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Car Free Bogotá: the response to the transportation challenge

by Oscar Edmundo Díaz


The Challenge
Urban planners around the world take for granted that the private automobile should dominate as the primary means of transportation. But where does this get us? The vehicular chaos in cities will only continue to worsen. Even if more roads are built, they will never keep up with the growth in the number of vehicles. Even if pollution control policies are implemented, pollution will still continue to increase. The conclusion is clear: use of the private automobile must be curtailed.

Bogotá's Vital Statistics
Population: 6.4 million
GNP (per capita): US$3300.00
Population Growth: 6.4 million
Urban Area: 32,000 hectares
Inhabitants per hectare: 203
As is the norm in major urban centers outside the US, most of the people in Bogotá (80 percent) use public transport daily; however, private vehicles occupy 95 percent of the roads. Unless drastic measures are taken, the transportation situation in cities like Bogotá will cause increasing high-level atmospheric pollution that will poison urban populations. This situation is particularly alarming in Bogotá, since it is located 2600 meters above sea level where there is 27 percent less available oxygen than at sea level.

Another sign that indicates the current model is not feasible is the overwhelming increase in the number of vehicles in Bogotá. Private cars total 832 000, with a worrying rise of 70 000 in a normal year of economic growth. (Colombia is in its fourth year of an economic recession and the number of cars is actually increasing by only 25 000 to 30 000 a year.)

Local authorities have indicated that use of the private automobile is excessive: in Bogotá close to 70 percent of trips shorter than three kilometers are made by car. The Solution: A Car-Free Bogotá
To reduce the negative effects of private automobiles, Bogotá City Hall is working on developing a sustainable system of urban mobility that encourages a more egalitarian and integrated society. This alternative transportation model, often referred to as the Bogotá Project, takes into account both supply and demand factors.

To increase the supply of transportation, mass and alternative means of transportation are being developed. The proposed network will be interconnected throughout the city, allowing for agile, economic and sustainable mobility. Components of this system include:
1. TransMilenio
TransMilenio is a high-capacity mass transportation system, composed of articulated buses with a capacity for 160 passengers each. This transportation system, which began functioning in December 2000, not only implies changes in the transportation infrastructure (new vehicles, exclusive corridors), but also in the organizational structure of the companies providing the service. The private sector is in charge of its operation, which will be carried out on main avenues and will involve feeders, satellite communication, magnetic tickets and intelligent cards. By 2015, TransMilenio will have 22 lines and 6000 articulated buses providing five million trips per day.

TransMilenio First Phase
Extent: 41 km (three lines)
Static Capacity: 470 buses, 75,200 passengers
Total Capacity: 660,000 passengers per day
Average Velocity: 25 kph

Note: the average speed of public transport in Bogotá without TransMilenio is 10kph

2. Cycle Paths
Thanks to the promotional campaigns encouraging the bicycle as a means of transportation, its use in the city has grown in two years from 0.5 percent to 4 percent of the population. It is expected that by the end of 2001, six percent of the population will be using the Cycle-Paths Network, and that by the year 2005, 30 percent of trips will be by bicycle. This will generate a substantial change in the quality of life of Bogotanos, since decreased congestion will reduce the duration of trips by half. The Cycle-Path Network already has 120 kilometers of pathways, and an additional 180 kilometers are being built.

3. Public Space
The construction of sidewalks and shaded promenades ("alamedas") for cultural and recreational activities is advancing throughout the city. These ample, tree-lined spaces are designed to meet the needs of children, seniors and the handicapped. The 15-metre-wide shaded walk El Porvenir, currently under construction, is the longest in the world, at 17 kilometers. In the last three years the city administration has established more than 1100 new parks and has reclaimed more than 1400.

