Monday, March 5, 2012

Bogota trip report: bicycling and walking

Having heard a great deal about transportation improvements in Bogota, Colombia, I was eager to see them with my own eyes. A business trip to the Colombian oil sector brought me there this week. Here's what I observed.

Fifteen years ago, I remember it was semi-suicidal to cross the street as a pedestrian in Bogota. Also, I don't particularly remember seeing any bicycles there in the 1990s.

Now, there is an environment which is pedestrian friendlier. There are decent walk signals, drivers are much more respectful of walkers, and problem intersections are staffed with actual crossing guard officers whose only job is to protect pedetrians. Some streets have been closed off to motorized traffic, and are foot only. There are ped bridges which span some of the large boulevards (think freeways), so that people don't get run over and hit trying to cross. Some of these bridges are gigantic. Imagine a ped bridge over the Southwest Freeway. The difference from 1997 until today for the pedestrian is a night/day difference.

A similar story exists for bicycles. Now, the city is awash in bicycles, seemingly at about the same participation rate as Seattle. based on my eyeball assessment. Much is spoken about the Sunday "ciclovias" where they close off key boulvards to cars and form a ring route for bikes. Also, some has been written about bicycle paths (European style... seperated from the cars). What I haven't heard people discuss is the fact that there is a tremendous amount of cycling taking place on the old, unchanged street & road infrastructure, and I didn't observe anything in the way of Texas-style car/bike conflict ("get out of my way you a****le!"), and I was looking for it. The bicyclist behaviors are good; overall, helmet use is in the 30% range (higher for middle class riders, lower for working class). There is decent fraction of users who use bike lights at night, much more so than here in the Houston area.

{a roadway similar to Allen Parkway. Note wide walking paths on both sides. Bi-directional bike lane seen on the left. Passenger train running down the middle. Note dramatic pedestrian suspension bridge in the background}

In other words, there has been a strong and successful intervention concerning operator behaviors, for both motorized and non-motorized users, quite apart from the building of new infrastructure. The culture has changed, it has done a 180 degree turn. This is the point I made to Chelsea Young, the new H-GAC bike/ped coordinator, just prior to my Bogota trip. I expressed the opinion that the H-GAC bike/ped subcommittee spends too much time thinking about ways to get more funding to "build stuff" (When? 2040? I'll be 79 years old. With what money? All levels of government are broke), and not enough time trying to change behaviors to make life easier and safer for bicyclists and pedestrians today with the infrastructure we have. My sentiments are shared by John Forester, PE himself, the father of modern traffic cycling principles. Bogota proves that point. You can significantly move forward with the infrastructure you've got.

The TransMillenio true bus rapid transit (BRT) is a great success in Bogota. I say "true" because it has dedicated lanes taken away from cars (gasp) and sheltered platforms where customers pre-pay before boarding and the platform is level with the floor. METRO's HOV buses fails on both these points. The vehicles are the same config as the artiqs METRO used to run, but a different brand. When you see the bus after bus after bus coming down the guideway all day long, and every bus is full, and you see the scope of the TransMillenio coverage on the map, you can see what a hugely important asset this is to Bogota. If you took away the Trans with the shake of an evil magic wand, the city's economy would crumble. It would be like shutting down New York's subway or London's Tube. Taking away some car lanes and given them over to the BRT has resulted in a huge net increase in the number of people you can move across the metro area.

But car drivers do pay a price. There is no congestion tax, but you can only bring your car into the central city on certain days, based on your license plate number. If you look around, you see 2-3 people in each car at rush hour. People cooperate to get each other home; what a concept. There would be no way to have mostly single-occupant vehicles in Bogota. Again, the system would come to a halt.

Remember, Bogota is 7 million people with a density of 11,000 per square mile. Houston is 2 million at 3,450 per square mile. Bogotanos had no choice. They had make the choices they made more than 15 years ago in order to have a working city now. But let's also keep in mind, the per capita GDP in Colombia is $6,685, in the USA it's $48,147. Colombia is one-seventh as wealthy as the USA, per person. If they could make these changes, why can't we?

The upside is that with all of this walk- and bike-friendliness now Bogota is becoming a new trendy tourist location and bringing even more economic development to the city.

Tourists enjoying the Usaquen district of Bogota on foot. I enjoyed a delicious "parillada mixta" (mixed grill) and a Club Colombia extra-dry pilsner at a posh restaurant in Usaquen on 2 March 2012. Photo by Google+ User Loon Lio. Posted to the public Internet. More photos here.

Peter Wang, LCI

"Bicycles Make Everything Better"