On some streets in Bogotá in recent weeks, traffic averaged 2 kilometers per hour during rush hour, slightly less than the average human speed when walking. The general average of the Colombian capital is, according to official counts, about 25 km/h. Something more than the average speed at which a bicycle travels.
This, added to other nuances taken into account in the measurements, makes Bogotá have, according to the Tomtom traffic index, the worst mobility in America and the fourth worst in the world, after Istanbul, Moscow and Kyiv. The Inrix index, which measures traffic in a different way, places Bogotá in eighth place in the world. Its average speed in 2021 was 17 km/h, while that of Quito, the next Latin American city, was 18 km/h. Mexico was going 20 km/h.
“Bogotá has occupied the top positions for several years and everything indicates that this year 2022 will once again enter the top 5, because delays increased by 36% compared to the first half of last year“, tells Bob Pishue, analyst at Inrix, to BBC Mundo. In August, Bogotá entered a new mobility crisis. More than 500 constructions aimed at relieving traffic are underway: bridges, tunnels, cycle paths, more public transport and, after decades of unsuccessful attempts, a first metro line.
“Bogotá has works that were 50 years latesaid Mayor Claudia López when work began in May. “Today, together with President Iván Duque, the biggest investment in Colombia’s history in infrastructure was announced.” Later, in an interview, López added, “Bogotá will be under construction for 10 years and that’s why we have to be patient and organize ourselves.”
Unlike previous mayors, López has focused his efforts on major constructions that will transform this metropolis of 10 million people, the fifth largest in the region. And he decided to start them almost all at the same time. But previous mayors have also done it: the Transmilenio, a rapid transport bus system, is considered an example for dozens of cities and the network of cycle paths, which completes almost 600 kilometers, is the largest in ‘Latin America.
Paradoxically, the city with the most mobility problems is also considered a model in some respectsas World Bank transport expert Daniel Moser says: “I’ve been working on it for decades and Bogotá is a case that always comes up, sometimes as an example of what to do, a sort of laboratory for innovation , and sometimes as an example of the challenges that all major cities face.
It is perhaps not so paradoxical. Maybe it’s just a complex problem, which even the most developed cities could not solve completely.
In any case, the Bogotans seem to feel like the protagonists of a horror story every time they leave home to go to work. Two thirds of them say in surveys that they are dissatisfied with Transmilenio. Mobility complaints dominate the press. Experts are often cornered in the media to name a former mayor as “guilty”. And every once in a while, there’s a “traffic jam,” as they’re called around here, that becomes a social media meme.
“I love living in Bogotá. The transition from Bogotá to death is almost imperceptible,” says a famous phrase by comedian Santiago Moure.
But The problems of Bogotá are not very different from those of Mexico City, Sao Paulo or Lima, said all the experts consulted for this report. In all these cities, public transport and avenues are insufficient, and no matter how many of them have subways or large highways, traffic jams are commonplace. Neither London nor Tokyo have managed to resolve their traffic.
Even motorization rates in these cities (the number of trips made by private transport) are higher than in Bogotá, where only 11% of trips are made by private car, according to official figures. So what makes Bogotá so special? Why is it so often at the top of the slow mobility charts?
Colombian cities are among the most densely populated in the world. The forced displacement of 8 million people due to war, considered one of the largest in history, filled cities during the second half of the 20th century informally, without planning and in a logic of inequality. , which makes this country one of the most inequitable in the world.
The list of the Urban Reform Institute, an American think tank that measures density with common parameters, is led by dozens of African and Asian cities and in position 39, with almost 18,000 inhabitants per square kilometer, appears Bogotá . The next Latin American city is Medellin. Bucaramanga follows. Sao Paulo and Mexico City, the most populated in the region, do not appear on the density list.
“Bogotá is a particularly dense city and it’s usually the biggest predictor of mobility issues,” says Pishue, of Inrix. And Mosher of the World Bank explains: “There are two things that seem to stand out in Bogotá. One is the residential distribution of people, which is concentrated in one area, and the other is its geography, because it is not a circular city, but a vertical one”.
These are ideas that support research by the Urban Sustainability Group at Universidad de los Andes, Bogotá, which argues that traffic in the capital has a lot to do with the area where most people live and the area where most people work.
“Because of the way the city has grown informally on the fringes since the 1950s, today we have that the outskirts are extremely dense and that there are no jobs there”explains Luis Ángel Guzmán, urban planning expert at this study centre.
Few cities in the region show social segregation as explicit as Bogotá: In general, here the rich live in the north and the poor in the south. “It’s as if we were living in a kind of asideexplains Ricardo Montezuma, urban planner at the National University. And the jobs, Guzmán analyzes, are almost all in the north: 33% of jobs in Bogotá are in 10% of the urban space.
While low-income Bogotanos make an average of 0.55 daily trips, in affluent areas they travel a maximum of 0.2 times a day. A quarter of the salary of the first is also allocated to transport.
“Segregation and inequality are the underlying factors of the mobility problem, and this is something that is not usually in the discussion of traffic jams,” says Guzmán, referring to the variables that usually focus the debate. : the problems of Transmilenio, the “unjustified” use of the car, the “lack” of civic culture, the corruption or “incompetence” of this or that former mayor.
These are factors full of problems, but which are repeated from one metropolis to another. The particularity of Bogotá is that, in a vertical city, with jobs crowded on one side and workers crowded on the other, the number of trips made at the same time on the same avenues is enormous, with noticeable effects on the traffic. .
To the socio-spatial aspect, experts add another variable that also has versions in other cities of the world, but which in Bogotá, for historical and geographical reasons, occurs in a particular way.
Montezuma of the National University argues: “The problem is with the politicians, not with the politiciansbecause the political, if not political, management of mobility has led us to the absurdity of vehemently discussing whether, for example, the metro should go up or down, when that is not the central discussion”.
Colombia has always been a particularly centralized country in its capital. In this, it resembles Buenos Aires and Mexico City, except that it is not a federal country. The problems of the capital are, according to the national media, the problems of the country. As such, your town hall is a political platform: all the mayors of the last 40 years were presidential candidates and two of them reached the head of state. It is often said that Bogotá City Hall is the second most important office in the country.
The political role of the capital meant that, according to experts, a technical discussion has become an almost identity flag.
“That’s not quite the case in Mexico City,” says Manuel Suarez Lastra, an expert in urban geography at the Autonomous University of Mexico. “Of course, decisions are made based on political position, but there is a lot of technical analysis and generally politicization is not the rule, but the exception”.
Despite the fact that each mayor of Bogotá comes to change projects from the previous one, experts agree that in the last 30 years a certain continuity has been achieved without which projects such as the Transmilenio or the bike path or the vehicular restriction known as Peak and plate —detained abroad— would not have developed.
“I insist: it is not the politicians, but politicians, who have generated expectations among the people that distort the problems and the solutions and they have generated a very big divide between the technical and objective and budgetary reality, and the expression of the citizen”, says Montezuma.
Extreme politicization also has technical effects. Part of the reason why Bogotá doesn’t have a metro, it’s because politicians couldn’t agree in 50 years on how to do itand demands in a legal country ended up stopping approved projects.
Another example is the Plan d’Aménagement du Territoire, a supposed long-term consensus strategy which, however, could not be renewed since 2004 due to claims and legislative obstacles. “The politicization of town planning traps us in indecision and inefficiency”, Guzman said.
The result is that some Bogotanos, many of whom are domestic workers, can pass up to 5 hours a day to get to and from work. A situation which, at least for the next 10 years, will only be resolved — as the mayor said — with patience.