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Equity and Mobility

Mayor of Bogota from 1998 to 2001 and President of the Institute for Transportation and Development

Mayor of Bogota from 1998 to 2001 and President of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, Enrique Penalosa explains why inequality is the biggest obstacle to high quality sustainable mobility.

Mobility is a peculiar challenge: unlike health, or education, which tend to improve with economic growth, mobility just getsworse as more people buy cars and traffic jams increase in developing country cities;which is exactly what is happening in hundreds of them from Kolkata, or Accra, to Guatemala City. It is peculiar as well, because it cannot be solved simply with money: it takes difficult changes in behavior, namely, higher income citizens using public transport, which may be obvious in London or Paris, but is as a subversive proposition in developing country cities.

Advancing towards sustainable mobility is thus politically difficult. More specifically, it is an equity challenge. Inequality is the single most difficult obstacle to overcome in order to achieve high quality sustainable mobility. That is why solving the mobility challenge is so arduous in very unequal developing societies; richer citizens will avoid using public transport at any cost in terms of time or money, as is illustrated daily by expensive cars trapped for hours in traffic jams, or hundreds of helicopters moving high income citizens over Sao Paulo. Inequality has yet more deleterious consequences on mobility.

Almost by definition a developing country city is one where less than half the population owns a car, in the case of Bogota only 23% of households own cars. This car owning minority has most political power and is constantly demanding more and bigger roads as congestion increases.

Unfortunately, trying to solve traffic jams with more roads is almost akin to trying to put out a fire with gasoline. It is as counterintuitive as the fact that the sun does not gyrate around the Earth. Mobility requires roads, but no amount of road space will do away with traffic jams. That isbecause what creates traffic is not just the amount of cars, but rather the amount of car trips and their length. As more and bigger roads stimulate more and longer trips, such effect offsets whatever gains may stem from new roads in terms of traffic.

The number of cars in Bogota is increasing by nearly 150.000 annually. Assuming a minimum space between cars, that adds up to a line more than 1000 kilometers long. There wouldn´t be space to fit that more roads without massive demolition, and the task would be financially insurmountable. More than one million citizens in Bogota do not even have paved streets in front of their homes.

In Bogotá we adopted a strategy different from that proposed to us by a study by JICA, the Japanese Cooperation Agency. JICA´s study, as most studies they fund all over the developing world, recommended building dozens of highways, elevated and at grade, all over the city. We choose instead to restrict car use and create a quality bus-based transit system, as well as an extensive protected bicycle network.

If inequality is the problem, what equality is possible in today´s post communism era?Basic democracy: if all citizens are equal before the Law as Constitutions state in their first article, then a citizen on a $ 30 bicycle has the same right to safe mobility as one on a $30,000 car; and a bus with 100 passengers has a right to 100 times more road space than a car with one. It is not only democratic; it is the most efficient way of using a scarce resource such as road space.To clarify this let´s imagine a catastrophe leaves us with enough fuel for only 5% of vehicles in a city, to whom would we allocate it? For survival, we would necessarily allocate it to trucks and buses. Now, if what is scarce is not fuel, but rather road space, Shouldn´t we do likewise?

If buses were given exclusive lanes in all roads where they operate in a city, the mobility challenge is solved ipso facto. It is clear then that mobility is a political, rather than a technical or economic issue.Inequality is also at the root of the difficulty in doing something as obvious as assigning exclusive lanes to buses in jammed arterial roads, frequently in societies where only a minority of people move by car. How should road space be distributed among pedestrians, bicyclists, buses and cars? Not only is there a conflict for space - in developing country cities with limited budgets, there is also a conflict for funds between the needs of the poor and those of cars. By foregoing the massive highway program JICA proposed, Bogota was able to invest in more than a hundred formidable schools in the poorest neighborhoods;libraries which receive hundreds of thousands of visitors; more than 1000 parks; massive food and health programs; quality housing projects as well as a world class bus based mass transit system called TransMilenio.

