Saturday, October 14, 2006


post-event narrative


by Justin Hyatt, of the Hungarian Young Greens (ZöFi)

An informal account of the conference, TRUE exchange, and my first visit
to South America. Plus… a nine point city plan!

Just back from Colombia, I offer you my thoughts on the experiences I had
while visiting the country and attending this year's TCFC conference. The
second section (right after nutshell) is somewhat of a primer on Bogotá
and its transformation, intended for a casual reader (baggy pants, etc)
who might not be familiar with terms such as BRT or ciclovia.


In a nutshell, it was another good conference in the TCFC series; I think
most people agree with that. As could be expected, a lot of emphasis was
on Latin America this time, as it was the first time the conference was
held outside of Europe. Surrounding the conference was the TRUE exchange
(stands for “Together to Renew the Urban Environment”), an international
European Youth exchange (funded by the European Commission), which brought
participants to both the exchange and the conference from the following
countries: Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Mexico, Brazil, and Colombia.
Everyone who participated in the Youth Exchange took part in the whole
conference as well as additional programs designed just for the exchange.
The hosting organization was Fundacion Cuidad Humana, based in Bogotá.

The WCN-ICC (the network’s coordinating office) successfully fundraised
for the youth exchange, which was a great boon to the conference, as it
brought many people together who would have otherwise have not been able
to come, and made the conference more international. Otherwise attending
were several Canadians and a whole slew of New Yorkers: Over twenty in
all, from both Time's Up and the South Bronx River Watershed Alliance.
Asia, Africa and non-TRUE Europe were not very present (although I might
have missed someone). Expect a whole different regional atmosphere next
year in Istanbul.


For anyone who doesn't know, the reason that the conference was chosen to
take place in Bogotá, Colombia, is due to all of the changes and
transformations that have occurred in this city of 8 million people within
the last ten years, thanks to the pioneering mayoral leadership of Antanus
Mockus and Enrique Peńalosa. A quick summary of Bogotá's transformation:
Slums were cleared out. High quality playgrounds built. The trendsetting
BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) system came into force, with the name
Transmilenio. This is an economical alternative to a subway, providing
quick and efficient surface mass public transit, in a network of separate
busways and exclusive elevated platform bus stations. Next is a very
extensive bicycle path network, the length of which is comparable to or
outdoes many Western European cities. There are many parks and various
pedestrian-oriented infrastructure. One of the greatest and most enjoyable
parts of the dynamic processes happening in Bogotá (also the oldest, it
has been happening for 30 years already) is the so-called Ciclovia, where
at least 120 km of the city's streets (if not more) are given over to
cyclists, rollerbladers, and all the other good nmt every Sunday and
Holiday, between 7 am and 2 pm. We also heard while we were there that the
city is planning on converting its historical Candelaria district into a
carfree zone within the upcoming years. They began the process just a week
before we got there by closing off certain streets on weekends. Once every
year in February, there is also a (week)day when the entire city goes


We heard reports from Ecuador, Peru, Mexico, Venezuela, New York, San
Francisco, and other places. (Full conference program on the conference
website, see below) Naturally we heard quite a lot about Bogotá. We heard
a speech by the current mayor of Bogotá, Luis Eduardo Garzón. What was
special about this was the fact that the mayor has apparently quite
recently had a change of heart and a shift in his priorities. Until
recently he was not very interested in championing the causes of his
predecessors, but then he realized that their programs and initiatives
were worth his while after all and that the automobile does indeed need to
be curtailed. So, one of his first statements was "three months ago I
could not have imagined standing where I am today."

