Monday, December 5, 2011

Back to the Future on Seventh Ave?

Seventh Ave. today: Chaotic, polluted and slow. 
The future Seventh Ave?
First, there were horse-drawn cars, then came streetcars, then buses, then private cars, then electric trolleys, then TransMilenio - and then back to streetcars, now known as tramcars or light rail?

Mayor-elect Gustavo Petro plans to build a streetcar line on Seventh Ave. It's just the latest of many transit schemes for the historic but chaotic and polluted avenue, including a subway, a TransMilenio line, a scaled-down TransMilenio line, an 'ecological corridor' and now light rail.

              Light rail has several positives:

* It's narrow, enabling it to fit into skinny Seventh Ave.
* It doesn't pollute.
* Light rail looks sleek and modern, gives a city a panache and can attract tourists.
* While light rail's construction costs and time might be greater than an express bus line's, light rail's operation and maintenance costs are lower.
* Perhaps most importantly, higher-income people, like most of the residents along Seventh Ave., are more willing to ride trains than buses.

Passengers in a light rail car.
               But on the negative side:

* Light rail lacks the flexibility of an express bus system.
* It'll probably take longer and be more expensive to build than light rail would.
* Most importantly, it'll require passengers to deboard and perhaps change stations when transferring from the streetcar to Transmilenio (or a subway) and back again.

If the tramway does get built, it'll take Bogotá back to the first half of this century, when streetcars -called tranvias - carried bogotanos from south Bogotá up to Chapinero (a separate city then). At first, the cars were pulled by horses and mules, then for a short time operated on batteries until power lines were installed.

Streetcars on Seventh Ave. near Plaza Bolivar.

Riders hang out of the doors of a streetcar on Seventh Ave. 
The streetcar system, operated by the Bogotá City Railway Company,  became a symbol of Colombian nationalism in 1910 in an explosion of resentment against the system's U.S. owners. Shortly before, the United States had separated Panama from Colombia and made it into an independent nation in order to dig the Panama Canal. When one of the Railway Company's American owners, Johnson Martin, insulted a Bogotá policeman, Bogotanos responded by boycotting the  streetcar system until its owners were forced to sell it to the city of Bogotá.

Streetcars burning during the Bogotazo
The municipal owners continued expanding the system and buying new streetcars. However, in 1948 tragedy intervened. The assassination of populist politician Jorge Eliecer Gaitan triggered huge riots, called the Bogotazo, in which many buildings were burned, thousands of people were killed and the streetcars pushed over and torched. Many believe that the owners of rival bus systems, eager to destroy the competition, paid rioters to destroy the streetcars. The streetcar system limped on until 1951, when the mayor ordered the rails paved over, killing the system.

It's sad contemplating what might have been if Bogotá had preserved, expanded and modernized its urban rail system. Today, clean and orderly streetcars might carry people across the city, without the pall of smog now enveloping many Bogota avenues, and also serve as a tourist attraction.

Streetcar tracks can still be seen on Seventh Ave. and Jimenez, apparently left there as a memorial to Gaitan, who was assassinated nearby. 
A map of Bogotá in 1910 shows the streetcar line running along Seventh Ave. and then north to Chapinero. 
Find more info at: The Tramways of Bogotá (from wich I borrowed several pictures.)

Wikipedia: Los Tranvias de Bogotá.

Del Tranvia del TransMilenio

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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