Bright Bogota

Colombia's capital city earns praise for innovative livability projects


| September / October 2003


Colombia, seen through the lens of America's news media, is a disaster area terrorized by brutal drug lords, crazed revolutionaries, and trigger-happy soldiers. Yet a closer look shows it is a place that can offer North Americans inspiration on how to improve urban life. Bogota, Colombia's capital city of 7 million, has won worldwide praise for initiatives on curtailing auto traffic and creating innovative social services.

'The sweeping transformation of Bogota redefined what a city can be,' reports Sustainable Transport (Fall 2002). 'Bogota has set a new standard for urban livability and efficiency.'

The city sports 155 miles of bike paths, the largest network in Latin America, as well as the world's longest corridor of pedestrian streets, which run 12 miles from one end to the other. An acclaimed transit system, in which commuters move about the city on buses travelling on their own special roadways, outpaces private autos for ease and speed. And on Sundays, 95 miles of major avenues are closed to traffic and an estimated 2 million residents come out to enjoy a car-free day in the streets.

On top of the obvious environmental benefits, Bogota's transportation initiatives have fostered creative social programs funded in part by the city but run by nonprofit organizations. The Car-Free Sundays are coordinated by more than 1,400 teenage volunteers, equipped with whistles and hand-held stop signs, who direct the throngs of non-motorized traffic, gaining valuable leadership experience in the process. Over the rest of the week, the city is dotted with 'Civic Guides' in sharp blue-and-orange uniforms who offer people assistance and information about using the bus system and bikeways. These guides-many of whom were once drug users or prostitutes-receive two meals a day, counseling sessions, a small paycheck, and the chance to build confidence and social skills as productive members of society. They also aid in recycling projects, assist the homeless, and monitor safety in public places.

Another ambitious effort that boosts the leadership skills of young people is the Eco-Neighborhoods projects, where 'Eco-Leaders' aged 15 to 25 'take responsibility for educating and aiding their communities on leading greener lifestyles.'

'The greatest lesson learned from Bogota's experience,' Sustainable Transport concludes, 'is that engaged citizens, as much as changes to the urban form, can drive the metamorphosis of a city. . . . Bogota proves the adage that 'people make the city'.'