What we discovered about Bogotá is that while there has been a lot that
was transformed, it is also still very much a work in progress. It is
claimed that ten years ago the situation was far worse than it is today
(higher levels of poverty, more crime, no Transmilenio and thus much more
difficult to get around), whereas today the city is cleaner, safer, and
transportation is much better. However currently the existing Transmilenio
lines only account for about 15% of modal share; it is projected that once
the system is complete (2015) it will take up to 80% of the city's
traffic. Currently what fills much of the gap is an incredibly large fleet
of microbuses and medium-size buses (the tree types are known as
Collectivo, Ejecutivo and Buseta). The problem is there are far too many
of these buses on the streets and they are extremely polluting. A part of
the problem is also that what is not BRT is a bus belonging to a private
company, and thus difficult to control (think powerful lobbies). Together
with a very large fleet of taxis, in my estimation the two together (small
buses and taxis) could make up for over 2/3 of the traffic on the street.
Many buses will eventually be upgraded or replaced by Transmilenio, but
that might still take some time. Unfortunately, cycle paths usually
accompany very busy roads, therefore some of us complained about headaches
from the pollution.

In summary, Bogotá has both great nmt-based infrastructure, where it is a
pleasure to stroll or cycle, as well as heavily trafficked arteries, which
I would have like to avoid at all costs, only often it was unavoidable.
Great changes have already take place and this seems to be a trend for the
future as well. Once the Candelaria district has been completely converted
to a carfree zone, this will become a truly world class, beautiful carfree


All of the TRUE exchange participants were provided with bicycles for the
week, courtesy of Fundacion C.H. Most of the Time’s UP people also got
bikes from somewhere, and the Fundacion let even more bikes out of the bag
on September 22, World Carfree Day. Thus we took to the streets
(especially the Calendaria district) for what might be considered Bogotás
first ever Critical Mass. Yes it is true, thousands upon thousands of
people ride every Sunday during Ciclovia, but this was organizing from
below, baby!


On a personal level, I was the happiest in downtown areas (near to the
mountain range that flanks the eastern side of the city) and naturally in
the pedestrian areas and parks. I really don't care for the vast areas of
sprawl that stretch out to the west of the city. These indeed bear a lot
of similarities with US cities, including medium low-density residential
areas, 8 or 10 lane highways, and even the on- and off-ramp highway
overlays common in the US. My sense is that this style of urban evolution
is fairly common in the big cities spanning both North and South America
(but my experiences limit me to Colombia and the USA). There were fun
things we could do, like take a party ride on the famous Chivas bus one
night. We crammed into a traditional, colorful fat bus, that took us all
around town, blasting music while being given shots of a local spirit. One
day we also walked up (or took a cable car) to Monserrate, overlooking the
city, which provided us with nice views, and at least for István and me, a
bit of exercise.

As much as Colombia may have a reputation for being dangerous, I didn't
(nor do I think anyone else) found that to be very true. The single
reportable incident for me was, when towards the end of my stay, while
riding a collectivo, someone tried to steal my shoulder bag. I jumped out
of the bus, chased the lad down, and he luckily returned it to me without
a fight. While I only had a split-second glimpse of him, in my
recollections he was wearing a business suit. I returned to the bus, where
my travelling companion had the driver wait for me, and it appeared the
chase scene provided some entertainment for the rest of the passengers.

I also really enjoyed the mix of ethnicities on the street. The Colombian
gene pool includes light-skinned people of European descent, black people
and also Native American (indigenous) stock. Some people from the coastal
areas also bear Middle-Eastern features. Naturally with a fair admixture
and the usual miscegenation, presto the outcome is of a beautiful and
diverse population.

I also heard a lot about the diversity of the country, from its Caribbean
coast to the Amazonian basin, the mountains and all else, so I was a bit
sad not to be able to traverse more of the country. I did go on a half-day
outing to Zipaquira, and also a bike trip to a hill-side neighborhood in
South Bogotá, although we didn’t quite make it to the top of the hill,
because two police on motorcycles stopped us and informed us that it was
too dangerous to proceed, we had better go back down with them and drink
coffee in a pastry shop. We didn’t feel like we were in imminent danger,
nonetheless we complied. Still, the view from near-top was exceptionally


While riding on or observing the Transmilenio buses, I couldn’t help but
occasionally imagine all these red buses as jocular buddies, weaving in
and out, in front of and behind each other, jockeying for position,
sometimes affable, sometimes in a frantic rush, and usually enjoying
team-play: riding the rodeo with at least two or three other companions,
comfortably contained within the busway, yet still rather bombastic. Once
I saw six heady red buses storm an intersection (all going the same way)
within no more than ten seconds. Talk about a herd of buffalo all on a
cross-town escapade!


