On the back of an opinion piece I penned some days ago, I find myself wondering about the state of Bogota and what the future has in store for the Colombian capital. I mentioned that problems of noise contamination and pollution so frequently discussed in the mainstream media here are distinctly first world issues and not ones that have been linked to Bogota in a very long time, if ever. Really, the main issues are security, mobility and then health care and education. To be quibbling that the average decibel level on the Carreras 7, 10, 13 and so on is peaking at 85 and that the level that is healthy for a normal human being sits at 65 is really a moot point.
So, this really brings me to what I want to write about. This is not a document detailing how to survive Bogota and its transport, more of a helping hand for when you try and understand why things are the way they are here.
As I write this in 2012, Bogota is at a crossroads in its evolution, and frighteningly enough it could go either of two ways should the politicians in charge fail to grow a pair and take on the indifference, corruption and lack of education that manifests and festers in this city. Massive projects are underway, stalled, planned and have left Bogota struggling to maintain its title as the Athens of South America. Should they all be completed, including the Transmilenio bendy bus along the Calle 26 to the airport, the Transmilenio along the Carrera 10 and then all of the appropriate feeder projects to satellite areas, then things are headed in the right direction. If they don’t and this indifference and corruption continue, then we are harking back to the dark days of the 1980s and all of the positive turnaround in Bogota will have been to no avail.
This is not a problem unique to Bogota but one that is most upsetting. With more or less eight years dedicated to national security under the tenure of the former President Alvaro Uribe, Colombia has fallen way behind its neighbors in terms of infrastructure. That there is one passable highway from Bogota north to Santa Marta and this is largely of one lane in either direction is shocking. That between the towns of Honda and Guaduas the main entry into Bogota from the north of the country is shut all day until 10pm so that vital repairs can be made speaks volumes about the bureaucracy here. Even in Bogota, shoddy construction work on roads has left sink holes opening up, massive ruts appearing and then there’s the failure of traffic signals. The drains system is inadequate, the gutters are filled with trash and people routinely steal the manhole covers leaving gaping axle shattering obstacles along the way.
- Traffic Signals, or Lack Of
Gustavo Petro, the new mayor for Bogota, has argued that there is the need to change all the traffic lights in Bogota and replace them. I for one agree. They are poorly timed, poorly spaced and are very often not even heeded. The city needs to be returned to a disenfranchised population. If you are a pedestrian you are not even a second class citizen alongside automobile traffic, the brutal truth is that you might as well not have any rights at all. Zebra crossings are an excuse for buses and taxis to speed up and play Mario carts with your life. How few crossings have actual pedestrian signs? Oh yes, and before I get carried away, have you seen the signposts indicating how to get to the highways and beyond Bogota? I have, but they may as well be in miniature. Traffic would certainly flow better if there were more lights and one could actually make left turns rather than have to reroute down residential streets on the right, circle the block and make it back to the perpendicular traffic lights. But then, with this, one is going to have to educate all of Bogota’s motorists, including tackling the problem of taxis and buses.
Someone needs to take on the unions that control the buses. I know that this will result in citywide blockades and strikes, but, the city has to show itself as a bigger more solid entity and stop being held at the mercy of these thugs. There is a law in place to scrap the older buses but I think the figure of jalopies actually sent to the dump since this law was brought in hardly reaches double figures so powerful are the unions. They run on low grade fuel, belch out fumes into Bogota’s thin air, stop wherever they want, weave in and out of traffic and are aggressive to all and everyone not to mention unsafe. Taxis, where to start? I genuinely believe that 80 per cent of all taxi drivers paid a bribe to receive their license. They neither understand customer service, traffic laws nor road rules. I live on the Carrera 7 and not a day goes by without seeing a taxi induced traffic accident here. Taxi drivers, the yellow lights on each side of your car’s rear end are to show those behind you where you are going next!
- Cycling in Bogota
Former mayor and cycling enthusiast Enrique Penalosa can be routinely be found on CNN and across the globe in major cities talking of Bogota’s prowess as a bike friendly city. Sure, in the context of central and South America, Bogota probably comes out top, but, really, all of his points can be picked apart. Vancouver, this is not! Cycle lanes are under used because people are afraid to use them. Cycle lanes are often placed on the sidewalk in very busy places where pedestrians and street vendors use their space. Cycle lanes are usually the most level point of the street and so therefore they are easier for the pedestrian. People don’t know what the cycle lanes are. I love cycling, but to travel along the cycle lane that runs alongside the diesel belching buses, weaving in and out of traffic, stopping where they wish, is not my idea of fun. And then, once I have reached my destination, nerves frayed, covered in dirt, possibly wet from the rain, irritated and certainly with a few lives shaved off my overall expectancy, where can I leave my bike?
So, there are many things to mull over in this vibrant and interesting city and not issues that are going to go away in the immediate future. But, in order for Bogota to pull herself up and out of this mire once again into which she has sunk, these all need to be addressed. Bogotanos are feeling disenfranchised and hard changed. Gustavo Petro may be angling to be the first former guerrilla to win the presidency in 4 years from now, but until then his legacy rests on what he manages to achieve in Colombia’s capital. He would do well to address the mobility crisis that is so blisteringly obvious.