To stimulate public transportation demand and to restrict private car use, work is being done on many fronts:
1. Fees and Taxes
The fee for public parking was increased by 100 percent, while the regulation of fees in private parking lots was removed. Result: citizens reduced their vehicle use because parking became so expensive. A tax was imposed on gasoline that increased its price by 20 percent over the average annual price of the previous year. The revenue obtained through these measures is earmarked for road maintenance and the development of Bogotá's new mass transportation system.

2. Peak and License Plate ("Pico y Placa")
Pico y Placa is a measure that restricts 40 percent of vehicles from traveling during peak hours in the entire urban area (32 000 hectares) to promote the use of public transport and reduce traffic congestion. The restriction on private vehicles runs from 7:00 to 9:00 a.m. and from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., Monday to Friday, according to the last number on the license plate. Pico y Placa's short-term objective is to raise awareness of the benefits that vehicle reduction on the roads brings, and in the long-term, to reduce car dependency.

"Pico y Placa" Benefits
Reduction of trip duration: 29 minutes (1 hour round trip)
Increase in velocity: 43%
Accident reduction: 28%
Air pollution reduction: 10%
Savings in gasoline per vehicle: US$52.00 per year

3. Cycleway ("Ciclovía")
Every Sunday more than 110 kilometres of highway are closed to public and private transport for seven hours (7:00 a.m.-2:00 p.m.), leaving these roads to the 1.5 million people who move through the city on bicycle, skates or foot. There are social as well as environmental benefits to the road closures. On the Ciclovía, community members make contact with one another, creating community ties. It thus becomes a safe meeting place for people from all social and economic classes.

4. Tolls
To obtain resources for city road maintenance and to control the influx of vehicles, the District Administration presented a proposal to Bogotá City Council that, if approved, will result in tolls at the city entrances collecting US$35 million per year. This means that the district's current resources will no longer be used for road maintenance and can be applied to other priorities such as education, culture and health.

5. "Without my car in Bogotá? Let us imagine a new city."
As a complementary measure to the programs and work carried out by Bogotá City Hall to improve the transportation system in the city and encourage the use of alternative means of transportation, several programs have been initiated to promote citizen awareness. The most significant one was a car-free day on February 24, 2000 called "Without my car in Bogotá? Let us imagine a new city."

Car-Free, Carefree
Citizens responded en masse to the idea of Car-Free Day, traveling mainly by public transport as well as alternative means.

Bogotanos got to live a day in the city without private vehicles, with ample space to walk, bike and skate. That day 832 000 private vehicles stopped circulating for 13 hours (from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.), leaving the streets to a million and a half bicycles. Even though some European cities had held successful, but timid, car-free days, this was the first time in the world that the use of private vehicles was restricted in an entire city.

Seventy-five percent of Bogotanos traveled by public transportation, using the 22,000 buses and 55,000 taxis available. Environmental and noise pollution were substantially decreased: reductions of nine percent in nitrogen oxides, 28 percent in carbon monoxide and 10 percent in noise level. Additionally, it was the first day in three years in which no fatal traffic accidents were reported. A national polling firm revealed that 87 percent of citizens agreed with the car-free day; 89 percent had no difficulties with the transportation system they used during the event; and 92 percent arrived at work, school or university normally. Even more exciting is that 88 percent would like to hold another car-free day.

National and international media closely followed this event: coverage of the event from the air showed that the streets were car-free, with public transport functioning normally and a huge number of people walking or cycling.

The International Award
The Stockholm Challenge Award is a non-profit initiative of the City of Stockholm, in association with the European Commission. Programs receiving the award are considered pioneers in the application of technological development that improve quality of life and become models for other cities of the world. The projects may be private, public, academic or non-profit.

On June 5, 2000, the mayor of Bogotá, Enrique Peñalosa, received The Stockholm Challenge Award in recognition of the success of Bogotá's car-free day. More than 600 entries from around the world were submitted to the Stockholm Challenge 2000, from which only 69 finalists were selected. The car-free day in Bogotá was declared the only winner in the environment category, thanks to its impact on and benefits to the population and the environment. Competing projects were from Norway, Canada, Brazil, Estonia, the United Kingdom, the United States, South Africa and India.

