Colombia Dispatch 11: Former Bogota mayor Enrique Peñalosa

The former mayor of Colombia's capital city transformed Bogota with 'green' innovations that employed the poor and helped the environment

Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogota, rides a bicycle (Kenneth R. Fletcher)

Enrique Peñalosa's controversial work as mayor of Bogota, Colombia's capital, from 1998 to 2001 has made it an unlikely model for cities worldwide. The city of about 7 million inhabitants lies in a nearly constant gray chill at around 8,600 feet in elevation. The north is full of luxury apartments, modern shopping malls and efficient highways, but Bogota is also a magnet for the poor and refugees. There are vast slums of dirt roads and shanties and a conspicuous homeless population in the heart of downtown. Peñalosa says he worked hard to change inequalities through reforms that cracked down on cars and benefited pedestrians and the poor.

"We tried to make the city for the most vulnerable people," he says. "We made Bogota more egalitarian, a happier city, a city that is more fun, a city where people prefer to be outside."

Peñalosa, who succeeded two other reform-minded mayors, opened hundreds of parks and miles of bicycle-only roads. He focused on improving the city's slums and public schools. The rapid-transit bus system he started, Transmilenio, works like an above-ground subway with red buses that zip by in dedicated lanes to passenger platforms. Peñalosa, who lived in the United States for seven years and graduated from Duke University with a BA in economics and history, now travels around the world as a consultant to city planners.

"I think that in the 20th century we made a big mistake," he says. "We built habitats much more for cars than for humans. So now all over the world we are realizing that we made a mistake."

He was working in South Africa when I was in Bogota, but spoke at length with me over the phone after he returned.

What challenges was Bogota facing 10 or 15 years ago?
Bogota was a city without any self-esteem. People thought the city was horrible and things would only get worse. The city had been made for the upper-middle classes with cars with total disregard for the 85 percent or 95 percent of the people who walk or take public transport. Practically half of the city was slums. We applied a totally different model of city. The guiding principal for us was to try to construct more equality and quality of life. Equality is a very difficult thing to do.

You mean giving the same opportunities to the poor as the rich?
Not just that. There are two kinds of equality. One is the equality of quality of life for children. All children should be able to have music lessons or sports fields or access to green spaces without having to be members of a country club. The other one, which is more important, is that public good prevails over private interest. If so, public transport should have a priority in the use of road space over private cars.

In Bogota, the real division is between those who have a car and those who don't. Those who have a car are the upper middle classes. They don't need anything from the government except police and roads. They don't use public hospitals or public schools. They don't go to parks. They jump from private space to private space in capsules called cars. They go out from their parking lot to the parking lot at the office to their parking lot at the shopping mall to the parking lot at the country club. They can go for months without walking for one block in the city.

So the real conflict in a developing country city is whether to invest money in bigger roads and bigger highways or in the many other things that people need, such as schools, parks, sidewalks, nurseries, hospitals, housing projects and so on.

What were your first steps in Bogota?
We restricted car use in many ways. Here anything that you do in order to increase pedestrian space constructs equality. It's a powerful symbol, showing that citizens who walk are equally important to those who have a car. We took out tens of thousands of cars that used to park illegally on the sidewalks. We also established a restriction that means each car has to be off the street during rush hour two days a week, three hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon, based on their license plate number. We also increased gasoline taxes. The first Thursday of every February we have a car-free day in the city, with buses and taxis still running.


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