Bogota crowdsources a green transport future to cut emissions

by Anastasia Moloney | @anastasiabogota | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 26 May 2021 11:10 GMT

A cable car arrives into a station in Bogota, Colombia, April 20, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Fabio Cuttica

Image Caption and Rights Information

As Colombia’s capital aims for net-zero by 2050, it is asking residents what changes they want – and more bike lanes, electric buses and cable cars are now in the plans

By Anastasia Moloney

BOGOTA, May 26 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Colombian community leader Veronica Fonseca raised her hand to speak at a meeting hosted by Bogota's mayor, she never expected her ideas on improving transport in the capital would be included in the city's plans.

Fonseca, 52, told a forum convened by city hall last year that her hilltop neighbourhood, nearly 10,000 feet (3,000 metres) above downtown Bogota, needed better transport links, and suggested a cable car to ferry residents.

"I'd seen cable car lines working in other areas of the city and I told the mayor that's what our community needs too," said Fonseca, outside her home in the steep San Dionisio neighbourhood surrounded by forested mountains.

When officials added her suggestion to their plans, "I felt included. I never imagined that my ideas would be taken into account," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Fonseca is one of 50,000 residents who have contributed to plans to redesign a 23-km (14-mile), car-choked major thoroughfare through the capital. Most had their say in dozens of meetings, online or through door-to-door surveys carried out by city hall.

The "Green Corridor Septima" initiative is a flagship project of Bogota's first female mayor, Claudia Lopez, and aims to better integrate the city's transport network, part of a broader effort to cut climate-changing emissions and pollution.

She and other officials see shifting residents towards low-carbon travel as a key pillar of the city's climate and development strategy.

Bogota, a city of 8 million people, is part of the C40 Cities network, a group of nearly 100 cities around the world working to drive faster action on climate change.

The cities have each committed to delivering plans designed to spur uptake of clean energy, boost adaptation to climate threats and turn the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change into an on-the-ground reality.

'LISTENED A LOT'

In Bogota, transport accounts for nearly half of all greenhouse gas emissions.

To slash those, officials are expanding bike lanes and pedestrian paths, using more electric buses and extending the reach of electric cable cars - some partly driven by renewable solar power - that serve poor areas in the city's south.

Many of the ideas have come from residents, whose views were collected and prioritised as a core part of the $620-million Green Corridor Septima plan.

Juan Pablo Caicedo, head of the project led by the Institute of Urban Development, said the city first "listened a lot" to a diverse range of city dwellers, from LGBTQ+ residents and the elderly to Afro-Colombians and indigenous people.

Residents were consulted in part through an open-source online platform that allowed people to submit their ideas by editing and adding to draft plans. The effort ultimately drew 7,000 proposals from citizens, some as young as 10 years old.

TAX PROTESTS

To combat climate change, Bogota aims to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 15% by 2024, from 2020 levels, and by half by 2030, with the aim of becoming carbon-neutral by 2050.

Officials say the city is so far on track to meet its goals, particularly with COVID-19-related restrictions still limiting travel.

In recent weeks, however, Bogota and cities across Colombia have struggled with violent street protests over concerns about rising inequality and poverty, sparked by a proposed tax change by Colombia's president.

That reform, now cancelled, included tax breaks and incentives for businesses looking to turn to clean energy.

A third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic also has filled hospitals and resulted in about 500 deaths a day in May across Colombia, diverting attention from climate plans as officials scrambled to respond.

But Mayor Lopez, who took office in January 2020 and is a C40 vice-chair, said combating the "climate crisis" is a key priority for her four-year term.

TRUCKER BATTLES

Greening transport remains one of Bogota's biggest challenges on its path to net-zero emissions.

Fossil fuel-powered cars, buses and cargo trucks - some belching black clouds of smoke - emit a big share of the 14,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide entering Bogota's atmosphere daily, according to Carolina Urrutia, the city's environment secretary.

With no nationwide railway system, goods and food are mainly transported by trucks traversing Colombia's high Andean mountains.

But efforts to get truck drivers and private bus companies to switch to lower-carbon energy always spark a "heated debate," admitted Urrutia.

Numerous attempts by previous mayors to rid Bogota of old polluting buses have met with strikes and street protests by bus and driver groups - and ultimately city hall has backed down.

Now, officials are providing incentives to get rid of old polluting buses, with the city in some cases buying them.

"This is a political battle that others have lost in the past, and it's one that we can't lose this time," Urrutia said.

ELECTRIC BUSES

Bogota is also boosting its use of electric buses, said Felipe Ramirez, who heads the city's Transmilenio bus system.

Bogota now has about 350 electric buses circulating, used by about 180,000 people a day. It plans to roll out 1,485 such buses by 2022, which would give it the largest city fleet outside China, he said.

"Despite the pandemic, we're on schedule," said Ramirez, showing off a newly-built charging station near the airport, its parking area blissfully quiet compared to the usually thrumming bus terminals.

The city's electric bus fleet reduces emissions equivalent to taking 42,000 cars off the road each year, Ramirez said, and offers the latest technology, from phone-charging to free Wi-Fi.

Under public tenders through state-owned Transmilenio, private bus firms buy and operate the electric fleet in exchange for 15-year concessions.

BICYCLE SCHOOL

At a spacious new school in the poor neighbourhood of Bosa, in south Bogota, staff are encouraging a new generation to take up low-carbon transport.

"The Bike College", which fully opened in February, aims to put the bicycle at the centre of education, said headteacher Jose Willington.

"Riding a bike gives students an equal status" to those living outside the slums, he noted.

On a sports court at the school, which serves more than a thousand primary and high-school students, some children learned about road safety from instructors, while others practised riding their bicycles, wobbling along.

Being part of Colombia's cycling culture - the nation has produced Olympic gold-medal cyclists and a Tour de France winner - can offer teenagers an alternative to joining the small-time drug gangs that plague city neighbourhoods, Willington said.

Even before the pandemic, Bogota was crisscrossed by a 550-km network of cycle lanes, the longest in Latin America.

The city added another 80 km of lanes at the start of the pandemic, to ease crowding on buses, and plans 280 km more by 2024.

At the bike college, older students learn to repair high-end and electric bikes, make sportswear and build road safety apps, and can earn a qualification in bicycle mechanics alongside a high-school diploma.

"You get to learn new things like how to take apart and assemble bikes," said Isabella Vargas, a 16-year-old who wants to become an engineer.

"We also learn that helping to create a sustainable environment is a duty we citizens have."

Related stories:

In Durban, climate goals are bold – but it’s poor feel left behind

From Seattle to Seoul: 10 cities going green amid COVID-19 

Colombia’s Medellin pushes ‘eco-city’ aims in coronavirus recovery

(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney; editing by Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.