By: Jesse Rodriguez | December 2014
Climate change and pollution are no longer subjects that belong to environmentalist only. This threat is affecting people all around the globe and we are now in an urgent search for solutions that can help us overcome and undo centuries of deforestation and contamination to our planet.
Bogotá was one of the most polluted cities in the 1990’s and also a great contributor to CO2 emissions and water contamination. Children’s mortality was high due to respiratory and digestive issues all caused by the poor quality of the city’s air and water supply.
In 1995 Antanas Mockus was elected as major. Mockus was an academic and a civic leader who began a set of “social experiments” and pioneered several proposals to improve the city and the citizen’s mindset. Bogotá then became a model of civic-minded and sustainable urban planning.
The proposal’s included adapting a high capacity Bus Rapid Transport system (BTR), the addition of greenways and parks, the creation of more than 300km of bicycle lanes, restriction on cars, car free days, waste management programs and many changes on the city’s infrastructure.
Today Bogotá is consider to be one of the greenest cities in the world and has been hailed as an inspiration to cities working towards sustainability showing that it is possible for other cities to have these accomplishments as well. The conservation charity WWF now calls Bogotá “a poster child of sustainable transport”. Cities from New York to London have copied its transit ideas.
Bogotá: A guide to a sustainable metropolis
Air pollution has become one of the major modern health threats and is affecting people all over the world. In the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution introduced new sources of air and water pollution. The increasing demand for the growing population forced new priorities for governments and companies alike; nature became an exploitable source. Forests had to be cut down to make room for fast growing cities; lands were being overused to produce the food required to meet the demand. As cities grew, more and more people were migrating into them in search of better employment opportunities; this is what we know as “Urbanization”. According to the New York Times, 95% of the residents in North Carolina born in the 1900’s were still living there as adults; more than a hundred years later, those percentages were cut in half (Mapping Migration in the United States).
Similarly, the cities that have been a target for migration such as New York City, are also the most polluted ones. Exposure to air pollution can cause aggravated lung disease, asthma, acute bronchitis, respiratory infections and child mortality (Health effects of air pollution).
But the United States is not the only country suffering from this issue; Air pollution is a global threat. Developing countries like Colombia have decided to take measures to improve air quality by implementing new ideas that are beneficial for both humans and the Environment.
Colombia has been long known for its conflict and war against drug trafficking. Bogotá, its capital, has been one of the most impacted cities in regards to this issue. Bogotá became the place where thousands of people from all over the country went to run away from the extreme violence in their home towns. This high number of immigrants had a huge impact in the city’s infrastructure and environment. Within one hundred years Bogotá went from 100,000 habitants to 10 million and is currently the most populated city in the country.
Since the mass migration to the city was unpredicted, there was not enough available space to accommodate the thousands of people that were arriving daily. As a result, shacks started to be built around the city; more public buses were implemented to supply the demand of the rapid growing population; pollution and contamination went through the roof. About 15 to 20 years ago Bogotá was by definition a disaster, the lack of infrastructure and equality became more and more evident. There were security and safety problems and no optimism about the future of the city. The quality of life in Bogotá was the worse in both Colombia and in Latin America. Poverty was clear; thousands of homeless people were living on the street; crime and homicide rates were the highest in history. Also the ongoing drug war was damaging for both the city and its people. Bogotá became hated by its inhabitants, people thought of it as the worse place to be; therefore citizens were doing little to no effort on maintaining the city clean and beautiful. Quite the opposite actually. The anger of the Colombian people against its corrupt government and the never ending war against drugs was reflected on the streets of Bogotá. People became almost untamable.
However, thanks to the vision of two independent politicians, a city without hope and without self-esteem managed to become one of the greenest cities in the world in the past 10 years and has been recognized internationally as a model to follow. Their initial purpose was to simply make a city that was more for people and less for cars and give public space back to the citizens. What they did not know was the impact their ideas were going to have.