As I sport a fairly active imagination, and am occasionally given to
fantasizing on "what could be", I did not spare Bogotá an action plan for
the highly unlikely event that I would be elected mayor, bestowed with a
magic wand in order to do my deeds quickly. Thus...

1. Ban all collectivos, ejecutivos, busetas. Once and for all. Or at least
only allow those to operate that have seen some kind of emissions filter
installed and upgraded to fuel-efficiency.

2. Integrate all of the non-Transmilenio lines into one system, with
predictable routes and bus stops. (That doesn't mean that there couldn't
be the flag-down type of paratransit service available that Bogotáns love
so much. That task would simply be relegated to private vehicles, Russia

3. Complete the Transmilenio network. Allow the pride of Bogotá to be
crowned with completion. (A fairly obvious move)

4. Trams for Septima. This might seem to be somewhat controversial
decision, seen as the city is all about Transmilenio, but I would allow
for at least the main north-south avenue to receive light-rail, as this
would carry a heavy amount of traffic and should come with as little
pollution as possible. Other than that, not much else besides pedestrians
and cyclists on a widened bike path would be moving on Septima.

5. Complete the carfree program for Candelaria as quickly as possible
(also an obvious move, as it is the plan)

6. Bike path system: In all those cases where bike paths are on sidewalks,
I would remove them from the sidewalks (restoring those to their rightful
pedestrian-owners) and give them ample street space. I would also do
everything possible to allow the ciclorutas to be removed as much as
possible from automobile traffic, so that, it is a pleasure to cycle and
you don't need to get a headache from the pollution (see point seven).
Also, all those ramps and curbs should be thoroughly smoothed out, as
currently there are a lot of bumps to be borne by the brunt of the Bogotán
bicyclists. Finally erect signs for cyclists! I would put up clear signs
with directions and distances, the logical thing for any cycle network the
size of Bogotá's.

7. More greenways. Based on the already existing beautiful Parque El
Virrey, I would convert a lot of space surrounding cycle routes to
greenways. For instance, where there is a wide boulevard (Avenida Las
Américas, for example) I would put the entire private motorized traffic on
one side, keep the Transmillenio in the middle, and then a large space for
both trees and cyclists on the other side. Also, in the more dense
neighborhoods, such as where El Virrey is located, I would allocate a few
more corridors for park/greenway/nmt use. Actually, my dream would be a
whole network of greenway bike/pedestrian corridors.

8. Ciclovia: For the carfree Sunday, some immediate effects could be felt
by: extending Ciclovia from the current 2 pm to at least 6 or 7 pm. In all
the intersections where cross traffic must be allowed to pass, I would
change the lights from operating on the normal weekday routine to only
turning red for the ciclovia street users for a few seconds, just enough
time to let the few cars cross, and then quickly returning to green.

This is only some of what could be done to further transform Bogotá. And
it is obviously still short of turning it into a completely carfree city
(although who would want to drive with all of the above conditions in
place?) Although, further steps towards a carfree Bogotá could certainly
fall in the wake of the above. So.... how does my election platform look?
Oh, I almost forgot, there is still a non-transport, energy related ninth

9. Turn off the lights during the night in all of the high-rises downtown
and in North Bogotá. It is currently a hugely wasteful practice to leave
all the lights on in all the buildings, the whole night through. It is a
huge waste of money and energy. I wonder how many billions of pesos could
be saved every year with that problem rectified.


Conference website:
Conference pictures site 1;
Conference pictures site 2;
Fundacion Cuidad Humana;
World Carfree Network;
Peñalosa´s Foundation;

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