Bogotá Mayor Peñalosa and Urban Planners Assess Transportation Challenges and Potential Benefits of High Population Density
If a new metro can ease congestion and Mayor Enrique Peñalosa can lead better development planning, Bogotá will start to see more benefits from its high population density.
This week, Colombia’s capital is hosting a massive summit of more than 500 mayors and local government leaders from across the globe. For Bogotá Mayor Enrique Peñalosa, this World Summit of Local and Regional Leaders comes at a good time to do some bragging. Just weeks ago, he announced plans for his new metro system, an elevated subway that aims to ease the traffic scourge that many see as the city’s largest problem.
Commute times can be egregious during rush hour, and Bogotá has long been one of the largest cities in the world without a proper subway or metro. Other than an army of small buses, all it offers in the way of public transportation is the Transmilenio, a large bus system with formal stops and dedicated lanes that was conceived during Peñalosa’s first stint as mayor in the late 1990s.
Photo: Bogotá Mayor Entrique Peñalosa (right) talks about the capital’s growth with urban planners Philip Rode (left) and Peter Calthorpe (middle). (Credit: Jared Wade)
Though the new elevated trains won’t solve the problem entirely, something needed to be done, and Peñalosa cited cost savings when choosing this project instead of embarking on an underground subway. The nearly $5 billion USD project will break ground in 2018 with a 25-kilometer line, the initial stages of which are scheduled to be operational by 2022. This coincides with an expansion for Transmilenio that the mayor said yesterday will be extended from 111 kilometers of lines to some 340 kilometers.
“More than 80% of housing is going to be less than one kilometer away from a mass transport line,” said Peñolosa yesterday at the summit. “This is something exceptional in the world.”
Most Bogotanos, though not thrilled with the elevated plan, have one response: It’s about time. Philip Rode, executive director of LSE Cities and a fellow at the London School of Economics, shared the stage with Peñalosa at the summit and understands the frustration. He says that Transmilenio was a great plan when it was launched, but that people are understandably disappointed that it did not reach the expansion goals originally expected.
So with the expansion — to more than 300 kilometers — and by adding the elevated train lines, the capital is getting back to developing creative solutions in a metropolis facing budget constraints. “Bogotá has been one of the most important innovators in terms of putting cost-effective, rapid public transport system on the agenda,” Rode told Finance Colombia.
The Benefits of Urban Density
While its common to blame traffic problems on having too many people, Philip Rode spent much of his presentation detailing the benefits of urban density.
Not all urbanization is equal. While it is often blamed for many of the ills affecting Latin America — crime, inequality, poverty — the high population density seen in global cities like Singapore, New York, and Hong Kong is among their greatest strengths.
Hong Kong has specifically driven its develop upward instead of outward, leaving a city full of high rises that define its culture. New York, too, has been able to maintain great standards of living, and plenty of personal space per individual, in its affluent Manhattan neighborhoods even though they are some of the densest square miles in the United States.
London is a good case study, says Rode. Officials there have focused the U.K. capital’s development on increased urbanization in recent decades. Over a 15-year period, it achieved better results as far as putting citizens closer to where they work and allowing them more access to public transportation. The result was a drop in the percentage of people who commute via car from 44% in 1998 to 32% in 2013.
Bogotá Has High Density — But Challenges for Planned Growth
The same cannot be said of Bogotá, unfortunately. Rode says Colombia’s city of more than 8 million has a “high motorization rate” given its income level per capita. This will hopefully be addressed by the expanded public transport.
But Bogotá is becoming more dense, a fact Peñalosa highlighted. “Density in cities is reducing all over the world — in almost all of them,” said the mayor. But he noted that a New York University study found that Bogotá was one of the few places bucking this trend. “Bogotá in the last 25 years has been the city in which density has increased most in the world,” said Peñalosa.
This is being threatened, however. A challenge for the government in the capital today is that much of the development in recent years has happened on the border of the city’s boundaries, even spilling into Cundinamarca department. There, the mayor has no control over policies and the city cannot necessary establish policies that promote orderly growth. Rode pointed to the “unplanned” and “sporadic” development seen in Chia outside of Bogotá to the north.
Peñalosa admitted that this is an issue in need of a solution. The market, with high home and rental prices in many parts of Bogotá, has been pushing people further and further afield. “Cities cannot grow wherever the landowners want them to grow,” said Peñalosa. “The government has to intervene. There have to be interventions to ensure an urban design that is better.”
