Monday, November 29, 2010

Green or Grey Bogotá?

Bogotá finished sixth for environmental soundness out of 14 Latin American cities ranked by the Economist Magazine's Intelligence Unit for Siemens Corp.  (The results in full are available here.)

Whenever I read these rankings, I'm struck not by how 'good' Bogotá is, but by how lousy other cities must be doing for Bogotá to rank relatively high.

Curitiba, Brazil: Efficient transit, green spaces and clean air.
The Brazilian cities, led by Curitiba (which invented bus rapid transit), ranked highest.

Bogotá did pretty well in areas such as energy use, green space, land use and transport - but to a great extent because of its relative poverty and lack of development. With the country's armed conflict having been pushed back, the economy growing, car ownership increasing and planned freeways and land use policies likely to feed sprawl, I expect Bogotá's environmental performance to decline in the coming years.

A view from the hills overlooking Bogotá
Certainly, Bogotá has implemented some important, positive policies in recent years, particularly by expanding and improving public spaces and extending its express bus system. (The report applauds Bogotá for the length of its mass transit system per square mile, highlighting the system's cost advantage compared to a subway.)  But the city did poorly on indices such as air quality and wastewater treatment. Any of us who live here and have seen the smog-belching vehicles or taken a whiff of the Bogotá River could have told you this. In my five years living here, I have never seen anybody measure a vehicle's emissions. And the invasion by cheap and highly-polluting Chinese cars and trucks is likely to negate any air quality improvements from the planned implementation of an Integrated Public Transit System and the retirement of thousands of older buses    In contrast, Medellin did well on air quality and water sanitation.

Bogotá officials could accomplish a lot by reading this report and adopting the good ideas from other cities. Some are no-brainers, such as instituting random pollution checks (with recorded, automated devices to minimize corruption) on vehicles. (The report erroneously compliments Bogotá for equipping its Transmilenio buses to operate on natural gas. Unfortunately - and incomprehensibly - the city has not done this, although many taxis have been converted to natural gas.)

Belching Bogotá bus - isn't anybody watching?
The report applauds Santiago, Chile for implementing a traffic congesting fee, although it's is only a half-meaure. Such a fee could do wonders for Bogotá's traffic jams, and would be a huge improvement over the failed Pico y Placa policy. 

Bogotá might also restart its bicycling-promotion policies, forgotten by recent mayoral administrations.

Another good move would be creating a strict land-use plan and sticking with it through mayoral administrations. Curitiba, Brazil has moved poor residents from informal housing into new, better-built housing with access to transit and city services. Bogotá could do the same with some of the neighborhoods covering its Eastern Hills. Many of these neighborhoods are located on steep, unstable land and suffer high crime rates and other problems. By offering residents incentives to move into solider, more compact housing, the city could improve its waste-water treatment rates and recover land for green spaces and forest.

Homes built, most likely illegaly, on the edge of a ravine in a Bogotá hillside neighborhood. The city generally refuses to hook up such homes to sanitary services in order to not create incentives for more illegal building. But that only creates a terrible sewage problem. 
Again and again, the report warns about the destructive effects of the private car, and I can't help quoting:

"Urban sprawl has also put limits on policy options. As detailed below and in the city profiles, vehicle numbers are having negative effects not just on transportation but on air quality and greenhouse gas emissions.

"Add in everything: More cars means more traffic jams, less time with family; more and wider roads means less green space. 

"Many Latin American cities have successfully set up extensive public transport systems. However, they have not performed as well on the more sensitive challenge of getting people out of their cars. But those efforts are necessary to address the region’s deeply entrenched culture of individual transportation. 

"Policies to reduce the number of cars on the road are rare. Just two cities have park and ride schemes. None currently has carpooling lanes. Only Santiago, rated well above average in this category, has a congestion charge. ‘Comprehensive public transport networks are only part of the solution to reducing reliance on cars. Index figures indicate that the number of vehicles per person in a city goes up with income per capita, independent of the quality or size of the public transport system."

And later:

"As the city profiles show, however, the big problem for many cities is vehicle traffic. Those with strong policies on car and truck emissions testing or the promotion of public transport tend to do better. Curitiba is ranked well above average, and its BRT system is often cited as a reason for its better air quality."

All of which makes me ask: Why hasn't Bogotá implemented basic, proven, no-brainer anti-congestion measures like car-pool lanes, ride-sharing programs, park-and-ride lots and, best of all, a congestion charge?

By Mike Ceaser of Bogotá Bike Tours

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