Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Wrong Route on Public Bikes?

A rider during a public bikes trial in Bogotá a few years ago.
Washington D.C. has a per-capita income of about U.S. $75,000. 

Bogotá, D.C.'s per-capita income is less than U.S. $20,000.

The conclusion? Washington is a much, much, richer city and Washingtonians have lots more spending power.

Washington also receives many more tourists than does Colombia's capital and has better streets and less crime.

So, now guess which of these two capital cities is subsidizing its public bikes program, and which one expects those bikes to pay a profit to the city?

If the answer made any sense, then I of course wouldn't be writing this commentary.

Last week, Bogotá finally chose a company to operate Bogotá's planned public bicycles program. Cycling advocates should be celebrating, and would be, if the scheme didn't have all the signs of disaster.

The Colombo-Chinese consortium, Bicibogotá, consists of a garbage collecting company and a home appliance company, neither with any experience in bicycles. And it's Colombian owner has a history of corruption and other scandals.

But those difficulties are minor compared to the fatal flaw in the city city's approach to creating a long-awaited public bikes program. Other cities see their public bike systems as public services which improve health and reduce air pollution and traffic congestion and subsidize them. But Bogotá expects its public bikes to pay the city profits.

Washington D.C. subsidizes its Capital Bikeshare program, as does Vancouver, Canada; Melbourne, Australia; and the U.S. cities of New York; Chicago; Minneapolis; and Chattanooga, Tenn. Toronto, Canada, Toronto, Canada decided not to subsidize its own bikesharing program. But, despite being a much wealthier city than Bogotá, its program was struggling as of 2013. Even mega-wealthy New York's Citi Bike program will be in crisis if sponsor Citibank pulls out.

And the numbers get even worse from there, as this graphic from the Washington Post shows.

In Washington, as the first circle shows, only about one fifth of users are locals who buy annual memberships. The rest pay by the ride, and are presumably mostly tourists. The second circle shows that the annual members do the great majority of the riding. However, the third circle shows that casual riders pay almost two-thirds of the program's revenues.

Bogotá, besides being a much poorer city than Washington D.C., also receives far fewer tourists, meaning that its revenues will be far lower. 

Is this contract only Mayor Petro's desperate effort to create a legacy, at whatever cost? Does anybody believe that public bikes can work in Bogotá without a subsidy? Why launch a program doomed to failure, which will only leave a black mark on cycling here? 

Instead, Bogotá should take the route of almost every other city and see bicycling as a public benefit, which cleans the air, reduces traffic jams and improves people's health, and subsidize cycling. 

This is particularly true, after all, since dirty transport receives, albeit often invisible, subsidies.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Time to Round Up Glyphosate?

Glyphosate being sprayed over Colombia. (Photo; Wikipedia)
A World Health Organization panel recently labeled glyphosate, the main ingredient in the Round-Up pesticide, as a 'probable carcinogen.'

The evidence is not clear, as this New York Times article points out, and, in contrast, the German government recently ruled that the herbicide was safe. Glyphosate manufacturer Monsanto also insists the herbicide is benign.

But there's enough reason to feel concerned about using glyphosate, the world's most popular herbicide and to wear a mask and gloves while spraying it in the back yard.

Composition of the mixture sprayed over coca fields.
(Photo; U.S. State Department)
Unfortunately, however, that's not an option for many Colombian campesinos potentially exposed to glyphosate, which is sprayed from aircraft in a concentrated form to try to kill coca leaf plantations. Unfortunately, sometimes wind blows the herbicide onto homes, food crops and bodies of water, possibly leading to ingestion by people. Some reports have linked glyphosate to skin problems and miscarriages. And Ecuador worries enough about the impacts of herbicide spraying in border areas to have filed suit in international court against Colombia.

Glyphosate's effects are contested. While glyphosate does kill plants, coca leaf farmers have learned how to deal with it, by spreading a protective coating over their crops' leaves, harvesting the leaves when they see spray helicopters approaching, hiding coca plants between rows of food plants, or replanting quickly after spraying. According to some reports, there is even a 'Round-up ready' variety of coca bush.

A child's drawing shows coca leaf
spray planes killing animals. (Image: Daily Kos)
The loud and prominent coca spraying campaign has also generated lots of resentment against the United States throughout Latin America.

And while glyphosate spraying has been a component of Colombia's aggressive coca eradication campaign, Peru and Bolivia which do not allow spraying have also reported reducing their own coca leaf plantations. Moreover, it's not clear that reductions in coca leaf plantations have affected supplies in the United States and Europe. Cocaine prices are reportedly dropping in the United Kingdom, and higher drug prices in the United States may be due to a crackdown on precursor chemicals. It also appears clear that reducing supply is a much less effective way to combat drug consumption - since it drives up prices - than is reducing demand.

