentage of Bogotános who approve of car-free days
Regrettably the situation in Bogotá has declined somewhat since its ”Mayor of Happiness” stepped down in 2001. The TransMilenio bus service is now run by private operators who, despite severe overcrowding, refuse to expand the service. Bike lanes and pedestrian crossings have fallen into disrepair and have not been updated as the city has grown, although citizen activists are starting to take things into their own hands.
It is estimated that by 2050, 75 percent of the global population will live in cities — a frightening thought given the current state of many of the world’s cities. But every Sunday hundreds of thousands of Bogotános — young and old, rich and poor — flock to the streets, modeling a world in which humans, not engines, are the dominant life form.