In the 90’s Bogotá went under major changes in infrastructure. Not only was the city being reborn but also its citizens. Mayor Antanas Mockus (1994-1997) focused on civic conscientization, teaching citizens the basic cohabitation rules. In just 10 years, Bogotá’s murder rate dropped 70% from one of the highest in the world to less than that of Washington DC (Bogotá: building a sustainable city, PBS). Mockus’ innovated approach to politics was a success in educating people to conserve their city. His initiatives allowed Bogotá to get international investment and gave it the opportunity to grow. Near the end of his term, Mockus created his “Bogotá coqueta” campaign which consisted on cleaning up the city in order to attract international investment. The campaign won a 2 billion dollar international contest created to help developing countries improve. This allowed Mockus’ successor Peñalosa to invest in the much needed changes in infrastructure. Peñalosa believed that sustainable urban design was the foundation of social justice and that the way cities are created determine the way people live. “Economic development would come sooner or later. We gave cars too much importance and took away pedestrian territory. In order to accomplish the city’s change, some sort of restriction for cars had to take place” (Peñalosa’s PBS interview).
Mockus and Peñalosa were the city’s heroes. While Mockus focused on improving the mentality of the people towards their city, Peñalosa gave them a beautiful place they were proud to call home. Through great effort and display of honesty and hard work, they created the modern Bogotá. This paper explores the pioneering ideas that both mayors put in place and that have been responsible for the rebirth of the capital city.
This idea was first adopted by the city in 1982. In Bogotá, every Sunday, about 120 kilometers of main avenues and highways are closed down for cars completely during a total of seven hours. This allows 1.5 million people from all economic backgrounds to move around the city on their bicycles, skates or by walking. At the same time, stages are set up in city parks. Aerobics instructors, yoga teachers and musicians lead people through various performances. This was the beginning of the new, healthier Bogotá.
As part of the program for urban development more than 400 kilometers of bicycle paths as well as comfortable pedestrian pathways have been created in Bogotá as an alternatives for daily travel.
Some of the bicycle paths are located next to the main roads and secondary streets as well as passing through the parks. This has been done in order to integrate the use of the bicycle as an alternative system of transportation and at the same time to help the environment by lowering the pollution levels. According to Walter Hook, the head of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy in New York, the commuting trips by bicycle rose from less than 0.5% to over 2% in just three years. Research by Mejor en Bici (Better by Bike), a social enterprise that promotes cycling based in the city, shows that the average resident spends 22 days a year traveling in the city, those who switch to cycling save up to eight days a year (Sustainability in the city: Bogotá, Colombia).
When Peñalosa came to office, his main focus was the reformation of public transportation. The existing bus system was a chaotic one. Buses racing each other to pick up passengers cutting each other off; dropping people off in the middle of the street risking them to get hit by a car and even going from the street to the sidewalk and killing people. The public buses at the time were owned by the mafia because it was a very profitable business with little to no regulation. When Peñalosa stepped into office, he made it clear that public transportation was now going to be owned and managed by the city. This caused a huge problem between the drivers who even went on strike to oppose the new system. Very powerful political groups put the projects on hold for a long time. The solution to this was making the former drivers part of the new system and give them shares. This is how the BRT (bus rapid transport) system Transmilenio was born. The system infrastructure includes exclusive dual bus lanes on each direction to create main trunk lines connected to additional buses that run in the deeper parts of the city. Technological advances keep Transmilenio efficient. There are exclusive corridors for articulated buses with a capacity of 160 passengers which covers the city’s peripheral areas. The green buses, with a smaller capacity of 90 passengers feed the main Transmilenio system. The innovative BRT also has the ability to reach citizens that are located in the outer skirts of the city by sending the smaller green buses that bring people straight to the main stations. Transmilenio is saving people around 200 hours a year in transport time and more than 10% of their income because of the ability to transfer between buses. Transmilenio also uses satellite communication which means that during operation they can be located via satellite and keep control of each and every one of the vehicles in real time. This means that the system always runs to optimal capacity. There are rush hours in the morning and evening where buses are full.
