Friday, March 23, 2012

The ALO or the Environment?

The ALO, as envisioned by the Infrastructure
Chamber of Commerce, a project backer.
For more than a decade, the ALO, the Longitudinal Avenue of the West, has been one of Bogotá's headline infrastructure projects. The ALO is supposed to decongest other roads by providing a north-south expressway, and also allow heavy cargo vehicles to bypass central Bogotá on their way across Colombia. 

Championed by ex-Mayor Enrique Peñalosa, this monster ten-lane motorway has been opposed by Mayor Gustavo Petro, who has pointed to the project's impacts on wetlands. Instead, Petro proposes using land set aside for the avenue for universities. Discussions on the project's future are continuing.

Whatever the project's benefits, its environmental impacts would be huge.

The ALO slashes across a wetland area.
(Image from: Humedales Bogota)
According to Bogotá's Secretaria del Ambiente, the ALO would destroy 14.6 hectares of wetlands, 23.8 hectares of land bordering the Rio Bogotá and 23 hectares of the Forest Reserve of the North. Over the past several years, the city has invested some 20 billion pesos in restoring these ecosystems, all of which would be lost, according to the Secretaria. Several plant species would be driven extinct, according to the Secretaria, and the construction noise would interfere with birds' breeding. And it would destroy one of the last remaining patches of the region's native vegetation.

The Secretaria also predicts that the ALO would spur illegal invasions of other natural areas along its path. One piece of pastureland originally supposed to be turned into a wetland to compensate for the avenue's impacts has already been filled with houses, according to the Secretaria. Destruction of wetlands also disrupts natural water flow patterns, increasing flooding.

One of Bogotá's fast-disappearing wetlands.
Undoubtedly, the ALO would cut driving times across the city - for a while, at least. Repeated experiences have shown that new roads spur more driving, which quickly fills up those roads, leaving cities back where they started - in a traffic jam. 

Freeways like this one also slash across cities and neighborhoods, making them impassable for walkers and bicyclists.

"Instead of creating more hectares of cement, we should think about conservation and creating more spaces for water, health and mental and physical well-being," said Margarita Florez, Bogotá's secretary of the environment.

Florez is correct that Bogotá needs its natural areas to preserve some sanity. 

Across the Americas, in fact, cities are tearing down freeways.

The mega-freeway's projected route. 
But huge infrastructure projects like this one always have lots of backers - from the companies which would make money off of them. The Colombian Infrastructure Chamber of Commerce estimates the 50-kilometer-long ALO would cost $400 million dollars to build - and we all know how those cost projections go. There have also been accusations that politicians have already purchased land along the ALO´s projected route in order to profit when the property rises in value.

Planners have recently made some concessions toward sustainability, by adding a TransMilenio line down the ALO's center, and planning to charge tolls to users.

Over the next months, city officials may decide the ALO's future. But I have the feeling that Bogotá can find away to solve its traffic headaches without destroying what's left of its natural heritage.

Read more about the impacts on wetlands at: Humedales Bogotá.

Related blogpost: Bogotá's Suffering Wetlands

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours


G. Moore said...

I agree that the acquired land should be used to disperse universities, bilingual schools, hospitals, places of work in such a way as to have cities within the city avoiding the daily crossing of the entire city to the detriment of a quality of life for many people. This would reduce the traffic jams, stress, transport costs, health costs,pollution, but mainly stop damaging the remaining wetlands which have caused so much misery to vulnerable communities by flooding. Biodiversity would also be spared.

Miguel said...

You make a good point I hadn't thot about.

The very space occupied by new highways contributes to urban sprawl, requiring even more roadways.

Thanks for your comment.