The latest report that glyphosate could be carcinogenic is no reason to ban the chemical. But it does provide yet another reason to consider shelving a dubious anti-drug campaign.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Female Solution?

Where are they off to? DEA agents on the move. (Image: YouTube screen grab)
United States Drug Enforcement Agency guys reportedly attended sex parties sponsored by Colombian narcotraffickers.

In early 2013, Honduras' ambassador in Bogotá resigned after revelations of sex parties with prostitutes inside the embassy.

A few years ago, US Secret Service agents started an international scandal by hiring prostitutes in Cartagena during the run-up to an international summit meeting in Cartagena.

The key factors here? Machismo and testosterone.

A New York Daily News cover about the
Cartagena Secret Service scandal.
Hiring prostitutes and attending sex parties may or may not be wrong, depending on your moral code.
But they certainly do generate scandal, and they can place agents in compromising situations and make them vulnerable to blackmail and extortion.

Fortunately, there is an easy solution to these male-generated problems: Hire only female agents and officials.

Women are of course not immune to sexual improprieties. But the endless parade of prominent men apologizing and resigning for involving their private parts with the wrong people suggests to me that there's something uniquely male behind this.

On the other hand, removing men from all responsible positions in government, business and even science might be difficult. And the U.S. government's solution: imposing a zero tolerance policy for paying for sex, might also be unrealistic, considering how ingrained the sex-and-partying culture appears to be.

Or, perhaps U.S. government bureaucrats believes they can re-engineer human nature and stop thos macho guys, far from wives and girlfriends, from noticing exotic women?

Perhaps a more realistic policy would be to accept commercial sex as a realistic part of male behavior, legalize and destigmatize it, so that it ceases to become a potential source of blackmail and extortion. That might, at the same time, also improve working conditions for the prostitutes involved as well as making it possible to ensure that those working women are not also on the tab of spies, narcos or terrorists.

And, while they're in the business of decriminalizing behavior, why not also consider decriminalizing drugs, as well. That would eliminate the whole need for those corruptible DEA agents in the first place.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

'Childhood Without a Divine Treasure

Colombian artist Vicky Neumann has worked in the United States and Europe. But she came home to do the powerful exhibition about children, poverty and sexual exploitation on now in the National University's Art Museum, located near the Bogotá campus's Calle 45 entrance.

The exhibition, titled 'Childhood Without a Divine Treasure,' is scheduled to continue thru July 4.

The museum has a second exhibition, by Colombian artist Oscar Murillo, who lives in London, about capitalism and exploitation.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Skyscraper City?

High and higher? Central Bogotá's skyline, with the Cerros Orientales behind.
Quietly, last December, Mayor Petro issued Decree 562, permitting the construction of skyscrapers across much of Bogotá, as long as certain restrictions are observed.

If you didn't hear about the decree at the time, you weren't alone. It received little attention, despite its potentially fundamental impacts on Colombia's capital. Now, however, the decree IS receiving attention - almost all of it negative.

High rises along Carrera Septima.
"I don't know any urbanist, architect or civic leader...who believes (the decree) will produce a better Bogotá," wrote ex-Bogotá mayor and urban sustainability expert Enrique Peñalosa. "The citizens, who will suffer the most, haven't begun to understand how this decree will destroy the character and quality of their neighborhoods."

Journalist and novelist Enrique Santos Molano, who describes himself as usually an opponent of Peñalosa, instead agrees in this case. High-rises, Santos Molano writes, "produce visual contamination...and overcrowding...A city planted with skyscrapers resembles a hell."

Peñalosa and Santos may be overreacting. The decree's goal is to make the city more dense, and as they themselves admit, that's a valuable goal, since it makes transport and providing public services much cheaper. And, are Chicago, New York, Singapore and other skyscraper cities really 'hells' on Earth?

The Torre Bacatá being constructed on Calle 19
is to be Colombia's tallest building.
The decree does exclude high-rises from some neighborhoods, such as Bogotá's historical center, and
directs city officials to take into account the surrounding neighborhood, amount of open space and other factors when issuing building permits. However, such considerations, naturally, turn out to be extremely malleable when construction companies' huge profits come into play.

This decree will be very destructive if it permits the growth of urban jungles, in which residents feeling trapped, and neighborhoods become impersonal, anonymous places with little green space, where streets feel like dark chasms deep in urban canyons.

High-rise construction can be positive for cities, but it should be planned carefully, considering factors such as public space, transport and sunlight. Unfortunately, that isn't true in Bogotá now, and won't likely be under Decree 562.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Why We'll be Sucking Smoke for a Long Time

Belch on! An aged truck coughs out smoke in central Bogotá.
Yesterday's El Tiempo carried two tragic articles for those of us who care about breathing clean air.