Mobility and traffic are different problems which demand different solutions. Public transport solves mobility. However, as London congestion exemplifies, not even the best public transport systems will solve congestion. Behavioral changes often require carrot and stick: Traffic reduction is of course helped by the carrot of good public transport, but it also requires the stick of limitations to car use. In Bogota we established Peak & Tag, a tag number based restriction to car use which immobilized each car during morning and afternoon peak hours twice weekly, thus keeping 40% of cars off the street. In a referendum citizens voted to establish an annual Car Free Day the first Thursday of every February. No cars different than taxis can circulate that day, yet 99.9% of that 7 million inhabitant city´s people go about their daily routines unfazed. It is a ritual that helps raise consciousness.

We asked people to vote as well to totally ban cars during peak hours starting in the year 2015. Given the support we had, those who opposed the proposal knew they would lose by a landslide. Thus powerful interests led a campaign, not asking people to vote ¨no¨, but rather asking them not to vote.As anticipated a large majority supported banning cars every day during peak hours; but we missed the legal threshold by less than 0.2 percentage points.

We also restricted parking in order to limit car use, primarily on pavements where cars had been parking unimpeded for many decades. I was almost impeached for it. It cost me becoming public enemy number one and my positive image fell to less than 20%. As all developing country´s constitutions, Colombia´s includes dozens of rights, but parking is not one of them. Government has no obligation to provide parking. The car owning middle and upper classes, a powerful minority, were not convinced and said the mayor was stubborn, to put it mildly, as there was enough space in pavements for parking, as well as for people to walk by. We then aired a TV commercial explaining that although pavements seem to be close relatives of streets, given their physical proximity, they are not family.While streets serve the purpose of going from one place to another, pavements are for talking, playing, kissing or wandering about. Pavements are thus more closely related to parks and plazas; and saying that a pavement is wide enough for parking as well as for people to walk by is equivalent to saying the main park or plaza can be turned into an open air parking lot, so long as enough space is left between cars for people to walk by.

Cars on pavements, parking bays where there should be pavement, or insignificant pavements are symbols of insufficient lack of respect for human being and insufficient democracy. Pavements also are an integral part of public transport systems, as trips do not start when citizens board the train or the bus, but when they start walking towards them. Finally I was not impeached and we built hundreds of kilometers of quality pavements and blocked parking on many more by installing bollards. In terms of infrastructure what makes a difference between backward and advanced cities are not subways or highways, both often found in quite disastrous cities, but rather quality pavements. Those are rarer.

In cities where a majority of homes does not have a car, cars parked on pavements show there are second class citizens, those who walk, and first class ones who drive. Quality pavements show respect for human dignity and construct equality. Ideally pavements should continue at grade at intersections in order to make it clear that it is cars that go onto pedestrian´s space and not the opposite.

Bicycling is, in some respect,a more efficient way of walking. We built hundreds of kilometers of protected bicycle ways and raised the number of those biking to work from practically nothing to more than 350,000 daily. Riding to work saves a minimum wage earner two months' salary every year. Bike ways protected bicyclists, but at least as important was the symbolic effect: they showed a citizen on a $30 bicycle was as important as one on a $ 30,000 car: they raised the social status of bicyclists. Two projects for bicyclists were particularly significant: Porvenir promenade, a 24 kilometer long pedestrian-and-bicycle-only through low income areas south west of the city; and the Juan Amarillo greenway, 32 kilometers long linking some very low income areas to the highest income areas of the city. Both of those ¨bicycle highways¨ through one of the densest cities in the world are used by tens of thousands daily.

Are physically protected bikeways a right, or just a cute architectural feature? It is accepted that pavements are a right and if a citizen is hit by a car in a pavement-less location, government is likely to be sued. The same is not true for cyclists, yet. It should, unless we are to accept that only those with a motor vehicle have a right to safe mobility. In Bogotá, as in all large world cities, at least half the population lives less than 5 kilometers from work. Bicycling can be an important part of a transport system.

Cities reflect a society´s values. More egalitarian societies are more likely to adopt bicycling. It is no coincidence that the Netherlands or Denmark bicycles are much more prevalent than in Italy or Spain, both of which have better bicycling weather. Higher income citizens are unlikely to bicycle to work in unequal developing country cities.

London has approximately the same population as Bogota and 1800 kilometers of underground and suburban rail. One kilometer of underground subway costs at least $ 100 million often nearly $ 300 million. The investment and operational costs associated with railmake it impossible for a city like Bogota to provide transit access to all areas. Even the most extensive subways in developing country cities barely move around 10% of the population.

