Editorial: Bogotá and the traffic light circus

I’ve noticed a marked absence of flame-throwers and jugglers at traffic lights recently, which beside the usual chaos of getting around Bogotá streets adds some level of fleeting entertainment to a prolonged stop at an intersection. Even though there’s no shortage of color on our carreras, these last several weeks, I’ve also noticed many traffic lights on the blink. This, obviously, has not been welcomed by the precarious tightrope walkers as cars are now being forced to wedge their way into lanes, usually jammed anyways, and avoid being side-rammed by a SITP bus or motorcycle.

The mayoralty claims that the traffic light black-out is the result of previous administrations that didn’t invest in updating the city’s traffic management system and signed contracts for bulbs that clearly have shorter than usual life spans. This situation has embroiled the administration of Enrique Peñalosa in yet another contentious debate over who ultimately is to blame for the capital’s mobility problems.

If having the lights go dark at thousands of intersections isn’t enough of a worry for drivers, Bogotá is at a critical juncture regarding the elevated Metro, implementation of TransMilenio along the Carrera Séptima, and renovation of the emblematic articulated buses. With ground-breaking for the elevated Metro scheduled for next year, the project hasn’t been exempt from criticism. Peñalosa, however, staunchly defends this method of public transportation, claiming it can be finished in five years. The risk is that is can also become outdated quickly, over congested, not unlike TransMilenio. The metro elevado will transport 20,000 passengers less everyday than an underground.

The idea that Bogotá needs a metro has been in the pipeline for sixty years, and because of a lack of political will and vision, only until recently, was this administration given a green light by the city council and national government to begin construction of this mega-project. But, this hasn’t calmed the debate over the planned expansion of TransMilenio along the Carrera Séptima, Bogotá’s most iconic street, and which has had three lanes narrowed down to two in order to make way for the designated SITP bus lane. The expansion of TM along the Séptima has also raised the ire of those who live near this important corridor, citing more contamination in a city with already bad air quality, as well as a negative impact on neighborhood quality of life, with noise levels and 30,000 passengers streaming in every day to use the system.

And last month, TransMilenio found itself at the heart of another debate when mayor Peñalosa announced that future buses would be equipped with benches instead of seats, supposedly giving passengers more freedom of movement inside the vehicle, and like a metro, easier to reach doors. The changes to the seating arrangement comes with the bid for expanding the fleet from the current 310 to 1,300, as well as implementing clean energy transportation by phasing out diesel for electricity and natural gas.

Mobility affects every aspect of our lives – from the air we breath to how safe we feel on a bus or in our cars. Even though I find myself at odds with some of this adminstration’s policies, especially how they are implemented, at least this mayor, thinks macro. From light bulbs that urgently need replacing to handing back the garbage collection to private contractors, Bogotá must be ambitious if it wants to be ranked, and admired, as a world-class city. With so much focus on the upcoming presidential elections May 27, which we will cover extensively, in print and online, Bogotá’s woes tend to get side-tracked by the political drama of who is ahead in the polls, or if peace can stay the course. While these are timely topics, the presidential candidates had their opportunity to address issues close to the hearts of Bogotanos, and the way we move around is definitely, one of them. Right now, though, I feel left in the dark and at the mercy of the road circus.