Friday, February 28, 2014

The First Signs of Bogotá's Subway

You've probably seen tents like these, on Carrera 10, around town. They're obtaining core samples to study the soil's characteristics to see how best to dig the tunnels for Bogotá's planned subway.

According to projections, tunnel digging will start in late 2015 and the first trains will roll in 2020.

But does anybody really believe that? TransMilenio construction has experienced delay after delay, mismanagement and corruption scandals. Why should we expect subway construction to be any different - except on a much larger scale? And that's without considering the possibility of an economic slide which could leave the project unfinished.

Bogotá's metro is also being marketed with false promises. The government website Metro of Bogotá makes several predictions:

With a subway there'll be fewer cars on the street. - Have these people, I wonder, ever visited Santiago, Chile, Mexico City, or Caracas, Venezuela? All those cities have metros - and also horrendous traffic congestion. It's well documented that each time a car is removed from the street it only provides incentive for another car to use that space. And, remember that the number of private cars in Bogotá is exploding. If a subway reduces traffic congestion, it will only be for a short time.

With a subway, Bogotá will have cleaner air - Well, perhaps - if they finally remove those ancient buses from the streets. A subway will certainly reduce demand for buses along some corridors. But the space freed up will be grabbed by more private cars and trucks - which will pollute the air. And, if the influx of cheap, highly polluting Chinese and Korean vehicles continues, Bogotá's air may continue getting dirtier.

The drilling work leaves annoying and
slightly dangerous afterthoughts
like these protruding metal bars.
With a subway, Bogotá will be a denser city - That's probably true, since developments such as retail, offices and housing tends to concentrate along transit corridors, which is good. But the question here is not whether a subway will be nice to have, which nobody disputes, but whether it's the best option for the city. There are other ways to densify the city, without the need for a hugely expensive mega-construction project that will tear up central Bogotá for a decade. (But it's also worth observing that, by moving people underground, a subway can suck life from the street.)
The planned subway line. 

With a subway, Bogotá will have more income - Again, probably true. But the cost for that income is immense. The question Bogotá needs to ask is not whether a subway will be useful, but whether its cost could be better invested in light rail, more TransMilenio expansion, or even schools, parks and hospitals.

That said, here's one big thing in favor of a subway line. According to this website a subway can carry more
than ten times as many people per hour as can a bus rapid transit line.

But I don't think that Bogotá's subway decision is being made based on logistics as much as on status. Bogotá wants to be a Big Important City, and Big Important Cities have subways. Therefore, Bogotá must have a subway.

So, hold on for the ride. Between now and the day, sometime in the 2020s, when the first train cruises underneath Bogotá, expect huge holes in the ground and - even huger delays and scandals.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The New Drunk Driving Law Hits Home

On his way home: Killer Salamanca smiles
as he's led out of court.
Colombia's strict new drunk driving law, intended to crack down on drunks - for whom driving and even killing others had been a forgiveable offense - has finally hit home, unfortunately.

Fabio Salamanca, the rich, spoiled kid who slammed into the back of a taxi, killing its two women passengers and leaving the driver a quadriplegic while driving drunk last July, has received five years of 'house arrest.'

Salamanca's story is just the most recent legal travesty involving a drunk driver. In Salamanca's case, the judge reduced the charge from 'intentional homicide' to 'culpable homicide.' A sentence of only five years made him eligible for home detention under the new legal code. But, paradoxically, the judge didn't apply the new drunk driving law, which would have required Salamanca to do his time in prison.

House arrest doesn't have the most secure reputation in Colombia. And Salamanca's house is likely to be very comfortable, even after his family paid some 800 million pesos to the victims and their survivors.

That others should be so fortunate. An acquaintance of mine was caught last year transporting seven kilos of
'Fabio Salamanca, convicted and sent home,'
reports El Espectador.
marijuana, which he was going to use (mostly) for making health and hygiene products such as soaps. (Ironically, some public health experts believe that wider use of marijuana makes the roads safer because smoking and driving is less dangerous than drinking and driving. And, if not for the availability of pot, some of those high drivers would have been on the road drunk.

Roberto Bastidas, father of one of the women victims, told El Espectador "The justice system favored this young man because he had money....I lost my daughter, and no amount of money will bring her back to me."

For his part, the paralyzed taxi driver said that he'd gladly trade places with Salamanca, who smiled as he was escorted out of the courtroom.

The new, stricter drunk driving law has had at least one impact, however. Bavaria, Colombia's dominant beer company, told Bloomberg Business Week that Colombians are drinking less.