The Stockholm Challenge recognized the difficulty of the decision undertaken by Mayor Enrique Peñalosa to stage the largest car-free day ever in terms of both area and population. The award also acknowledged the enormous preparation that contributed to the success of the event, and the participation and collaboration of the citizens. The jury rated the Bogotá car-free day as the best and most revolutionary initiative of a local government that year to improve the quality of life in a city. Ever since the car-free day celebration, Bogotá has been the center of world attention, and with this award it has established itself as a transportation model for the world's largest cities. Citizens Decide Their Future
On October 29, 2000, a referendum was held in Bogotá in which the mayor's proposal of restricting the use of private vehicles during the six hours of major traffic congestion beginning January 1, 2015, was put forward.

The proposal received 51 percent support; 34 percent voted against it and the balance of the votes were blank ballots. No private vehicles, except taxis, will be allowed to circulate during workdays from 6:00 to 9:00 a.m. and from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. Bogotanos also approved in the referendum the annual celebration of a car-free day on the first Thursday of February, starting in 2001. An ample majority supported this proposal: 63 percent in favor and 26 percent against.

Bogotá must avoid the situation of some of the cities in the United States "where, more than cities with highways, there are highways with cities," in the words of Mayor Enrique Peñalosa. "During the past decades the time lost in traffic jams has been doubling every five years."

The referendum is the first time that Bogotanos have had the opportunity to determine their own transportation future. They did it conscious of the fact that to build an environmentally sustainable city, where public transport is more important than cars, it is necessary to decrease the number of private vehicles and to control non-renewable fuel consumption.

This act not only has major repercussions at a local level, but also at national and international levels, as is evidenced by the attention international experts have given to the referendum results. An international advisory group, EcoPlan International, followed closely the events in Bogotá and then posted on its website a thorough explanation of the referendum. It also began an Internet discussion in which experts on social justice, environment, transportation and urban planning can express their opinions, which you can see at

Ministers, mayors, researchers and experts from around the world sent Mayor Peñalosa messages showing their support and expressing their admiration for Bogotá, a city that took on the challenge of confronting in advance the grave problems that all large cities will soon face. They all agreed that Bogotá has garnered worldwide attention and has become a model to follow. Construction of the New City Continues
The changes in Bogotá's transportation system, developed by the administration of Mayor Enrique Peñalosa (1998-2000), launched the city on a path toward creating a new city model designed for people, not private vehicles. On January 1 the new mayor for 2001-2003, Antanas Mockus, announced that the main mobility projects would proceed. He led the preparations for the second car-free day, the first under popular mandate. "Democracy in Movement, Car-Free Day 2001" was the name of this event. Two new components made mobility easier and gave citizens a glimpse of travel in the year 2015: 100-plus kilometers of cycle paths and two lines of TransMilenio, with 95 buses transporting 200,000 people.

The priority was public transport; people had to get to know TransMilenio and its feeders to use the system efficiently. It was also important to avoid congestion and increase travel velocity of those vehicles that were allowed, so the space for cyclists was reduced. Mockus also met with some business associations to convince them that the city could function normally without private cars.

Special guests for the events included mayors from other Colombian cities as well as other Latin American countries who wanted to experience first-hand the car-free city experience.

Bogotá has provided an inspiration for other cities to join the First Earth Car Free Day 2001, to be held on April 19. To see how your locale could get involved in this exciting event, visit the website Your city will never be the same.

Oscar Edmundo Díaz, born in Bogotá, holds a degree in Finance and International Relations and further studies in Policy and International Affairs. He was the International Coordinator for the Bogotá team that led the transportation initiatives described in this article. He will take a leading role in calling Latin American cities to join the first Earth Car Free Day on April 19, 2001. YOu may write him at