Public transport is the way to achieve effective mobility in large cities, and bus-based systems are the only public transport which can reach all areas of a developing country city, regardless if a few subway lines are built. In 1974 the Mayor of Curitiba, what was then a small Brazilian city, created a bus based transit system, which sought to transpose the key features of metro above ground, with buses and roads instead of tunnels and trains. Mayor Jaime Lerner created exclusive bus lanes and stations, pre-board fare collection and state-of-the art station design. Passengers found they could move quickly and easily around the city. But this shining example was not copied by others in the developing world, probably because it was thought that Curitiba's small size and relative wealth marked it apart. And the advanced world did not follow Curitiba´s example for the opposite reason, as they though a developing country city example was not for them. It wasn't until 25 years later that we in Bogota adopted the Curitiba model and turned it into the world´s probably best bus system, which can yet be much improved. We branded it TransMilenio, in an effort to overcome the stigma attached to buses as an inferior means of transport to be used only by the poor.

TransMilenio uses articulated buses on exclusive lanes. Passengers pay when they enter the station, so that when a bus arrives and its four doors open simultaneously with the station doors, similarly to those of airport people movers, dozens of passengers can alight and enter the bus in seconds. Passing lanes at the station allow for the operation of express buses and make it possible to achieve velocity and high capacity. Many citizens have been able to find work much farther from where they live thanks to the system. Access to TransMilenio is highly valued by those who buy homes or set up businesses.

TransMilenio has continually expanded, inspiring dozens of similar systems all over the world, from Mexico City and Santiago to Guangzhou and Tehran. Today it moves 47,000 passengers / hour / direction, more than all of the world´s subway lines except for less than a dozen. Political rivalries have kept recent Bogota mayors from improving it and increasing yet much more such capacity, but it has been expanded incessantly and today it is moving nearly 2 million passengers daily.

Bus based systems cost several times less than metros and operationally cost 60% of the world´s lowest cost metros. But BRTs, as such bus systems are now called, represent advantages beyond costs. On large roads it is easy to createunderpasses for buses, avoiding intersections and allowing buses to achieve similar speeds to trains. When changing lines, a metro passenger has to change trains, what takes several minutes, often more than 10 during off peak times. Buses change lines, saving time. BRT can easily have overpass lanes at stations, so as to operate express routes stopping only every 5 or 10 stations. While subway stations are around one kilometer apart, BRT stations are only 500 meters apart, which makes for shorter walks to and from the station. And for a given amount of passengers, it takes many more buses than trains to move the same amount of people; therefore buses imply higher frequencies and shorter waiting times.

If priority is to be given topublic transport, why put its users underground? Beyond safety from crime concerns, it is more pleasant to travel enjoying daylight and views of the city. And it takes time and is not particularly enjoyable to take long stairways to go underground.

There are also economic arguments in favor of BRT: given scarce capital and abundant labor, bus-based systems are a more appropriate technology for developing countries.

It would seem reasonable to useall available roads in a city for bus based mass transit and build subways only afterwards, when BRTs are insufficient. Why isn´t this done? Because car owners concentrate political power and oppose taking any road lanes away. However upper income citizens in developing countries are the most ardent proponents and defenders of subways; usually not because they have the slightest intention of using them, but rather, because they imagine they will get others to go underground, particularly lower income bus riders, liberating road space and alleviating traffic.

Upper income citizens show sophistication speaking proudly of their expertise negotiating the London or Paris subways...alongside some very poor French or British riders. Yet they would never ride public transport in their own cities next to their fellow lower income citizens. Many want to live far from them as well, in distant low density gated suburbs. Inequality collides with sustainable mobility once more, as it is not possible to provide low cost, high frequency public transport to such habitats.

If a catastrophe were to leave a city with fuel for only 5% of its vehicles, how would it be allocated? Assuming a preference for survival, it could only be assigned to buses and trucks. Now, what if the scarce resource is not fuel, but rather road space? Should it not act in the same manner?
It is indeed true that the way a city is and functions reflects a society´s values; what is less recognized is that cities also construct these values. A protected bikeway constructs a more democratic society, and the sight of a bus moving swiftly along a bus-only lane as expensive cars stand still in traffic is a picture of democracy in action.