Our lungs suffer from the poisons spewed out by those smog-belching, decades-old trucks which afflict our avenues and highways. And the government had passed a decree ordering the elimination of those old, often-decrepit machines. However, one of the truckers' demands during their recent strike was the elimination of this rule, which cost them income.

And, the truckers won, preserving their right to continue contaminating us for the duration.

'All policies of limiting the useful life in cargo transport are discarded.'
'School transport in suspense over decree to junk old cars.'
The next time you see one of those white school vans drive past, observe whether it's trailing a stream of smoke and you might be surprised to see how old and dirty many of those vehicles are. But, like the truckers, the school van owners are protesting laws requiring them to retire those old, but profitable, smog belchers.

And expect the government to backpedal on this one, too.

Why do the polluters win these battles? It's simple: Their pocketbooks depend on polluting, and so they make noise. Meanwhile, the other 99% of us who would prefer to breathe clean air, keep quiet.
School vans rest between runs in La Candelaria.
An old truck streams smoke near the Universidad Nacional.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Good Riddance Mayor Petro - But Not Yet

Bogotá Mayor Gustavo Petro. (Photo: El Universal)
Petro's enemies have made a sport of trying to oust him from office. In April 2013 they filed the more than 630,000 voter signatures required to hold a recall election. However, before that election could be held, the procurador ousted Petro in early 2014 for mishandling garbage collection. Nevertheless, only a month later, in the face of myriad legal maneuvers, his ouster was suspended and Petro returned to office. To the anti-Petristas' frustration, the short suspension appeared to kill the possibility of a recall vote.

However, to the surprise of all, this week the Constitutional Court revived the recall vote.

Perhaps the high court - which, incidentally, is engulfed in a corruption scandal - didn't have a calendar. If the magistrates had looked, they'd have seen that the next mayoral election is in October and that Petro's term ends Dec. 31. A recall vote would take at least three months to carry out, placing it only two months before the scheduled mayoral election. And, if Petro lost, they'd have to select a placeholder mayor and schedule an election to select the person to serve the last few months of his term. That would mean two or three expensive elections within a few months, conflict and extreme instability in municipal government.

El Tiempo analyst Yesid Lancheros points out that the noise generated by the pointless Petro recall vote would drown out the policy debates before the vote for the next mayor. Lancheros also observes that the recall vote would almost surely lose - of the 34 such votes held since 1994, not a single recall has succeeded. But the recall vote alone would cost 40 billion pesos. Isn't there a better use for all that money?

Even ex-Congressman Miguel Gómez Martínez, who started the recall effort, told Blu Radio that the court's latest decision was "a joke and the result of not having justice."

None of which changes the fact that Petro has been, if not a bad mayor, a huge disappointment for those of us who hoped the ex-M19 guerrilla leader would bring truly innovative ideas to Bogotá.

Instead, Petro's Bogotá Humana has meant many failed, half-hearted and pointless policies:

Sacks of trash on a sidewalk along Jimenez Ave.
Petro's brief ouster was for allegedly mishandling the city's garbage collection service, so you'd think he'd have taken real steps to resolve this problem. But rather than taking real steps to reduce garbage - such as taxing plastic bags, applying a deposit system to containers or creating a meaningful recycling program - the mayor is expanding the city's solid waste dump.

A huge - and daily - traffic jam in central Bogotá.
One of Bogotá residents' constant complaints is the traffic congestion. And, upon being elected, Petro promised to replace Bogotá's failed Pico y Placa law with something dramatically different: a London-style congestion charge. Altho the mayor presented the congestion charge to the City Council twice, it didn't back the idea, which died. Instead, Petro just twiddled with the failed Pico y Placa.

Cyclists on Carrera Septima's bike lane.
Bogotá was once seen as a regional cycling leader, and Petro set himself up as a great advocate of bicycling and other clean transport. He has created several bike lanes and financed a short pro-bike PR campaign. But the bidding processes for a public bikes scheme repeatedly failed to attract responsible companies, leaving Bogotá lagging behind neighboring capitals which set up public bikes years ago.

The Santamaria Bullfighting Plaza with a sit-in by bullfighters in front.
 Perhaps surprisingly for a man who helped lead a violent guerrilla group, one of Petro's headline efforts was to end bullfighting in Bogotá. He promised to convert the 'Plaza de Toros' into a 'Plaza de Todos.' Petro used a serious of stratagems, including setting up an ice skating rink in the plaza during the bullfighting season, to block bullfights there. The mayor lost a long legal battle to prohibit bullfighting, so he decided that the plaza needed to be shut for renovation. But the bidding process for the renovation contract keeps getting suspended. Meanwhile, for no discernible reason, the plaza's administration banned tourist visits. Instead of being the Plaza de Todos, Petro has turned the historic building into the Plaza de Nadie - Nobody's Plaza.