He is watching this development occur just outside the city and seeing housing that lacks access to public parks, major roadways, and mass transport. “It may seriously affect the environment, competitiveness, and the quality of life towards the future,” said Peñalosa. ”
Solutions of Sporadic Development
Like Hong Kong, building upward may be an answer. Rode noted that this has brought benefits for many of the more-affluent areas in Bogotá.
While it has been more organic than planned, those who have the means have set up a lifestyle in which they can sidestep the worst transportation headaches of living in the capital. In Rosales, Chapinero Alto, Chico, and the areas surrounding Parque 93, more people walk to work and live in high-rise buildings that promote heavy density.
While it won’t be easy, this can be a model for poorer areas as well. It will be hard to overcome the fact that more jobs tend to exist far from where the poorest live. But some progress has occurred around the impoverished Soacha neighborhood, where more large apartment complexes have been built in recent years.
It hasn’t solved wealth inequality by any means, but it has cut down on some of the sprawl. This not only leaves people living in poor conditions but makes their life harder by putting them far away from certain services that can improve their day-to-day lives.
Sharing Economy and Urbanization
Philip Rode cited the sharing economy as another benefit of density. If you have large clusters of people living comfortably in a small area, they don’t need to own as many things. We are transitioning to an age where most people are satisfied with having access to those things as opposed to needing them cluttering up their homes and garages.
You don’t need a car if an Uber can show up at your door on demand in five minutes at any time of the day, for example, and this is spreading out to other areas in terms of AirBnB for short-term stays, Liquid for bike-borrowing, and Poshmark for used-clothes sales. “We need to be much more aware of the technological transformation which is about to happen — and has already started to happen,” said Rode.
He calls this “new urban mobility.” It means more walking to work, more cycling, more car-sharing, more ride-hailing, more electric cars, and more public transportation. In the not-too-distant future, there will be fewer people driving to work and more who get there in more efficient, faster, and more environmentally friendly ways.
Technology won’t solve all of the ills of living in a big city, however. Peter Calthorpe, director of Calthorpe Associates and an urban planner based in San Francisco, noted that having more cars, like Uber and Lyft, means that we’re still talking about having a lot of low-occupancy cars on the roads causing congestion.
This highlights the need for city planners in Colombia and beyond to seek “walkable mix-use environments” in which grocery stores, dry cleaning, cafes, and other services people use daily are close by. He points to the “small cluster” model that is increasingly being employed with success in China.
There is also the next looming technological change for cities: Driverless cars. He calls autonomous vehicles an incredibly promising and revolutionary development — but also “dangerous.”
He sees robotic drivers with downtime between trips just driving around the city aimlessly searching for parking. He fears a future in which people send an autonomous car service to pick up a liter of milk they forgot at the store. This is something that nobody would get in their car to do today because the waste of your personal time is such a high disincentive compared to benefit of having milk immediately. But if you can just send a robot? Why not? “The only thing worse than a single-occupant vehicle is a zero-occupant vehicle,” said Calthorpe at the summit.
There are models that show just how beneficial driverless cars can be. When cars can talk to each other via a Bluetooth-type technology and have perfect understanding of space and speed, they can pass by each other quickly. There is no need to stop at traffic lights. This will cut down on the gridlock of congested intersections.
But the downside is worth acknowledging, says Calthorphe. If the technology becomes incredibly cheap and abundant, will those benefits be counteracted by the problems of more cars on the road?
Bogotá Today and Bogotá 2050
For a city that is just now getting a metro, these are futuristic concerns. While they do fit the summit’s theme of thinking about “Bogotá 2050,” the mayor and other city officials are likely better served by staying grounded in the here and now.
Finalizing a plan for better public transportation has been a good step in that direction. Reigning in the factors pushing more and more citizens to live outside of the capital will among the big next challenges.
And discovering how others are grappling with similar problems is the reason that Peñalosa and hundreds of mayors from all across the have world gathered this week. Decades of haphazard policies and local realities have shaped Bogotá into the great, albeit flawed and chaotic, city it is today. But with the security challenges in the country hopefully becoming less of a focus, more coordinated organization is needed.
Bogotá likes to see itself as a major world city. It has that potential. And, hopefully, seeing the examples of others in action this week — and stealing their best city planning ideas — can take the capital to further heights. “Much has been learned in the world that can make our cities better places,” said Peñalosa, “and I think that at this conference we’re going to go on learning so that Colombian cities will become better and better.”