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)

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We found that 99.9 percent of the population goes to work and study as usual and 90 percent of the people have shorter travel times. People learn that they can live without a car. During the car-free days the lower-income people could not believe their eyes, that it was possible to get the rich people to take the bus next to them. It creates a more integrated society.

We started to build a lot of pedestrian infrastructure. Sidewalks are the most important. We created many bicycle paths where cyclists were protected from traffic. This is an extremely powerful symbol for equality because it shows that a citizen in a $30 bicycle is equally important to one in a $30,000 car.

When I started my term we received a Japanese transportation study that recommended $15 billion in highways. We discarded these proposals and built a 23 kilometer pedestrian and bicycle-only street through some of the poorest neighborhoods in the southwest of the city, the Porvenir Promenade. It goes across neighborhoods that don't even have pavement in the streets for cars.

The main street of downtown Bogota, Jimenez Avenue, was turned it into a pedestrian street. We made a huge effort to build parks. We think that public space is tremendously important. Public pedestrian space is really the only piece of the planet that is offered to you. In the city you have private property and then you have spaces for cars. If you go into either one you will be killed.

You may think that pedestrian space is frivolous in a city with many poverty problems, but it's actually the contrary. During leisure time there is a huge difference between the rich and the poor. The upper-income person goes to a large house, to a garden, to a country club, on vacations.

The lower-income person lives in an extremely small house or apartment. The only leisure alternative to television is public space. It's the very least a democratic society should offer its citizens. We invested a huge amount of money in parks, we built or rebuilt more than 1,000 parks. We invested in slum improvement. We brought water and sewers everywhere.

The center of downtown had been totally invaded by vendors. It was an extremely dangerous area. It was a symbol of impotence of government in the heart of the city. So we took them out, it was very difficult work.

We had the most horrendous drug dealing area in the world, the highest crime in the planet was two blocks from the presidential palace. We demolished more than 600 buildings; it was a war. We were able to open up a 23-acre park two blocks away where the biggest mafias used to be. Of course we had a huge problem rehabilitating the drug addicts. At one point we had more than 1,500 former drug addicts who had gone through rehabilitation working as city contractors.

We created a bus transit system, Transmilenio. We have had more than 450 visits from more than 70 countries to see Transmilenio. Transmilenio today is the best bus system in the world, and 20 percent of its users are car owners, extremely rare in a developing country. Transmilenio is much faster than cars.

Is the main advantage over a subway or metro system lower cost?
Yes. A subway costs 10 times more per kilometer. But you can even go faster than a subway with express buses, because subways have to stop at every station.


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