However, in between those hours the system is also full because the percentage of operating buses is reduced on those times to avoid empty buses circulating around the city. That allows control over the development of the infrastructure, its maintenance and to have control over the emissions that are harmful to the environment and unnecessary when empty buses run.
Currently, there is a proposal to turn all the Transmilenio buses into full electrical engines which will reduce emissions completely.
Car Free Day
In February 2000, Mayor Enrique Peñalosa proposed the city’s first car-free day. Legitimized by a public vote, the car-free day has become an annual occasion. Recently it has been done twice a year and talk about having a car-free week are in place.
In the city of 10 million people, about 600,000 cars were left at home (Improving life in Bogotá by empowering citizens to cycle). The environmental impacts were a good enough incentive, but the social impacts were also highly important. Bogotá residents lose roughly 22 days per year sitting in traffic. In 2013, 570 of these residents were killed due to automobile accidents.
This initiative has undeniably improved the amount of emissions and smog in Bogotá’s air. Also more people are engaging in physical exercise, and more time is being reclaimed due to not experiencing traffic. In this initiative Bogotá should be an example to developing nations, demonstrating that green initiatives do not have to compromise efficiency and economic vibrancy.
This strategy was a traffic policy that restricted the use of both private and public vehicles in certain days of the week depending on the number of the license tag. The purpose was to regulate traffic and help with pollution at the same time. The impact was so big that the policy was adopted by all cities in Colombia.
Land use and buildings
Peñalosa’s main argument was the lack of public space in the city. During his term, he managed to take back a large amount of space that had been taken over by drug cartels. He also took away country clubs and parks that were only accessible to the wealthiest of the country. In addition to the bike paths and sidewalks, he also invested in the rehabilitation and addition of public parks, libraries and schools. Bogotá’s figures for green spaces is one of the highest and first among cities with mid-size population at 107 square meters per person. The mayor also implemented a strict policy on the protection of green spaces as well as good standards for public buildings.
Regarding urban vegetation, the city’s botanical garden planted 80,000 new trees between 2008 and 2011, adding to the 1,066,463 trees already in Bogotá’s public spaces. Studies show that tree coverage in the capital has increased by 71.4 hectares since 2008 (Bogotá, greenest city in Latin America).
Natural gas and Biotaxis
In order to encourage citizens to become more environmental conscious with their everyday activities, Peñalosa raised taxes on gasoline. This forced citizens to find better and cheaper ways to mobilize in the city. In addition to Transmilenio, the idea of natural gas engines was proposed and for those who decided to change to this cheaper and cleaner option, they were offered high tax breaks. Not to mention natural gas engines are cost effective and much cleaner. Several people opted for this option and as a result the air quality increased significantly within a few years.
The “biotaxi” project is seeking to be a pilot for public service vehicles to be run on a fully electrical engine powered by rechargeable batteries. This pioneering idea was proposed and authorized by the government who expressed the necessity of creating tools that can be favorable for the environment and at the same time a modern approach and adaptation of eco-transportation in Bogotá. The estimated time for the completion of this project is ten years where the goal is to transform every single taxi into an electrical one.
Because of the great amount of natural sources in Colombia, Bogotá’s number one source of energy comes from hydroelectric plants and this is also true for the rest of the country; fossil fuels are second. However the government has been looking into moving to renewable sources of energy like solar, biomass, geothermal and wind energy (Colombia una potencia de energias alternativas).
Bogotá’s rebirth was initiated by two philanthropist that wanted to see their beloved city as beautiful as it had the potential to be. It took effort and sacrifice from both the government and the citizens but the results exceeded all expectations.
As of now Bogotá has won the recognition and respect of many companies and even other cities that have also applied some if these initiatives. The example of Bogotá, a city that had been left almost in ruins because of the war is an inspiring one; a model to follow by other developed and developing nations.
**German company Siemens performed a study in several cities in Latin America. As seen below, Bogotá has scored above average in 6 out of 8 categories. Even though there is still a lot of improvement to be done, Bogotá’s example is one that could be adopted by several other cities around the world.
