Monday, November 21, 2011

Can Petro Tame Bogotá's Traffic?

Going nowhere slowly. A daily sight in Bogotá.

Amongst Bogotá's many problems: crime, corruption, name it, traffic congestion stands out because it has such a huge impact on everybody's quality of life and sanity, but also because its solutions are within reach, altho they'll require lots of political resolve and investment.

El Tiempo reports that the city's average traffic speed dropped from 33 kph last year to 24 kph this year. Soon, the city will become one big traffic jam - unless leaders take action.

Mayor-elect Gustavo Petro is revealing his plans for battling Bogotá's traffic jams. And many of his ideas are practical - which also means unpopular.

A solution which works. TM buses roll past congestion.
* Petro is inclined to build at least three new TransMilenio lines: along Boyaca, 68th and Ciudad de Cali avenues

With all the controversy and inconvenience caused by the ongoing TM projects, on 26th St. and Tenth Ave., more TM construction won't be popular news. But building TM lines is the fastest and cheapest way to create order and increase capacity on Bogotá's avenues. Petro says these new TM lines will be integrated with a planned new subway line. That scenario's unlikely, since any subway's probably decades away.

Traffic studies years ago gave these avenues higher priority than 26th St., which has been the source of so much scandal and controversy. But city officials prioritized 26th because it leads to the airport and is therefore a showcase - and perhaps to fill someone's pockets.

Bogotá needs not three more TM lines, but 30.

Expensive un-solution: a not-so 'free way' in California.
* Petro questions the value of urban freeways

"Freeways won't solve our transit problems," he said. "We have to look at the problem's roots: each road that's made is a road that fills with cars."

A glance at cities which have spent fortunes building freeways, like Los Angeles, Calif. and Caracas, Venezuela, shows that freeways don't solve traffic congestion. More road space encourages more driving. Instead, Bogotá must implement measures to limit demand. 

Petro also pointed out that building freeways - and thus promoting driving - means more pollution and global warming gases.

Ancient, dirty buses are supposed to be phased out. 
* Petro intends to implement the Integrated Public Transit System, or SITP

This will require a painful transition, full of chaos and confusion - but it's essential. Bogotá's existing system of barely regulated private buses is chaotic, inefficient and tremendously polluting. The bus companies, however, have always used their political and economic muscle to avoid controls, crowding more old, dirty and inefficient buses onto the streets, increasing congestion and pollution. Last week's decision to reduce Pico y Placa restrictions on buses was yet another indication of their influence.

The SITP is supposed to rationalize bus routes and junk old buses, replacing them with newer, and hopefully cleaner, ones. The bus companies will do their best to bend the new rules and keep their ancient but profitable wrecks on the roads. The city will also have to find a new resolve to enforce pollution laws, which right now clearly are not applied, even to TransMilenio buses.

Pico y Placa: What's the point?

* Petro intends to phase out Bogotá's failed Pico y Plan law

The Pico y Placa law, which restricts each car from use two days of each week, reduced traffic jams in the short term, but over the long term has negative effects: it encourages the purchase of second cars, often old, highly-polluting ones. So, by packing even more cars into Bogotá, it may have had the paradoxical effect of worsening traffic congestion. The law has also created an economic inefficiency, albeit a voluntary one, by encouraging those who can afford to to buy multiple cars but to keep them parked several days a week.

It's hard to feel sorry for these people, who bought their cars knowing that the Pico y Placa rule would prevent them from driving them two days each week - or even because of the rule. And in any case, their cost is tiny compared to the huge economic and health prices of traffic congestion, which are caused to a great degree by there being too many private cars.

In any case, a glance at central Bogotá's rush hour traffic jams shows that Pico y Placa has failed.

The alternative? See below: Charge those who congest the streets for the privilege.

Cars crowd a sidewalk, forcing pedestrians into the street.
* Most fundamentally, Petro intends to charge private car owners and subsidize mass transit

This is clearly social justice, as well as sane transit policy - but it won't win friends amongst the city's minority of private car owners, who happen to be disproportionately wealthy and influential.

Car owners will complain that they already pay a bundle in taxes, fees and for gasoline. That's true. But they don't come close to compensating for cars' huge impacts on public space, air quality and traffic congestion, which cost Bogotá untold amounts in patience, productivity and medical costs.

Cars clog up the streets. They park on the sidewalks. They blare their horns outside my window at midnight. They turn the air grey. They make crossing streets a hazard.

In all of these ways and many more, private car use shift their costs onto society, so it's only fair that car users pay for their impacts. But one of Petro's ideas - increasing the costs of parking - won't work. How could officials ever dictate parking lot rates? Market forces rule, and lot operators will find ways to charge whatever they want to. And restricting parking spaces will only mean even more cars on sidewalks.

The only real solution is a London-style congestion charge, as unpopular and difficult as this will be to implement.

A bus belches, poisoning us all.
* And two transit questions:

- Will Petro take real measures against air pollution, much of which is caused by vehicles? Air pollution generates huge medical and quality of life costs for Bogotanos. The required mechanical checks have probably helped, but obviously are insufficient. EcoPetrol also needs to provide higher-quality vehicle fuels, particularly diesel. And, most of all, the city needs to enforce existing pollution laws by actually stopping, fining and immobilizing those vehicles we see belching smoke every day on every street and avenue in Bogotá.

A cyclist tries to squeeze her way up Seventh Ave. 
- What will he do about Ave. Septima, which is clogged, chaotic and polluted? Officials have talked about different versions of TM, streetcars, light rail and even a 'green corridor.' The city needs to do something, and almost anything will be an improvement.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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