Post by Dr. Paulo Rui Anciaes
This is the first of three posts with some reflections arising from the Street Mobility team visit to South America and from discussions we had with local researchers about the links between urban transport and health.
We started our trip in the capital of Colombia. Bogotá has changed a lot in the last two decades. In the 1990s, it was known worldwide mostly because of crime, terrorism, and drugs. But on top of that there were other problems that were not so well-known in other countries but that greaty affected the quality of life of the city residents, including poverty, pollution, road safety, congestion, and in general, all the problems that usually come with rapid and uncontrolled urban growth.
Bogotá in the 1990s
Nowadays, Bogotá is a better place to live. In fact, in his book Happy Cities, Charles Montgomery spends most of the first chapter talking about Bogotá, explaining how the city changed from a living hell to a city worth of an award at the Venice Biennale of Architecture. This change was mostly due to a radical shift in political priorities. As the former (and current) mayor put it: “We might not be able to make everyone as rich as [North] America, but we can design the city to give people dignity, to make them feel rich.” (p.2).
There are several other books about Bogotá as an example to follow. The city also sets the bar for other large South American cities. During our trip we often heard mentions of Bogotá from colleagues in São Paulo and Santiago. In the report of the Chile Street Mobility seminars that will soon be published by Cambiarnos (Laboratorio de Cambio Social, part of the Engineering Faculty of Pontificía Universidad Católica, Chile), Rodrigo Alvarez, from Transdev Chile said that “nos faltan kilómetros para llegar a ser como Bogotá, ellos lo primero que ponen en valor es el transporte público” [“we still need to travel many kilometres to be like Bogotá, they put public transport first”].
So what made Bogotá a case study in urban transport?
The Ciclovía is one of Bogota’s flagship projects. Main roads are closed to car traffic 72 days a year (Sundays and public holidays) and are taken over by cyclists, pedestrians, skaters, and other people moving about using non-motorised modes. This initiative has been going on since 1974, a time when in the rest of the world, city governments were busy building roads as large as possible. The success of the Ciclovía has led other cities to implement similar schemes, 92% of them in Latin America. Bogota’s Ciclovía is the oldest, biggest (119 km), and most popular (more than 1 million participants per day) (Sarmiento et al. 2017).
The other world-famous Bogotá innovation is Transmilenio, also one of the oldest, biggest, and most successful Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems in the word. The system has contributed to the reduction in the number of crashes, commuting times, and air pollution, and increased land values in the areas surrounding the stations.
Bogotá also has the oldest and the largest “car-free day” in the world, an annual event limiting car use in the whole city, institutionalized by a referendum after a successful first event in 2001.
The amount of public spaces has also increased in the last two decades, including the Simon Bolivar network of parks, the Eje Ambiental (a long pedestrian area along a canal) and many small parks. Some of the streets and public squares in the city centre that were in poor condition were also improved.
Public space in Bogotá city centre
Other measures implemented in the last 20 years include fuel taxes; bans on using cars more than 3 times a week; and a network of cycle lanes (Ciclorutas).
Shared street, priority to cyclists
These initiatives have had positive impacts on people’s health. As shown below, for 40% of its users, the Ciclovía is the only occasion where they do physical activity. Also, adults who use the Transmilenio buses walk 12 minutes more every day that those who do not.
From Nos Movemos Hacia Ciudades Más Saludables?
There are still problems. We started our trip looking at urban fragmentation. There are indeed many cases of separation of neighbourhoods caused by large roads.
Even the Transmilenio can cause severance, as it runs on large segregated road infrastructure. But on the other hand, as shown in this article and in this one, the crossing facilities to access the Transmilenio stations also work as links connecting both sides of the road. As the spacing between stations is below 1000m in almost all cases, the system ensures one is never more than 500m away from a crossing. But the crossing facilities also work as places in their own right. As shown below, new footbridges have led to the production of new public spaces, such as small squares or just areas used by street vendors.
New public space around Transmilenio footbridges D. Barbosa, S. Rodríguez, in Arteaga et al. 2017
There are other unresolved issues. Even after all the improvements in the last two decades, only around 10% of the population walk or cycle as their main mode of transport. 72% are not satisfied with public spaces; 70% think that public transport is not safe because of crime; and 84% of cyclists feel unsafe at intersections because of car traffic. (All figures from ¿Nos Movemos Hacia Ciudades Más Saludables?). More than half of the cycle network (232km of the 433km) was built from 1998 to 2000 and some of it is now in a critical state. There is also air pollution. And the Transmilenio buses are overcrowded and, for many people, expensive, which led to riots in 2012.
But the main unresolved issue is inequality – of mobility, of environmental quality, and of other aspects of living in the city. As noted by the former/current mayor in the Happy Cities book, “one of the requirements for happiness is equality (…) maybe not equality of income, but equality of quality of life and, more than that, an environment where people don’t feel inferior, where people don’t feel excluded” (p.242).
This is not always the case in Bogotá, which is a city with strong spatial/social segregation. Low-income households tend to live is densely built hilly areas in the suburbs, with poor access to jobs and other opportunities. They face long commuting times to jobs, and long walking times to bus stops, through areas that are not always safe either because of floods or crime. Women are particularly affected by insecurity. In this case, more walking is not necessarily desirable (or healthy).
Left: by Pedro Felipe, CC BY-SA 3.0. Right: by Alison McKellar, CC BY 2.0
The sustainable transport initiatives mentioned above have contributed to social inclusion by increasing the accessibility of poorer households, although in the case of Transmilenio, there are issues of affordability, and in the case of Ciclovía and Ciclorutas there is still unequal geographic access (see Teunissen et al. 2015). The new TransMiCable, a cable car system similar to the one existing in Medellin, is designed to increase the accessibility of residents in some of the poorer, more isolated, southern suburbs of Bogotá. The project was fraught with several problems, as reported in Urban Mobility and Poverty (a collaboration between UCL and Colombian universities), but it will be operational this year.
Despite the world records, there is still work to do in Bogotá to provide accessibility and environmental quality to all, but the projects developed so far have undoubtly moved the city in the right direction.