Jerom Theunissen Photography


March 11-17

City in Context

Bogota D.C. is the dynamic capital of Colombia and is home to some 8 million people. Bogota is surrounded by several satellite cities around the Distrito Capital that bring the metropolitan population to 11 million. The city serves as the economic and political capital of the country. Bogota contributes about a quarter of national GDP and is home to the country’s national government. The population of Bogota grew considerably until the 2000s, where high levels of internal migration, security, health and educational services were well above the rest of the country. What’s more, the capital city offered access to higher quality jobs and services. This growth saw the population grow 63 times larger while the land area grew 93 times larger over the course of the 20th century. Several land use plans by architects like Brunner(1936) and Le Corbusier (1951) were studied but largely neglected. In 1972, the United Nations developed an Urban Development Study of Bogota, paying more attention to integrated growth of housing and transportation to relieve the pressure on the CBD, which housed over 70% of employment at the time. In 1991, the Colombian government took steps to decentralize and allow municipalities more control under the territory development law. This was the first step towards allowing Bogota to craft its own future.

Brunner's plan for Bogota created boulevards, gardens, and urban layouts that followed the topography of the land.

Le Corbusier's plan for Bogota called for a segregation of uses within the city and had a planning horizon of 50 years.

The new law required every municipality under its jurisdiction to develop a land use plan, or POT. The first POT of Bogota was delivered by Mayor Enrique Peñalosa’s administration in 2000. The main purpose of a POT is to define a vision of the city and the accompanying strategies to achieve certain economic, social, cultural, and environmental goals.Implementation of POTs brought more order to the chaotic development that was happening in Bogota over the course of the 20th century. Over the last two decades, the city has been an interesting case study when considering urban transport development, transforming into a failing city to a more sustainable and promising one.

Population growth created major challenges for Bogota’s transportation systems. Heavy congestion on the city’s streets and roadways and the need to provide cost-effective means of transport for the urban poor led to the creation of Transmilenio in 1999, a bus rapid transit (BRT) system which sought to solve some of these problems. In the same year, the city’s first cycle paths were created, which were well suited to the relatively flat urban topography. Today, Bogota’s cycle networks spans some 400 kilometers, supported by dedicated planning documents like Plan Bici.

A series of forward-looking mayors in the late 1990s to early 2000s moved the city towards more sustainable transport paradigms,beginning with Enrique Penalosa’s first term as mayor in 1996.  Penalosa was succeeded by former mayor Antanas Mockus, who continued investing in mobility programs, including Transmilenio phase II, bike lanes, and sidewalks. In recent times, the administrations of Gustavo Petro (2012-2015) and Enrique Penalosa (his second term, 2016-2019)called for Bogota to construct a Metro to alleviate congestion on Transmilenio and the city’s roads. Tracking these developments in the city’s urban transport paradigms required a visit to this dynamic capital of Colombia, a must-visit destination to assess the role of mobility in the city’s quality of life.

TransMilenio– Project Context and Assessment 18 Years after Implementation

As stated previously, the Transmilenio system was created in 1999 with the establishment of Transmilenio S.A., the company responsible for managing the operation of the BRT system. Prior to the establishment of Transmilenio, Bogota’s public transport provisions were poor and disorganized. Private bus companies were given permission to operate along a certain route with an affiliation system. These buses and their transport services were of inconsistent quality. What’s more, high levels of congestion led to slow travel times, high accident rates, and elevated levels of air and noise pollution. Seeing the need for action, Mayor Antanas Mockus engaged with Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) during his term in 1995-1997 to propose a Transport Master Plan for system in Bogota. The study called for an integrated transport network contemplating metro and bus trunks that would be developed according to the growth of travel demand and improving flow of traffic. However, the subsequent POT released in 2000 by Penalosa did not adopt the main proposals of the JICA Transport Master Plan. This moment is a critical junction in the city’s transport development.

Entrance to one of the Transmilenio stations along Avenida de las Americas highway.

A bike parking station for hundreds of bikes at the Portal Americas bus station.

Instead, Penalosa called for the establishment of a BRT system along several corridors after visiting Curitiba, Brazil, which was the first city to implement a network of dedicated bus lanes with pre-payment,all-door and level boarding. In 1999, with the establishment of Transmilenio S.A., Bogota formalized the operations of major bus operators under one roof for the first phase of the BRT system. Under the partnership, Bogota’s public sector is responsible for oversight and providing the system’s infrastructure,while Transmilenio S.A. oversees the design, planning, and monitoring of the system, while managing the private bus contractors that operate and maintain the buses. 

