Getting Used to Getting Around in Bogotá

Traffic in Bogota

In my first weeks here, much of my time has been focused on family, as my wife Peggy and I help our three kids (ages 5, 8, and 12) get settled in emotionally and culturally into a new life that is unfamiliar to them. This includes navigating the effects of their culture shock and incomprehension of what people are saying to them in their daily interactions (they don’t speak much Spanish yet), as well as getting them started and settled in their schools–a preschool for the youngest and Spanish language school for the older ones. It also includes moving from Burlington, Vermont, an small-scale and intimate city where we walk and ride bikes most places–and can mostly take our safety in public space for granted–to an enormous city where traffic is usually pretty horrible and distrust of public space is the norm. It has been at times exhilirating and other times frustrating and difficult.

Some of our difficulties and tensions have emerged around getting to and from places; moving five people of different ages under any conditions in a large city is a challenge. Of course, we’re not alone, and it’s striking how much getting places consumes time, money, and emotional energy here. Indeed, it’s fair to say that one of the central concerns of peoples’ lives here, aside from having a place to live and a job or some other means to make money, is how to get to and from the places that are important or necessary in their lives. And it’s not easy–people often live distant from those places, and the infrastructure and social experience of moving around can be difficult and frustrating. Among the first things I’ve heard people comment on when you see them is how bad the traffic was, how crowded the buses were, or how unpleasant was the experience of getting there. One woman I know travels about 2 hours each way to get from her home to her place of work. Both are in the northern part of the city and as the crow flies less than twenty miles. But the circuitous bus routes and terrible traffic make it long and arduous. Her commute is not unusual in this city; she is one of literally millions who have similar situations.

We live in the center of the city but have to travel some fifty blocks each way to where the kids’ schools are. Soon I will be commuting to teach at the National University, which is twenty or so blocks away. We have options, of course–taxis, public colectivos (buses), and the Transmilenio bus rapid transit system. We also bought bicycles, which I intend to use to get to and from the university, but moving a family around by bicycle in everyday life seems pretty impossible (more on that in another post). As I said, moving a family of five is no simple logistical task–piling in taxis, which are mostly really small–and it can get somewhat expensive (about $5 each way for all of us on Transmilenio or a colectivo). The jostling and discomfort on public transport, which can get crowded, is a concern. Given the hassles and sense of distrust of public transit, most middle class families like ours would get a car or send their kids on school buses to get to and from school. Neither are really options for us, so we’re getting used to (the difficulties of) getting around in Bogotá.

It’s No Car Day in Bogotá

My family and I arrived a few days ago in Bogotá and we have been settling in to our new lives here, and as a result I’ve not been too active on the research front. But today I got out early to experience a unique event here in Bogotá, which is its annual “Día Sin Carros,” or Day Without Cars. My street, Carrera 5, which is often very busy, has been pretty quiet all day:

 no cars

As you can see, there’s a taxi here so “no car day” isn’t meant to be literal. In fact, a few blocks away on the main thoroughfare of 7th Avenue, the traffic was unusually bad during morning rush hour. But it’s pretty much all buses, taxis, delivery vehicles, motorcycles, and official government vehicles. Private automobiles are outlawed on city streets on this day, and though I’m sure they’re out there collaboration seems very high.

bad trafficSo what’s a Bogotano to do? Many ride the Transmilenio Bus Rapid Transit system to get to work and run errands, intensifying use of a system that is already heavily used. As one woman I know who normally rides Transmilenio to her job as a housekeeper complained, “This day is the worst, you really get packed in on the buses.”

TransmilenioBut what’s remarkable is how many people use body power to get around, mostly on two wheels:

Roller wheelsActually, this guy is an exception. Most people are on bicycles.

Promoting active transportation and especially use of the city’s major bikeway system is what this event is all about. It was begun in 2000, and while some people such as the woman quoted above complain about it, it has tremendous popular support. In fact, an effort to have Car Free Day once a month as opposed to once a year passed by popular vote but was defeated in the courts by resentful business owners who thought it would negatively affect retail shopping.

People come out in droves on bicycle, and it is not unusual to see people who do not otherwise look like hard-bitten everyday cyclists coming out on bikes they normally use for recreational Sunday Ciclovía events (car free streets). You can tell by their somewhat widened eyes and unstable movements in traffic.

new riders

I even observed several bicycle caravans helping college students get to their universities. In recent weeks, bicycle advocates have been organizing such caravans in preparation for today to teach people routes, what to wear, and to develop confidence in bike riding–which can be quite harrowing in Bogotá traffic even with the massive bikeway system of separated lanes. But no matter who they are, people are wearing their street/work clothes and riding bicycles that are meant for comfort and practicality and not speed.

Streets stay open to motorized vehicles, but on major streets one lane is cordoned off with cones for non-motorized use. There is some mixing of modes as you can see in this short video.

In some cases, whole roads–no, sides of a freeway–are set aside, as in this time lapse video:

In a city of this scale, No Car Day is a major logistical undertaking involving thousands of police and city officials whose presence can be felt in almost any major intersection.

PoliceI find it hard to imagine a North American city pulling this off. Not only would the resistance from suburban commuters be strong, but no city is currently prepared to handle the logistics. Bogotá can do it because it already closes down some 133km of city streets every Sunday and holiday for Ciclovía so it has the institutional experience and systems in place already.

P.M. Update: It’s remarkable out there post-morning rush-hour. The streets are surprisingly mellow, many people still on bikes, and the number of buses and taxis is much lower. As a pedestrian one gets a sense of–almost, but not quite–tranquility that is unusual in such a large city.

Posted in Bogotá Research (2013-14), Fieldwork Blog. Tags: , , , . Comments Off on It’s No Car Day in Bogotá
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