Bogotá’s Environmental Report (2011). “Bogotá, greenest city in Latin America”. Retrieved from Bogotá’s Environmental Agency:
According to figures released by Bogotá’s Environmental Secretary, Bogotá has seen environmental improvements in air quality, water supplies and urban trees over the period from 2008-2011. Thanks to an agreement made with Ecopetrol (Colombia’s oil company) to improve the quality of diesel and in addition to the expansion of the BRT system Transmilenio, smoke and other harmful air contaminants from diesel vehicles dropped from 71.6 mg/m3 in 2008 to 51.5 mg/m3 in 2011, representing a 28% reduction in four years.
Improvements to the city’s water supplies were also reflected in the mortality rate from acute diarrheal illness in children, dropping from 3.1 per 100,000 in 2007, to 1 per 100,000 in 2010.
Regarding urban vegetation, the city of Bogotá planted 80,000 new trees between 2008 and 2011, adding to the 1,066,463 trees that already exist in Bogotá’s public spaces.
Siemens (2010). “Latin America Green City Index”. Retrieved from Siemens website: http://www.siemens.com/entry/cc/features/greencityindex_international/all/en/pdf/Bogotá.pdf
German company Siemens funded a research project to examine the environmental performance of major cities throughout the world. The project was conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit which included a panel of global experts in urban sustainability.
The result of the research shows Bogotá as one of the greenest cities in Latin America. A performance of above average was recognized in the areas of Energy and CO2, land use and building, transport, waste, water and environmental governance. This document gives detailed information in each one of these categories and explains the initiatives the city has to accomplish complete sustainability.
C40 & Siemens (2013). “City Climate Leadership Awards”. Retrieved from City Climate Leadership Awards website:
In addition to the research mentioned above, Siemens provides awards to each candidate city in various categories. Bogotá received the 2013 award for Urban Transportation for the pioneering idea of implementing the BRT system and replacing thousands of gasoline run buses. In addition to this system, the city is looking to introduce electric and hybrid buses and taxis therefore cutting gas emissions by 70 percent.
PBS Documentary. “Bogotá: building a sustainable city”. Retrieved from PBS website:
In this short documentary about the history of Bogotá, PBS shows the transformation of a chaotic city into a sustainable one. The documentary provides a brief history on Bogotá but mostly on the policies adapted by the two mayors that changed the city for good. Policies like pico y placa, car free day, ciclovia and reconstruction of public space made a great impact on the city’s development and success.
Revell, T. (2014). “Sustainability in the city: Bogotá, Colombia”. Retrieved from Blue and Green Tomorrow:
The author of this article provides an insight on the process that transformed Bogotá from being one of the most dangerous cities in the world to becoming an example of success and sustainability. Through the work of Mayor Peñalosa who was elected in 1998, the city introduced a rapid bus system, developed over 300km of bike lanes and invested into the construction of several parks.
Holtum, C. (2013). “Improving life in Bogotá by empowering citizens to cycle”. Retrieved from The Guardian:
The author on this article explains how the rapid economic transformation of Bogotá has led it to more people buying cars and thus causing more pollution. Even though this may be true, the focus of the article is to show the alternative methods of transportation the city offers such as the BRT and the cicloruta (bicycle lanes). The bicycle lanes are a great advantage not only to avoid traffic but also to reduce CO2 emissions and according to the article, “commuting trips by bicycle rose from less than 0.5% to over 2% in just three years”.
Ministerio de Educacion (2014). “Colombia una potencia en energías alternativas”. Retrieved from The Ministry of Education in Colombia:
In this government run website, the various proposals of renewable energy are explained. There is a description for each one that is already in place and which ones are the most efficient depending on the climate of a specific city.
Leonhardt, D. (2014). “Mapping Migration in the United States”. Retrieved from The New York Times:
The author shows in a very detailed map the migration patterns in the United States since the 1900’s until 2012. He explains how in the last century, only 5% of people stay in their hometowns.