More than 800,000 cars were left at home on Bogota's first weekday Car-Free Day and 1.5 million people took to their bicycles. Photos courtesy of City of Bogota.
How Bogota Beat Cars by Tooker Gomberg

Another in our occasional series of inspiring stories about successful bike-friendly cities around the world.

Can it really be true that Bogota, Columbia, a city of seven million wracked by drug wars, corruption, and violence has achieved the impossible and moved quickly towards becoming Car Free?

Yes. It took a mayor with vision, Enrique Penalosa. And since mayors in Columbia are only allowed one three-year term, he had to move quickly.

Oscar Edmundo Diaz, an advisor to former Mayor Penalosa was in town recently for Toronto's Bike Week celebrations. He told me excitedly: "We are going to be the first car-free city in the world!"

In just three years, Bogota created 300 kilometers of bikeways and "cyclepaths," special streets just for bikes.
Bogota has a history of successfully transforming road space away from cars to bikes. In the 1980s they began closing roads to car traffic every Sunday for seven hours, allowing only non-motorized transportation. Today 120 kilometers of road space are closed every Sunday to motor vehicles, and over two million cyclists, walkers, joggers, and bladers take over the streets. Bicycle traffic jams are commonplace.

On December 22, 1999, they tried a car-free weeknight, and one million bikes emerged to view the city's Christmas lights in joy and safety. The next step was to try a Car-Free Day during the week. The mayor embraced the idea, and demanded that they "do it in five weeks." All the experts said that it would take at least six months.

"He was a very good mayor, very determined. (He) changed people's minds about how to see the city and how to promote other means of transportation," says Diaz.

The business people were against him, certain that a Car-Free Day would be bad for business. So were the media. "The people who own a car have power and have access to the media," explains Diaz. "One of the main journalists of Columbia called the mayor a communist because he was trying to put people together in the same bus and (on) public transit. It's crazy how people can be discriminated (against) because one has a car and the other one doesn't."

Calling someone a communist in Columbia could end in assassination in a country where politically motivated murders are commonplace. A petition was launched to impeach the mayor for his stand against the car, but it failed to gather the requisite number of signatures. Penalosa proposed that he would cancel the Car-Free Day if a poll showed less than 60% support for the idea. Support squeaked in at 61%.

Bogota's first Car-Free Day was on Thursday, February 24, 2000. The whole urban area was restricted to cyclists, pedestrians, rollerbladers, and users of public transit. Public pressure, with help from the police, ensured that no cars entered the car-free streets. It was a smashing success. "We moved 7 million people by public transit and bicycle. Over 800,000 cars were left at home—and 1.5 million people moved by bicycle," reports Diaz.

In the election referendum in October 2000, 70% wanted to have another weekday Car-Free Day, and 51% supported a Car-Free Day every day for six hours per day by 2015 (with 34% against, and the rest blank votes). This, in a city where cars used to park anywhere, cluttering sidewalks. "People thought they could park almost inside the store," Diaz quips. Not any more. In the last few years 500 square kilometers of public space has been created, plus 1,000 new public parks.

As well, they have increased the tax on gasoline, and started an odd/even license system: during peak hours 40% of the cars are prohibited from driving in the city. Parking fees have increased by 100%. And the proportion of the price of gasoline that goes to the city in taxes has doubled to 20%.

Bogota's success with car-freedom brought, for the first time, good press coverage from around the world. People felt proud of their country, especially when it won the coveted Stockholm Challenge Environment Award in 2000.

Interestingly, Diaz says they're not moving towards car-freedom to protect the environment. They're doing it out of a sense of social justice. "We don't really care about the environment. We have other things to think about. We have social problems, and lack of money. We have to stop building highways because we need that money to build schools. "Everywhere in the world there is a new awareness about the environment, and everyone knows what the environment for a bird, for a dolphin, for a gorilla is. But what we don't know is what the right environment for children is. We don't know where to raise a kid. A perfect city would be the one that would give us the opportunity to raise our kids without having cars attacking them, without having to commute several hours because of sprawl. Suburban sprawl is making North American cities crazy."

They were also interested in equity. "Every dollar that we can spend in children's education instead of building a new highway [helps with] equity," Diaz says. "The only places where people meet as equals are on public transportation or on the sidewalks or the ciclovias (bike lanes). You can find the president of the company and the cleaning lady encounter [each other] as equals—there is no hierarchy there."

In the three years of Mayor Penalosa's term they created 300 kilometers of cycle paths, special streets just for bikes. They have increased tenfold the percentage of trips by bike to 5%, and they're now aiming for 30% of urban trips to be by bicycle within five years.

They have also put in place a fast, articulated bus system—the TransMilenio—that makes money! It opened just five months ago, with two exclusive bus-only corridors and already 375,000 people per day use it. They intend to have 22 corridors in place by 2015. By then everyone will have a bus station within 500 meters of their home.

"We are saving people 1 to 1.5 hours per day on their commute, so now citizens are happier and can have more time for their families," Diaz proudly says. "Of course it is a risk. If politicians are not prepared to take a risk, then that means that they only care for power. They don't want to take a risk because they are afraid that at the next election they are not going to be elected because they did something risky. Where is your concern? The power? The city? What will you choose? So choose one thing: the city, your citizens, your kids - politics has to make a difference."

Tooker Gomberg is a long-time environmental activist, writer, former Edmonton City Councillor, and runner up for Mayor of Toronto in 2000. His writings about inspiring ecological stories can be found at www.greeninspiration.org. (This article originally appeared in Toronto's Now Magazine.)