Thursday, March 22, 2012

A planner's paradise...almost

As urban planners and urban lovers, Bogotá really impressed us with some of its features making city life more enjoyable. The three we noticed and took part in were 1) the bus rapid transit (BRT) system, 2) the extensive bicycle infrastructure and 3) park space.

Bus Rapid Transit

There is a reason that Bogotá is known the world over as a model for BRT systems; the system works successfully and efficiently. The system, called the TransMilenio, opened in 2000 and has since completed a second phase giving it a total of 84 km (52 mi) of lines with 114 stations and 1,500 buses. A third phase adding additional lines and stations is already in the works, and the ultimate goal is to have over 300 km of lines. The system serves 1.6 million people a day, which is about 1/5 of Bogotá’s population! The one trip cost is 1750 Colombian pesos (COP), about US$1, which is relatively affordable given that other city buses running various routes charge 1450 COP.

TransMilenio articulated bus
The difference between a regular bus system and BRT is that BRT operates generally using raised platform stations where you purchase tickets in advance to avoid wait times upon entering and the buses have their own dedicated lanes apart from traffic, speeding up their service. At first we found Bogotá’s system sort of difficult to navigate. Instead of each line or section of the system having a color, letter, or number, they have all three. Certain numbered and lettered routes go in certain directions and stop at certain stations and others skip stops, like local versus express service. Each station has 2 to 3 gates for multiple buses to stop at once to avoid congestion. You can purchase fare cards for multiple rides, but we read that people were suspicious of this working and generally only buy one trip at a time. After a few miscues, we got the hang of it quickly.

Station and dedicated lanes separated from regular traffic
The stations were roomy and clean, as were the buses, although at rush hour they were completely packed and a little stuffy. The main lines run along major streets so there was plenty of room for the stations and dedicated lanes in the middle of 4 or more lanes of other traffic each direction and medians. The stations on these busy streets also had safe, police-guarded walkways to take you from the center to either side of the street. The stations/lines on the smaller streets were well designed with some nice brickwork and pedestrian crossings. They also have a system of feeder buses that people use to get to areas off the main lines.

Inside a station
While it’s not a more refined subway or streetcar system, it is a far cry from the haphazard system of random personal bus companies that most Latin American cities still have. And, it’s an improvement over traditional bus systems in the U.S., which is why cities like Detroit are looking into it in order to cheaply and quickly improve their antiquated transit services.

Bicycle Infrastructure

Colombians are avid cyclers, both professionally and recreationally, so it’s not surprising that Bogotá offers great bike facilities. In addition to the normal things like bike parking, they have a super network of bike paths that zigzag across the city for over 300 km. The paths are generally well protected and separated from traffic and pedestrian walkways and are often in a roomy median. The great facilities mean that 5%, around 350,000, of trips in the city are made by bike. Bike shops are a common sight on almost every street.

Bike lane in median of a wide boulevard
Not only do they have great bike infrastructure, Bogotá is also credited with inventing a unique biking event in 1976 called the Ciclovía. Every Sunday and holidays falling on Monday, the city closes 120 km of streets to vehicular traffic from 7 am to 2 pm in order to create routes solely for bikers and pedestrians. The event has grown exponentially in popularity since its inception, particularly since the 1990’s when the city took efforts to improve biker safety.

Ciclovía lane designation sign
We were lucky enough to be in Bogotá on a Sunday to witness the event which is so much more than opening some bike paths. Millions (yes, millions) of people turn out every week to get some exercise in whatever way they choose: biking, roller-skating, skateboarding, jogging, walking or participating in one of many free exercise and dance classes offered in public parks. Families with kids, single women, groups of teenagers, and old men are all present, beaming with smiles and dressed in their best exercise gear. For bikers, there are some special amenities like bike service stations that will fix a flat or adjust your gears. For everyone, there are street performers, drink and snack stations and teams of police and Bikewatch (so called because Baywatch was popular when they started) patrolling the area to direct traffic and provide general assistance.

Bikers stopped at an intersection for cars to pass
While we didn’t have bikes to ride, it was still fun to walk the streets, try a rumba class (really hard!) and take in the vibrant and exuberant atmosphere that pervades the city and its residents. Everyone was out to have a great experience, and it was such a lovely time to explore the downtown area without worrying about the traffic or pollution that come with cars, trucks and buses. It’s no wonder this event has been replicated across Colombia and is now spreading to other countries including Australia, U.S., Canada, Mexico, Ecuador, Peru and Argentina. We think it would be a great event for any size city, even if it can only be during the summer months or a few times a year to start.

Exercise dance class in the park
Park Space

Lastly, Bogotá has a great park system that seems to be well-utilized and maintained. The city has park spaces scattered all over which have some of the best landscaping we’ve seen in Latin America thus far. They really put some effort into designing spaces that were pleasant for sitting, strolling or grabbing a snack and ample garbage and recycling containers plus street sweepers meant they were mostly trash- free. One space we saw even had a winding fountain-like water feature that covered several city blocks in order to replicate an old river that had been buried.

The highlight was certainly the Simón Bolívar Metropolitan Park, really a series of three parks and a botanical garden that covers 988 acres! The botanical garden is a great urban oasis featuring a variety of environments from coniferous forests to desert-scapes, a tropical plant house and herb and vegetable gardens. At less than $2 for entry, it was a great deal, and we spent a good 2 hours enjoying its winding paths and cool climate.

Rose garden at the botanical gardens
The other three parks were packed with a variety of offerings from an aquatic center and multi-sports complex to an amusement park, children’s museum, library and a mini lake. On Saturday, hundreds of kids and adults were out participating in everything from inline skating and tennis, to basketball, volleyball and of course, soccer. The lake was smooth and serene, with rowboats to rent and tons of food kiosks lining its shores. They had a special area alongside with public exercise equipment as well. What was also impressive was the number of kid’s junglegyms and playgrounds that had been constructed in every corner of every park and also in every apartment building complex. Compared to Honduras, which has maybe 10 playgrounds in the whole country, Bogotá was a kid’s dream come true. We wandered for hours along the manicured paths, soaking up the sun and people-watching.

Lake in the park
If you couldn’t tell from our descriptions, we loved Bogotá and all it had to offer. Despite its massive size, we never felt overwhelmed and could almost see ourselves living there, biking to work and enjoying the park system as much as the locals clearly do. While not without its faults, Bogotá is a great city for others to look to as a model of some fantastic urban planning practices, and we hope to have the chance to visit again the future.

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