can it really be true that bo-gotá, Colombia, a city of 7 million wracked by drug wars, corruption and gang violence is more friendly to the vision of a car-free downtown than Toronto? Actually, yes. Last week, Oscar Edmundo Diaz, an adviser to former Bogotá mayor Enrique Penalosa, was in town to toast Toronto's Bike Week celebrations. He told me excitedly, "We are going to be the first car-free city in the world!"
Diaz characterizes its concerns as more social than ecological, but Bogotá has a history of successfully transforming road space away from cars to bikes. In the 1980s, the city began closing roads to car traffic every Sunday for seven hours, allowing only non-motorized transportation. Today, 120 kilometres of roads are closed every Sunday to motor vehicles, and over 2 million cyclists, walkers, joggers and bladers take over the streets. Bicycle traffic jams are commonplace.
In December 1999, they tried going car-free on a weeknight, and a million bikes emerged to view the city's Christmas lights in joy and safety. "He was a very good mayor, very determined. (He) changed people's minds about how to see the city," says Diaz, who points out that Penalosa by law was allowed only one three-year term.
The people who owned cars had the power and access to the media, he says. "One of Colombia's major journalists called the mayor a communist because he was trying to put people together in the same bus. It's crazy how people can be discriminated (against) because one has a car and the other one doesn't." Calling someone a communist could end in assassination in a country where politically motivated murders are commonplace.
A petition was launched to impeach the mayor for his stand against the car, but it failed to gather the requisite number of signatures. Penalosa proposed that he would cancel the car-free day if a poll showed less than 60-per-cent support for the idea. Support squeaked in at 61 per cent.
Bogotá's first car-free weekday was Thursday, February 24, 2000. The whole urban area was restricted to cyclists, pedestrians, rollerbladers and users of public transit. It was a smashing success. "We moved 7 million people by public transit and bicycle. Over 800,000 cars were left at home, and 1.5 million people moved by bicycle."
In the election referendum in October 2000, 70 per cent wanted to have another weekday car-free day, and 51 per cent supported a daily six-hour ban on cars by 2015 (with 34 per cent against and the rest blank votes).
This in a city where cars used to park anywhere, cluttering sidewalks. "People thought they could park almost inside the store," Diaz quips. Not any more. In the last few years, 500 square kilometres of public space has been created, plus 1,000 new public parks.
As well, Bogotá has started an odd/even licence system: during peak hours, 40 per cent of cars are prohibited from driving in the city. Parking fees have increased by 100 per cent. And the proportion of the price of gasoline that goes to the city in taxes has doubled, to 20 per cent. The city won the coveted Stockholm Challenge Environment Award in 2000.
Interestingly, Diaz says Bogotá is moving toward car-freedom less for environmental reasons than for social justice purposes. "We have social problems and lack of money. We have to stop building highways because we need that money to build schools.
"Everyone knows what the right environment is for a bird, for a dolphin. But what we don't know is the right environment for children. A perfect city would be the one where we could raise our kids without having cars attacking them, without having to commute several hours because of sprawl."
They were also interested in equity. "Every dollar we can spend on children's education instead of building a new highway (helps with) equity. And the only places where people meet as equals are on public transportation or on the sidewalks or the ciclovias (bike lanes). You can find the president of the company and the cleaning lady. There is no hierarchy there."
Just five months ago, the municipality put in place a fast bus system, the TransMilenio, that makes money! Pushing car-free policies is always politically dangerous, he says. "But if politicians are not prepared to take a risk, it means they only care for power. They should choose (instead) the city, the citizens, their kids -- politics has to make a difference."