The bullfighting plaza will be vacant for the foreseeable future.
A TransMilenio bus belches smoke in La Candelaria.
And a severe problem which has barely even registered on Petro's Bogotá Humana program - the air pollution which causes thousands of premature deaths every year. Of course, Petro's done nothing substantial about this.

A scene in El Bronx.
Petro has repeatedly promised to improve the lives of the denizens of central Bogotá's notorious Bronx street, with its addicts, thieves and prostitutes. But initiative after initiative has gone exactly nowhere.

Good bye and good-riddance Mayor Petro - but not until the end of the year.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Crazy for Love: El Café de los Locos

El Negro Chivas in front of el Café de los Locos.
Manuel González Guzmán and friend.
The ambitious law student went crazy after his girlfriend betrayed him. The widow was driven crazy by her husband's death in one of Colombia's many civil wars. The fast runner who chased streetcars fell in love with his sister - until she escaped from him on a streetcar. He went crazy and chased streetcars trying to find her. The son of high society loved cheese and a woman. But she left him on the altar, driving him crazy.

All went crazy for kinds of love. 

These four semi-legendary characters of La Candelaria are on display in new café, appropriately named 'Café de los Locos,' located in the Hotel Continental's shopping area, just off of Jimenez Ave.

The café, just one week old, is the brain-child of journalist Manuel González Guzmán, and won several historical and cultural recognitions. When I visited, the café was vacant, but that hopefully will change when neighboring stores are rented and open.

El Bobo del Tranvia
'El Bobo del Tranvia', or 'The Fool of the Streetcars,' loved chasing streetcars and also fell in love with his sister, who fled from him on a streetcar, driving him crazy. He then pursued streetcars with more fervor, hoping to find his sister on one of them. In the end, El Bobo helped direct the city's streetcar system.
The café's interior reflected in a mirror.

'El Bobo' close up.

La Loca Margarita
La Loca Margarita's (The Crazy Margarita) husband died fighting for the Liberales under Rafael Uribe Uribe in the Thousand Day's War. She possessed the ability to predict the future and predicted Uribe Uribe's 2014 assassination in alongside Congress, in La Candelaria. That killing drove her completely mad, and, dressed in red, she roamed La Candelaria denouncing the Conservative Party.
Manuel Quijano y Figueroa, known as Pomponio.
The son of a wealthy family, Pomponio loved cheese and a woman, who left him at the altar. Driven crazy, Pomponio nevertheless eventually became a capable letter deliverer.

El Negro Chivas.
El Negro Chivas was an Afro-Colombian man from El Chocó, who traveled to the capital to study law. Soon after his arrival, however, his parents died and his fiancé left him for a white man. Crazed with fury, Chivas turned his anger against the sun, at which he yelled until his eyes were burned out.

The patio at the end of the commercial center provides a peaceful, secluded spot to sit.
Most of the shops are vacant and for rent.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Flying Above Problems

The Torre Colfondos, on Calle 67 and Carrera 8 in Chapinero, will not have a commuters heliport - for now.
(Photo: Panoramio)
Imagine the convenience of flying quickly and smoothly high above the noise and congestion of central Bogotá between Bogotá's business center and El Dorado Airport.

Such a service would come, naturally, at a high price for the commuter - but perhaps a much higher one for the city.

High above Bogotá, a commuter helicopter takes off.
(Photo: Aviatur)
Aviatur has been proposing using the commercial heliport on top of the Torre Colfondos, on Calle 67 and Carrera 8, for commuter flights from the surrounding business district to the airport. In the face of neighbors' protests about noise pollution, the company announced today the suspension of the plan, but that they would seek another location.

Helicopter commuting is already established in many big, traffic-choked cities. Liberty Helicopter, of New York, for example, offers eight-minute flights between New Jersey and Manhattan for $200.00 per day, replacing a one-hour ferry boat commute.

For elite bankers, stockbrokers, politicians and others, an hour may be worth $100.00. By the same token, the wealthy live in isolated, protected communities, send their kids to private schools and vacation on private tropical islands, far away from the problems which afflict the rest of us.

Congested streets? Why, we just fly over them!

Crime in the streets? That's why we live behind walls in a private community!

Pollution? Poverty? Dirt and hunger? We don't even have to see those things!

All of this might be well and good (besides the tremendous environmental impact), except that it insulates the wealthy and powerful - often society's decision makers - from society's real problems.

Once Bogotá's elite fly over the city's noise, pollution and traffic jams, they'll care less about working to solve those problems.

As a result, those problems become less likely to be solved.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours