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Is Bogotá a Better Model for Transportation Reform than the Green Capitals of Europe?

U.S. sustainable transportation advocates take a lot of inspiration from the Amsterdams and Parises of the world. Should they be looking closer to the equator instead?

Photo: Carlos Felipe Pardo

Bogotá keeps winning awards for its ongoing sustainable transportation revolution — and its story could be a uniquely relevant model for U.S. communities that have struggled to kickstart their own, a new analysis suggests.

After winning the international Sustainable Transport Award for the second time in two decades, the Colombian capital was recently the subject of a fascinating new case study from the Institute for Transportation Development and Policy which unpacks how the Athens of South America transformed itself into a global green mobility leader on a fraction of the budget afforded to many wealthier European capitals.

Buried within that report, though, are some particularly salient lessons for North American advocates, who tend to look to Amsterdam and Paris for transportation planning inspiration, but might forget about cities closer to the Equator that have more in common with the U.S. than they realize.

“European cities, historically, started with walkable streets, and as the city core grew over centuries, they started to sprawl," said Iwona Alfred, program manager for the Institute. "In Latin American cities like Bogotá, for example, there isn't as much of a historic, walkable core. ... It's really quite impressive to see them tackle this [kind of work] on the scale of an entire city, and asking, ‘What does it mean to increase regional access, and local access?' ... It's really a much more comprehensive approach.” 

Graphic: ITDP

That uniquely comprehensive approach was necessary, Alfred argues, because of Bogotá's sheer scale. Like many American cities, the city grew in tandem with the rise of automobile use, increasing its population 20-fold and its land footprint 30-fold since the 1930s and becoming one of the most polluted cities in Latin America.

Today, Bogotá has a population roughly comparable to New York City (7.5 million to the Big Apple's 8.4) spread across a land area more twice the size, with no underground metro system, a relatively minuscule per-capita GDP and decades of autocentric building to contend with. And like much of the U.S., all that growth "has led to socio-spatial segregation with unequal urban development, and enhanced the risks posed by climate change to the city’s most vulnerable population," the report authors wrote.

But apart from its internationally famous Ciclovía events, which have barred car travel and opened streets to other modes on as much as 75 miles of roadway nearly every Sunday and major holiday since 1973, much of that work didn't begin in earnest until the turn of the century. That's when the city first opened its famous bus rapid transit network, TransMilenio — which soon became the most electrified fleet in the world outside China — and began accelerating its efforts to build out a massive network of ciclorutas, or bike lanes. Those efforts eventually culminated in the adoption of the city's first Vision Zero plan in 2017; by 2019, traffic deaths were falling by more than 20 percent year-over-year across the high-injury corridors that were the initial focus of the plan.

Of course, that timeline puts Bogotá's efforts significantly behind countries like Sweden, which launched Vision Zero in 1997 and have been working to end traffic deaths for years. Despite getting a relatively late start, though, the city's approach was aggressive, nimble and dizzyingly multifaceted — and Alfred argues it sent a powerful message to global communities that it's never too late to retrofit your streets around the needs of people, even if your community was explicitly built around the private automobile.

“Like in every city, the automobile industry is really the tough one [to fight]," added Alfred. "There's a lot of opposition in every city in the world to take away space from cars. [So we have to ask], 'Which streets are the busy ones that people already use? Which ones are vital to connectivity and enabling people to cross the city from east to west, from north to south?' [Asking those kinds of questions was] a smart move on the on the part of the urban planners in Bogotá.”

Photo: City of Bogotá

Bogotá's bike lane build-out hasn't been as breathlessly documented by photojournalists as the nearly-auto-free fietstraats of Utrecht or the off-road cobblestone paths of Copenhagen. Many of the city's ciclorutas run on curb-separated medians designed directly down the center of wide roads — a design which some European transportation planners advise against — while many others are separated by low plastic "armadillo" dividers over which a motivated motorist could theoretically drive. It's difficult to find a photo of a bike lane in Bogotá that doesn't feature at least a few cars in the background.

Those sometimes-imperfect fixes, though have enabled the city to create separated space quickly, cheaply and with urgency — especially during the early days of the pandemic, when Bogotá's sustainable transportation wins really started stacking up. Since 2020, the city has implemented 52 miles of protected emergency cycleways with little more than traffic cones and plastic jersey barriers, about half of which have since been made permanent. Officials have also built on the success of their Barrios Vitales (Vital Neighborhoods) project, which launched in 2016 and has re-dedicated tens of thousands of square meters of roadway to pedestrian uses and helped put basic needs within a 30-minute bike ride of every resident in the project footprint.

If that seems a little less ambitious than Paris' "15 Minute City" ideal, consider Bogotá's "care blocks" program, which leverages street improvements to help improve access to "education, healthcare, trainings and workshops, and housing" to every woman and child within a half-mile radius of a designated community node.

Perhaps the most important lesson that Bogotá's sustainable transformation has to teach the U.S., though, is how important it is to simply do it, regardless of what your streets look like now or your perceived lack of resources — and elect leaders with the bold vision necessary to get the ball rolling and get the community involved.

“The political leadership was the major driver of this," added Alfred. "Without a strong vision, this may not have had happened. [But it’s also about] conveying that vision to citizens and making them a part of it. There was a lot of participatory planning, there were surveys, and there were bulletin boards placed across the Barrios Vitales. … [These projects] were so convincing, that people actually started seeking more of them, because they saw the value of those interventions. And then the city was able to able scale up from that.”

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