Bogota mayor plans car-free city

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  • From the Financial Times, October 27 2000

    Bogota mayor plans car-free city

    By James Wilson, Finanical Times

    It might be one of the world's most violent cities, but Colombia's capital will on Sunday focus on a radical transport initiative that could consummate a highly improbable relationship: the flirtation between the people of Bogota and their bicycles.

    For hundreds of thousands of the city's residents -authorities estimate 1m-plus - Sundays normally mean a bike ride on some of the 100 km of roads temporarily closed to vehicle traffic, in the type of civic initiative more associated with progressive European capitals than with the polluted chaos of the Latin American urban jungle.

    But in general, the popularity of the cycleways offers surprising proof that Colombian society is still not - despite guerrilla conflict, 3,000 annual kidnappings and one of the world's worst murder rates - close to the sort of alarming social breakdown that many would expect or predict.

    On Sunday Enrique Penalosa, Bogota's mayor, is seeking to mobilise the pedallers' power by asking voters to approve a complete, city-wide ban on private vehicles during peak-hour workdays, to be implemented from the year 2015.

    Mr Penalosa - who leaves office in December - has already begun a planned 200 km network of cycle paths throughout the city. He hopes city residents will back his vision to transform Bogota into a 7-day-a-week cycling sanctuary. But many say the planned restriction would be a step too far that could cripple business.

    Fenalco, the retailers' association, this week published newspaper adverts urging people not to vote (at least one-third of electors have to vote in the poll for the result to be valid). "The measure would be a lethal blow to Bogota's economy," says Fenalco. "It wouldn't benefit the environment because the traffic jams would change times."

    Even some taxi drivers, who might expect more passengers from a ban on private cars, are opposed. "It's going to be so bad for business in the city that there'll be no one in the streets who can afford a taxi," says driver Alvaro Mendez.

    Undeterred, Mr Penalosa argues Bogota has an unmissable chance to plan further development around public transport and bikes because population density is high - around 210 people per hectare compared with 10-15 per hectare in US cities such as Miami - and average journeys between work and home are short, around 8 km.

    As the mayor points out, even Bogota's wealthy prefer high-rise city apartments rather than suburban homes with gardens, because they offer more security against the appalling crime rate.

    Car ownership is also low and only 12 per cent of commuters use their cars, according to the mayor.

    Public transport for the city's 6.5m residents is still woefully sub-standard. But Mr Penalosa says the 15-year lapse before implementing the car ban would give time to improve services. A new bus network is being launched later this year. By contrast, more roads for cars would encourage the city's sprawl across its mountain plateau.

    Bogota has already dabbled with a car-free life. Private vehicles are already subject to peak-hour bans twice a week. A citywide 'day without cars' in February won international praise, and voters in Sunday's referendum can choose to make the day an annual event.

    "Bogota's residents are going to decide on a way of life," says the city's hopeful mayor. "Human beings don't have to accept the world as they find it."

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