A map of the Transmilenio/SITP system, which details the major troncales (trunks) of the BRT. Image source: SITP

The objective of the system was to transform Bogota’s public transport in order to improve its citizens’ quality of life, the city’s air quality, and productivity. The ultimate goal is to serve more than eighty percent of the city’s population. By 2002, the system reached 42 km, including a 1.7 km transit mall downtown (see below), where only walking and public transport were used. User satisfaction remained above 90 percent during the first three years of operation. Agency staff were committed to delivering a service that was respectful of life, diversity, and time – and that was affordable for users and the city. Despite some issues with infrastructure development in Stage I (cracking of concrete slabs due to contractor error), the system was successful in achieving its goals early on:

  • Transmilenio users saved an average of 223 hours annually, or 32 percent reduction in travel times after implementation.
  • Nine percent of Transmilenio passengers used to commute by private car and now commute by bus.
  • In the areas where Transmilenio operates, there was a reduction of 92 percent in deaths, 75 percent in injuries and 79 percent in collisions.
  • Since the introduction of Transmilenio, air pollutants within Bogota have decreased by 40 percent.
  • The switch from an affiliation to a concession system that paid operators in a “per-kilometer” basis instead of a “per-passenger” basis eliminated the “Penny War” problem that led to inefficient scheduling and dangerous driver behavior.

Source: Center for Public Impact - Transmilenio Case Study

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But even though the first few years of TransMilenio were transformative for the city, its teenage years has proven to be challenging. The first 82 km of TransMilenio was built within six years of operation, while the city only built 29 km in the following seven years, and just 3 kilometers in the last five years. The most recent addition in December 2018 was a 3.6-km cable car, TransMiCable, similar to Medellín’s Metrocable, which is integrated into the TransMilenio system. I spoke with Alejandro Serrano, a local resident, who complained of inconsistent political support and growing institutional complexity processes leading to slower expansion of new BRT routes. 

People queuing in an orderly fashion at the Portal Americas bus station. This isn't even during rush hour!

Meanwhile, travel demand has continued to increase to the point where buses are severely overcrowded. Maintenance and operational efficiency have declined, and replacement fleets are now eight years overdue after being requested in 2011 but will only become functional in 2019. Air quality along bus corridors is poor, with old diesel buses belching out unfiltered diesel exhaust, which was found to be carcinogenic by the WHO in 2012. In the face of these challenges, user satisfaction plummeted to 15 percent in 2015. Like in New York, significant investments, timely maintenance and continuous expansion are needed to maintain service quality in public transport systems.

TransMillenio’s next twenty years comes with great expectations. What started as a system with so much promise has left much to be desired. Recent developments include much needed fleet renewal, bringing larger capacity and lower emissions buses. Transmilenio procured a new fleet of mostly natural gas engines, and some new diesel buses that will be required to have filters.  I wish they had gone for electric buses with charging stations like its sister city Medellin is doing. Upon arrival in Bogota, I was dissapointed to find that so many challenges plagued a legendary example of BRT. It is clear that the innovative steps taken in the early 2000s have not been consistently pursued since. I hope that with new buses and expansions, Transmilenio improves in line with other transport projects in the city, including the metro. In this manner, Bogota can continue to be a reference for sustainable mobility in the future.

Metro de Bogota – Innovative Project Financing Measures to Advance Mobility 

The idea of a Metro serving the capital district of Bogota is an old one. The construction of the Metro de Bogotá has been debated and studies since the 1950s. More than 70 years and many studies later, Bogota still does not have a metro system, while its peer city, Medellin, does. What gives?

A rendering of a station of the proposed Metro de Bogota mobility project. Source

The need for a Metro in a city the size of Bogota is significant. With private transport use on the rise and public transportation mode share in decline, the Bogota metro seeks to fundamentally alter transport paradigms in the Distrito Capital. With new investments, Mayor Enrique Peñalosa promised that “by the year 2030, 80% of Bogotá citizens will have a mass transit line, metro or trunk lines less than a kilometer away.”

The proposed line will cover 24 kilometers from south-east to north-east, hugging Avenida Caracas, one of the busiest transport arteries in the capital (see map below). Transport planning consultancy Systra has chosen an elevated line to allow for an accelerated construction schedule and taking into account the highly seismic context of the capital. The line will also be served by five feeder bus lines that allow people from the boroughs of Soacha, Bosa,and Kennedy to access the metro. Calculating the overall reduction in commuting times, pollution and accidents caused by private cars, supporters estimate that for each peso invested, 1.21 pesos will be returned (source). What's more, the money saved from building overground could pay for another line in the future as well as three additional Transmilenio lines.

