In bid to cut emissions, Bogotá turns to residents for solutions

As part of an effort to cut climate-changing emissions and pollution, residents in Colombia’s capital city have united to reimagine their transportation system and to shift toward greener travel options.

Fabio Cuttica/Thomson Reuters Foundation
Cyclists ride on separated cycle lanes aside cars and trucks in Bogotá, Colombia on April 19, 2021. Fossil-fuel-powered cars, buses, and cargo trucks emit a big share of Bogotá’s carbon dioxide emissions each day, officials say.

When Colombian community leader Veronica Fonseca raised her hand to speak at a meeting hosted by Bogotá’s mayor, she never expected her ideas on improving transport in the capital would be included in the city’s plans.

Ms. Fonseca told a forum convened by city hall last year that her hilltop neighborhood, nearly 3,000 meters (10,000 feet) above downtown Bogotá, needed better transport links, and suggested a cable car to ferry residents.

“I’d seen cable car lines working in other areas of the city and I told the mayor that’s what our community needs too,” said Ms. Fonseca, outside her home in the steep San Dionisio neighborhood surrounded by forested mountains.

When officials added her suggestion to their plans, “I felt included. I never imagined that my ideas would be taken into account,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Ms. Fonseca is one of 50,000 residents who have contributed to plans to redesign a 23-km (14-mile), car-choked major thoroughfare through the capital. Most had their say in dozens of meetings, online, or through door-to-door surveys carried out by city hall.

The “Green Corridor Septima” initiative is a flagship project of Bogotá’s first female mayor, Claudia Lopez, and aims to better integrate the city’s transport network, part of a broader effort to cut climate-changing emissions and pollution.

She and other officials see shifting residents towards low-carbon travel as a key pillar of the city’s climate and development strategy.

Bogotá, a city of 8 million people, is part of the C40 Cities network, a group of nearly 100 cities around the world working to drive faster action on climate change.

The cities have each committed to delivering plans designed to spur uptake of clean energy, boost adaptation to climate threats, and turn the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change into an on-the-ground reality.

‘Listened a lot’

In Bogotá, transport accounts for nearly half of all greenhouse gas emissions.

To slash those, officials are expanding bike lanes and pedestrian paths, using more electric buses, and extending the reach of electric cable cars – some partly driven by renewable solar power – that serve poor areas in the city’s south.

Many of the ideas have come from residents, whose views were collected and prioritized as a core part of the $620-million Green Corridor Septima plan.

Juan Pablo Caicedo, head of the project led by the Institute of Urban Development, said the city first “listened a lot” to a diverse range of city dwellers, from LGBTQ+ residents and the elderly to Afro-Colombians and indigenous people.

Residents were consulted in part through an open-source online platform that allowed people to submit their ideas by editing and adding to draft plans. The effort ultimately drew 7,000 proposals from citizens, some as young as 10 years old.

Tax protests

To combat climate change, Bogotá aims to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 15% by 2024, from 2020 levels, and by half by 2030, with the aim of becoming carbon-neutral by 2050.

Officials say the city is so far on track to meet its goals, particularly with COVID-19-related restrictions still limiting travel.

In recent weeks, however, Bogotá and cities across Colombia have struggled with violent street protests over concerns about rising inequality and poverty, sparked by a proposed tax change by Colombia's president.

That reform, now canceled, included tax breaks and incentives for businesses looking to turn to clean energy.

A third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic also has filled hospitals and resulted in about 500 deaths a day in May across Colombia, diverting attention from climate plans as officials scrambled to respond.

But Mayor Lopez, who took office in January 2020 and is a C40 vice-chair, said combating the “climate crisis” is a key priority for her four-year term.

Trucker battle

Greening transport remains one of Bogotá’s biggest challenges on its path to net-zero emissions.

Fossil fuel-powered cars, buses, and cargo trucks – some belching black clouds of smoke – emit a big share of the 14,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide entering Bogotá’s atmosphere daily, according to Carolina Urrutia, the city’s environment secretary.

With no nationwide railway system, goods and food are mainly transported by trucks traversing Colombia’s high Andean mountains.

But efforts to get truck drivers and private bus companies to switch to lower-carbon energy always spark a “heated debate,” admitted Ms. Urrutia.

Numerous attempts by previous mayors to rid Bogotá of old polluting buses have met with strikes and street protests by bus and driver groups – and ultimately city hall has backed down.

Now, officials are providing incentives to get rid of old polluting buses, with the city in some cases buying them.

“This is a political battle that others have lost in the past, and it’s one that we can’t lose this time,” Ms. Urrutia said.

Electric buses

Bogotá is also boosting its use of electric buses, said Felipe Ramirez, who heads the city’s Transmilenio bus system.

Bogotá now has about 350 electric buses circulating, used by about 180,000 people a day. It plans to roll out 1,485 such buses by 2022, which would give it the largest city fleet outside China, he said.

“Despite the pandemic, we’re on schedule,” said Mr. Ramirez, showing off a newly built charging station near the airport, its parking area blissfully quiet compared to the usually thrumming bus terminals.

The city’s electric bus fleet reduces emissions equivalent to taking 42,000 cars off the road each year, Mr. Ramirez said, and offers the latest technology, from phone-charging to free Wi-Fi.

Under public tenders through state-owned Transmilenio, private bus firms buy and operate the electric fleet in exchange for 15-year concessions.

Bicycle school

At a spacious new school in the poor neighborhood of Bosa, in south Bogotá, staff are encouraging a new generation to take up low-carbon transport.

“The Bike College,” which fully opened in February, aims to put the bicycle at the center of education, said headteacher Jose Willington.

“Riding a bike gives students an equal status” to those living outside the slums, he noted.

On a sports court at the school, which serves more than a thousand primary and high-school students, some children learned about road safety from instructors, while others practiced riding their bicycles, wobbling along.

Being part of Colombia‘s cycling culture – the nation has produced Olympic gold-medal cyclists and a Tour de France winner – can offer teenagers an alternative to joining the small-time drug gangs that plague city neighborhoods, Mr. Willington said.

Even before the pandemic, Bogotá was crisscrossed by a 550-km network of cycle lanes, the longest in Latin America.

The city added another 80 km of lanes at the start of the pandemic, to ease crowding on buses, and plans 280 km more by 2024.

At the bike college, older students learn to repair high-end and electric bikes, make sportswear, and build road safety apps, and can earn a qualification in bicycle mechanics alongside a high-school diploma.

“You get to learn new things like how to take apart and assemble bikes,” said Isabella Vargas, a 16-year-old who wants to become an engineer.

This story was reported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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