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(ARCHIVE) Vol. XIX No. 16, december 1-15, 2009
Is Bogota the way for us to go?
(By A Staff Reporter)

Create space for people not cars, put on the road fewer vehicles carrying more people, do away with flyovers, urged Enrique Penalosa, former Mayor of Bogota, Colombia (1998-2001), and an expert on urban development, speaking at various traffic fora in the city recently.

What a good city is

Speaking in Ahmadabad, Penalosa said a good city is one where the needs of children or elderly people are taken care of. A good city is more about architecture and not engineering.

The recently inaugurated BRTS in Ahmadabad, he said, should spread downtown, to the most congested roads of the city to benefit the common man and the pedestrian.

The high profile project in Ahmadabad is the improvement of the Sabarmati River­front that is jointly developed by public and private participation. Penalosa, while congratulating the project developers, said that such projects should be more focussed on the public interest than the private.

Bogota – and a few other towns in Colombia – once had a civic situation worse than Chennai. It was unbelievably congested, slums proliferated, traffic was chaotic, and public infrastructure had virtually broken down. Then along came Penalosa who was elected Mayor and who brought a radically different approach to traffic management. With that began the improvement in that South American capital’s lifestyle, making it today one of the more people and environment­friendly capitals in the world.

As Mayor of Bogota he has been credited with bringing in radical solutions in traffic management with the primary objective of improving the quality of life, creating more healthy public spaces for its citizens to spend time outside, leaving the footpath for pedestrians, and introducing the concept of encouraging public transport rather than private transport.

In his years as Mayor, Penalosa widened footpaths, reduced the number of cars on the roads in peak hours, created a world-class bus rapid transit system, reclaimed waterfronts for the public, and – in a move that nearly got him impeached – banned cars from parking on pavements. “Parking is not a constitutional right in any country,” he says. “It’s a private problem that should be solved in private spaces with private money.”

Here are some of the views Penalosa, who now heads the US-based Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, expressed in Chennai:

  • Use exclusive lanes for an efficient and effective public transport system. Cities with Bus Rapid Transit Systems (BRTS) on the roads manage traffic better than cities with an extensive rail system. Buses get closer to people’s destinations and the turnaround time can be faster. An exclusive bus lane can move 40,000 people an hour, a car lane 2,000 at best. Subways and trains can move about 10-12 per cent of the population but buses can get closer to people’s homes and offices and can move more people more cheaply and efficiently. Developing cities such as Chennai should create extensive bus-ways with exclusive lanes in the growth areas. Adequate systems for getting people on board and off should also be provided with prepaid smart cards and bus stations. Ask the traffic commissioner of a developed country and his counterpart in a developing country about transport and traffic policy – the former is likely to talk about public transport and the latter about widening roads to take more cars.
  • Discourage the indiscriminate use of cars. No matter how many flyovers and road expansions are done, it will never be the solution to curb traffic congestion in Chennai. Discouraging private transport is not about doing away with cars or the comforts of modern living. But, if you believe in democracy, should not a bus with 80 passengers have 80 times more priority than a car with one passenger?
  • The major segment of the population spends more time in public spaces and public transport than inside their home. It is the quality of these public spaces that needs to be addressed first. A bus carries more people than a car, then the priority in road design should be for the bus. Few use cars but everyone has to use a footpath if only to get into the car or walk to the bus. It is not up to the governments alone, but also the developers. Every large building should ensure that it upgrades the quality of the public space and pavement in its immediate neighbourhood. Only with high quality public spaces, efficient public transport and roads that are pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly can problems of urban transport be addressed. The single biggest difference between the infrastructure of an advanced nation and a backward nation is its footpaths, not its highways. In European cities, large areas are roped off for pedestrians and a vibrant street life, while many roads have more space for walkers and cyclists than for car traffic.
  • Flyovers can only be a short-term solution to speed up traffic flow. Within a matter of months, they will be as choked as the rest of the roads. Across the world, no city has solved its transport issues by building more bridges; on the other hand, developed cities such as New York, Denver, San Francisco and Seoul are spending billions of dollars to pull down the bridges. As far as Chennai’s proposed elevated expressway along the coast is concerned, within a maximum of five years traffic will be jammed on it as well.
  • Most metro rail projects are highly expensive and only cater to sections of the public who patronise private transport. They are not mass transport systems. Bus Rapid Transit Systems and Dedicated Bus Lane Systems are.
  • Governments need to build large land banks around growing cities if they are serious about housing for all. Land around growing cities cannot completely be in private hands if prices are to come down. Governments of developed countries, such as Sweden and Finland, bought large tracts of land early last century to keep land prices under control. This was tried in Bogota. Large “land chunks” were bought and “high-quality, low-income housing created.” But it was too little too late. However, it is “not too late for Chennai” which will really “grow only in the next 50 years.”
  • Urban development projects in Colombia were successful because they were designed to help the poor, children, elderly and handicapped, and not cars and companies.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Shouldn’t we be visiting Colombia to see how they did it, instead of London, San Antonio and Singapore?


In this issue

What the city's road rage...
Is Bogota the way...
The problem of our...
Some thoughts on cricket...
Historic Residences...
Other stories

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