Colombia's didn't celebrate last Christmas with their normal binge drinking, Bavaria President Grant Harries told Bloomberg.

Normally, drinking “starts straight after they get their (Christmas) payout, and then it really takes off," Harries said. "But it didn’t take off, and this was the impact that we were feeling.”

Pity those folks at Bavaria. But Harries said that Colombian beer drinking is picking up again - and with it, perhaps, drunken driving, as well.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Empty Vote

A mural by the entrance to the National University urges passersby to 'Vote en Blanco.'
You've probably seen the signs around town: Signs urging Colombians to 'Vote en Blanco': to leave your vote empty.
'Express your indignation.
Colombia votes blank.'

The goal is to persuade more people to leave their ballots blank than vote for the most popular candidate. (However, according to another interpretation of the law, more than half of the ballots must be left blank.) If the blank vote wins, nobody's elected and the election is repeated - with all different candidates.

To the throw-em-all-out crowd, this sounds great. But it would cause wholesale political chaos and uncertainty. And what reason do we have to think that the new, inexperienced politicians elected would be better than the previous ones? In Bolivia, where corruption was rife, friends told me that they always voted to reelect those holding office 'Because they've already filled their pockets thru corruption, while the new ones enter office with their pockets empty.'

Fortunately, there is a better way to replace bad politicians: Vote for somebody else.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Scenes From La Ciclovía

Holding hands, a couple pedals down Ave. Septima. 
Recently, Bogotá's famed Ciclovia has been packed. And it's not just cyclists, but also walkers, joggers, and skaters. And folks aren't out just out exercising: they're also advertising products, campaigning for candidates and demanding rights for their pit bulls
Riding room only: A packed Ciclovia. 

Not only for two-wheelers. A couple skates past a mural on Calle 26.

On Calle 26, a bicyclist and a TransMilenio bus pass each other. When the TM line was created on 26th, city officials worried that the buses' draft would endanger cyclists. But I haven't heard of any accidents. 

Near the Parque Nacional, cyclists pass left-wing political banners. 

Learning to ride on training wheels. 
I've seen lots of these green Gran Estacion bikes recently on La Ciclovia. The shopping mall must be either lending or renting bikes. 
Swingin' in the Recrovia in the Parque Nacional. 
Cyclists carry flags for the Union Patriotica, a political party.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Downfall of Democracies

University students from Venezuela protest crime, shortages and restrictions on free speech in their country this afternoon in front of Los Andes University in Bogotá.
Across the territory of the old Soviet Union, parts of Africa and right next door in Venezuela, democracy is being dismantled.

I know only the general outlines of what's going on in Asia and Africa, where numerous leaders, once elected, manipulate the rules to guarantee themselves perpetual reelection. And they use temporary majorities to issue laws giving themselves control of the legal system and repressing critical media.

But it's particularly sad for me to watch this happening next door in Venezuela, where I lived there for several years, and particularly because it's a nation with such tremendous potential, in ever way.

When Hugo Chavez was elected in 1998, many of us saw in him a hope for a change from the often corrupt and incompetent leaders who had preceded him, who had largely ruled for the benefit of the small wealthy classes.

But Chavez replaced one style of disfunctional government for another, even worse one. He eliminated checks and balances, used insult as political discourse and converted Venezuela's tremendous wealth into a huge machine for buying supporters and elections. Meanwhile, the government of Chavez and his hand-picked successor Maduro threatened private media and made it more and more difficult for independent newspapers and television to operate.
Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez
being arrested.

At the same time, the government's increasing attempts to control the economy only distorted it, shutting down businesses and causing shortages of basics such as milk and toilet paper. And - perhaps because of the leaders' aggressive, profane rhetoric, their creation of civilian militias, the corruption and lack of rule of law - or all of these things - violent crime skyrocketed.

A Ukranian protester throws a bomb.
Still, some elements of an open society survived, including some independent media and competitive elections - at least in some areas.

Meanwhile, naturally, students, the middle class and others felt increasingly frustrated by the government's steady strangulation of basic liberties. The Cuba-style shortages of basic goods in what should be one of the world's wealthiest nations seem to have been the needle which broke the camel's back. Three weeks ago, Venezuela erupted in protests.

A Venezuelan protester demands freedom of speech.
Such difficulties make no sense in what, by all rights, should be the region's wealthiest, most prosperous nation. It's not for nothing that Venezuela, an OPEC member, has been compared to Saudi Arabia.

