At an international urban planning conference in February 2003, delegates from 38 nations took tours of pedestrian-friendly boulevards and rode bicycles in this city of 9 million. In a country normally associated with cocaine production, kidnappings and civil war, it was an opportunity to show that developing nations or even countries like the United States have much to learn from its example for urban planning.
“I wonder if we could do this Buenos Aires,” said a wide-eyed Horacio Blot, transport coordinator of the government of that city, as he observed the bicycles, buses and taxis that Bogota’s residents use to commute to work and school on the city’s Car Free Day, the largest of its kind worldwide.
Mr. Blot was riding a bus, on his way to the commencement of the International Seminar on Human Mobility. Ministers of transport, mayors of capitol cities and representatives from NGO’s met at the event to observe firsthand the transformation of the Colombian capitol, which has gone from one of the most dangerous, traffic-ensnarled and polluted cities to a model for urban transport and social policy. The participants, jetlagged from up to 36 hours of travel, marveled at the curved walls and flowing fountains of the stunning municipal library Virgilio Barco, a recently completed architectural masterpiece. Construction of the library began under the term of former mayor Enrique Peñalosa, as part of his effort to provide high-quality public space to all of the city’s residents. Over the next two days, the authors of the transformation of Bogota and leaders of innovative transport projects from around the world spoke to attentive audiences in the library’s auditoriums.
Ricardo Montezuma, director of the Human City Foundation, an NGO from Bogota that organized the conference, explained, “Our main motivation was to share the Bogotá experience with other cities of the developing world that intend to implement similar projects, such as Bus Rapid Transit, bicycle paths, public space, and projects that limit automobile use.”
Argentineans, sitting next to Pakistanis and Senegalese, learned about varied topics, such as Misión Bogotá (a program whereby marginalized citizens and petty criminals are given jobs directing bicycle traffic or transit users), bike paths in Lima, or plans to build a subway in Tehran. They listened to Bogota’s current mayor Antanas Mockus, a Colombian of Lithuanian descent with an Abe Lincoln beard, explain how he reduced homicide by 40% in 1996 by closing nightclubs at 1AM, and used mimes to teach drivers to respect pedestrians at crossings. They learned that from 1998 to 2000, Peñalosa’s administration constructed the largest network of bicycle paths in the developing world (270 kilometers or 169 miles), constructed a Bus Rapid Transit system called TransMilenio, reduced automobile use by 40% during peak times, and greatly improved public space.
Gazal Badiozamani, of the United Nations Car Free Days Programme, explained the utility of these events, saying “the whole idea is to start a dialogue and consider transportation alternatives.”
Kleist Sykes, mayor of Dar-Es-Salaam, Tanzania, said, “Until we have a decent, reliable public transport system, we cannot have a Car Free Day in our city.”
Paul Guitink of the World Bank praised the last two mayors of Bogota, saying “Enrique Peñalosa and Antanas Mockus have shown that you can make important changes with strong leadership.” He illuminated the importance of the seminar in terms of the future of cities, saying, “The presence of over 30 countries [in Bogota] is a testament to the fact that we can make cities for people and not for cars.”
On the evening of Friday the 9th, the windows in the hotel where the international participants were staying shook from a bomb in a gym 20 blocks away. The bomb, which killed 20 and wounded 120, was a cruel reminder of the ongoing war in Colombia. Participants, shaken by the explosion, called home to inform their families that they were fine, and that they would stay to experience the second half of the conference. Sarah Stenhammer of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency took the tragedy in stride, saying, “Now I understand the rationale with all the guards,” referring to the numerous security detail that followed the participants throughout the seminar.
For Michael Replogle of the United States NGO Environmental Defense, this terrorist attack was a learning experience: “I experienced a stunning contrast between the newly anxious, frightened atmosphere of Washington, DC, where I have lived for the past 24 years, and Bogotas rightfully proud and resilient civic culture. I was struck by the sense of solidarity people felt about the bombing as an evil act and the determination not to cower in the face of such terror attacks.”
TransMilenio was the topic for Saturday, with visits to the highly efficient “surface subway.” This Bus Rapid Transit system moves 770,000 passengers at a low cost, making it an obvious choice for developing countries, which have huge transport needs and limited funds.
The last day of the seminar, participants took part in Bogota’s “ciclovía.” Every Sunday, 120 kilometers (75 miles) are closed to motorized vehicles, and around two million residents jog, skate, or bike around the city, in the largest event of its kind worldwide.
For Replogle, like many participants, the conference was an informative and inspirational experience: “While I have long advocated bus rapid transit strategies, seeing how effectively Bogota has implemented them through TransMileno was a real eye-opener. Bogotas success in changing its infrastructure to become much more bicycle and pedestrian friendly in a short span of time is most impressive and provides an inspiring model to other cities around the world.”
Lloyd Wright, Latin American director for ITDP, co-organizers of the seminar, felt the event could mark a critical moment in sustainable transport: “Mayors and city technical officials came away from the Bogota event with a new air of enthusiasm. Suddenly, the possibilities for their own cities came closer into view. Now, cities like Cape Town, Dar-Es-Salaam and Jakarta are moving quickly on their experiences from Bogota with plans of their own.”
This sentiment was illustrated by Lawrence Kumi, transport minister of Ghana, who said “We are thinking seriously of applying the Transmilenio model in Accra.”
Jachrizal Sumabrata of Indonesia said, “Hopefully, Jakarta will become a livable city like Bogota.”