A map showing the connections between the proposed Metro and existing Transmilenio trunk lines. Source

In its current form, the Metro will cost USD $4 billion. In September 2017, the project was given a significant boost when Colombia’s National Political-Economic and Social Committee (CONPES) approved a deal that would set aside 70% of funding from the national government. The remaining 30% will be paid by Bogota. To gain more insight on the Metro’s proposed financing scheme, I spoke with Felipe Herrera, an expert in infrastructure concession law at Duran Osorio Abogados. He is working with the national government agency FCN to ensure that legal and technical structures of the project remain on solid footing while managing financing and loans and providing support to the municipality in executing the project.

We focused our conversation on procurement of services to build the metro. We compared the process between Metro de Medellin (see my blog about the city here) and concluded that Metro de Bogota was forging its own path in terms of contracting methods. Some of the innovative methods Felipe spoke about what having integrated design-finance-build-operate-maintain-transfer concession in August 2019 that will last twenty years. In this type of contract, Felipe argues, better efficiencies can be achieved due to the minimizing of "interface risk" that often comes with design-bid-build contracting schemes.

When the Metro opens in the near future, access to the city center will be vastly improved for those living in the capital’s outlying northern and southern districts, bringing more employment opportunities to those living at the fringes of this upbeat Colombian city.

Cycling as a Means of Democracy in Bogota

One of my favorite aspects of Bogota’s mobility paradigms is the widespread use of the bicycle as a means of transport, and can be seen as analogous to the city’s urban and cultural transformation over the last two decades. Undoubtedly, Bogotá’ is the leading city in the Americas for cycling infrastructure, but it was not always this way. The city first began investing in cycling infrastructure and culture in the late 1990s, beginning with a mode share of 0.5% in 1996 (similar to the mode share of bicycles in most American cities). Under the direction of Mayor Penalosa, the city built 232 km of bikeways between 1998-2000, followed by 55 km under Mayor Mockus’ administration between 2001-2003. The city spent US $180 million on bikeways from 1990 to 2002, representing about half the amount the entire United States spends annually on cycling infrastructure (Automobile Dependency and the Global Cultural War: Lessons from Bogotá’, Sustainable Transport, 16, pp. 1-3 Hook,2004).  Currently, Bogotá boa sts over 400 kilometers of dedicated bicycle paths, called ciclorutas.  A long-range plan, Plan Bici, calls for the length of the network to double to 800 kilometers over the next thirty years. World-class bicycle facilities are even found in agricultural fields on the city’s fringes, introduced by Peñalosa to promote cycling over motorized travel in areas that will soon urbanize. This effort, according to Penalosa, is to ingrain a “bicycle consciousness” in the minds of the young and carless (Peñalosa, 2002).

To further promote cycling, on Sundays and holidays, the city closes 120 kilometers of main roads from 7 AM until 2 PM to create a Ciclovia (“cycling way”) for cyclists, runners, skaters,and pedestrians. The first ciclovia was held in Bogota in 1974, at the peak of Colombia’s success and national pride in professional cyclist Nairo Quintana, who finished second in the Tour de France, the highest-ever finish by a Colombian cyclist in the world's most famous bike race. This passion for recreational cycling has persisted until the present and has been supplemented by cycle lanes which support cycling as a means of daily transport. In 2000, Bogota held its first car-free day, which forces everyone in the city to consider alternative means of transport, including mass transit, walking, and cycling.

Keen to see what Ciclovia is all about, I rented a bike from my hostel for a few hours and hit the streets during my last several hours in Bogota. I was lucky to be joined by Thomas van Laake, a geographer from local NGO Despacio, who showed me around the city’s extensive network of closed roads that were repurposed for use by millions of Bogotans on cycles, rollerblades, and skates. While we cycled, Thomas pointed out some good and bad examples of bicycle infrastructure on the city’s streets,taking breaks only once for an empanada and some freshly squeezed orange juice.As refreshing as the snacks were, nothing beats the feeling of moving through the city effortlessly by bike. Thomas agreed with me, and estimated that when the weather cooperates, as many as a million and a half cyclists and other recreationalists enjoy Ciclovia across Bogota. At least once a week, for 8 hours, Bogota has the chance to take a deep breath and relax.

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