But, rather than recognizing that his nation's heading down the wrong path, Pres. Maduro is using the protests as an excuse to increase authoritarianism. An opposition leader was arrested on evidently invented charges and sent to 'court' on a military base. Maduro yanked a Colombian news channel off of the cable TV systems without benefit of any sort of hearing or appeal process. And reporters in western Venezuela report that their cell phone service has been cut. Newspapers were already struggling with a lack of paper to print on.

Maduro is now threatening to expel CNN from the country "for making it appear that Venezuela is having a civil war." Watchers and readers can draw their own conclusions.

Venezuelan authorities are trying to divert the blame for their nation's multiple crisis by accusing Colombia and the United States - the perpetual whipping boys - of being behind the troubles. It's patently untrue. The sources of Venezuela's troubles are right at home: a wrecked economy, shortages of basic goods, galloping inflation, soaring crime and an increasingly authoritarian government. (In fact, Venezuela lives off of the U.S., which buys much of Venezuela's petroleum and sells it much of what Venezuela imports.)

In the recent protests six people have been killed, including a beauty queen and university student shot in the head after participating in an anti-government protest march.

But I'm not optimistic that these budding dictators will be forced out soon. It's tragic but true that both strongmen and full-fledged dictators have shown real staying power. Look at Chavez himself - and his succesor Maduro - as well as Russia's Putin and the leaders of Syria, Belarus and many of those ex-Soviet states.

I can't help observing the embarrasing behavior of some lefties, such as the folks at Democracy Now! You'd think that a program with a name like that would oppose autocratic strongmen, especially those which are strangling press freedoms. But the message I get from DN's coverage of the violence in Ukraine and Venezuela is that the bad guys here are the protesters, who are quasi-fascists pretending to be democrats, and that the real demon behind them is - as always - the United States, which is pulling the strings. 

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Order Out Of Chaos?

Yesterday, these guys were standing on Carrera 10 and Calle 13, holding this sign describing Bogotá as 'An environmentally healthy territory.'  A bit of wishful thinking.
Municipal workers turned out yesterday, perhaps for the first time ever, in an attempt to bring order and public spirit to one of Bogotá's most chaotic and polluted intersections - Carrera 10 and Calle 13 (ironically, also named the 'Environmental Axis.')

Here, vehicles routinely stop in the middle of the intersection, creating gridlock. Private cars, bicycles, motorcycles and buses invade TransMilenio's exclusive lanes while police turn a blind eye. Drivers lean on their horns and their tailpipes belch fumes.

Could a few city workers armed with banners change this? Only a little bit, and only for a few hours. Altho one of them told me their work would be 'permanent', today they were gone.

The intersection is chaotic. Both on the street...

...and the sidewalk.

Trying to hold back the chaos.
A woman covers her mouth for protection from the 'environmentally healthy' air. 
Even the other city workers, holding up a sign about diversity, wore masks for protection from all that environmentally healthy air. 
Not hard to see where all the pollution comes from. But environmental authorities evidently don't see it. 
The red 'Pare' or 'Stop' sign clearly does not refer to air pollution.
Police pitched in. This one stopped a bicyclist for riding in the exclusive TransMilenio lane. 
A second cyclist caught. 
What a headache!
Impressively, they also ticketed private cars and buses for invading the TransMilenio lane. 
But the chaos, pollution and congestion continue.

Nobody's going anywhere fast.
On the next avenue down, La Caracas, two more city workers held this slightly out-of-place banner saying 'Nature is Life.'
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Modernizing Colombians to Death

Colombians appear bent on adopting the ways of life of those oh-so-admirable 'modern' developed nations. And those habits include ones which are killing people in ever greater numbers thru obesity, heart disease, cancer and hypertension - and all the other fatalities caused by unhealthy food and sedenterism.

Over the past five years the percentage of Colombians who are obese has risen abouit 25 percent. Today, more than half of Colombians are oever-weight, and in some Colombian departments beween one fifth and one-third of teenagers are overwheight, altho that's usually the case in poor rural regions.

Here's how to transform Colombia into a modern country - even if it kills us:

Replace traditional meals, like this fish restaurant's...

...with junk food like this from McDonald's.

Replace bicycling and walking...

...with auto addiction. 

Replace traditional markets of fruits and vegetables...

...with convenience stores pushing  processed foods, sugar-packed foods and alcohol.

Replace active sports, like this girls' roller hockey match...

...with sedentary activities like television and video games.

Replace fruit drinks, like these salpicones containing strawberry, watermelon and chopped fruits...

Add caption
...with soft drinks like Coca Cola. Coke may add life, but certainly affects death.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours