Once upon a time a previous Bogota mayor won, through a referendum, the right to call an annual “no car day” in the city. The idea was to encourage people to stop and think about the effect their daily commute had on the environment. No bad thing.
Current mayor, Gustavo Petro, today held the second no car day of the year. And he wants another one before he finishes his mandate in December.
Now Mr Petro may claim this is an environmental measure, but we suspect it is more likely to be a move to encourage people on to his new (ish) blue buses.
Petro is ploughing ahead with his plan to shove the private buses off the road, getting Bogotanos to use his SITP, or integrated transport system, instead. Again no bad thing. These buses are cleaner, safer and a little more civilised than the rust buckets that belch out highly toxic fumes as they criss-cross the Septima or the Caracas or the Once, without regard for pedestrian, cyclist, or motorist alike.
The problem is no car day is a pretty dull idea to encourage people to use public transport. Why? Because Bogota’s public transport is overrun at the best of times. Try to get on the Transmilenio – the guided buses – anywhere close to rush hour and you’ll descend through various circles of hell. Try to go south on the Once – at any time – and you’ll be snarled up in traffic. God forbid you live in the far south or the far north and have to use one of the green, subsidiary buses.
Successive governments have failed dismally to invest in Bogota’s transport network. There are not enough roads, not enough buses, no metro, no new Transmilenio lines. It really is a dog’s dinner. The only effect of the no car day is to back up the queues even longer, and collapse the network.
But it’s worse than that because the no car day is not really a no car day. There are thousands of taxis on the roads. The usual yellow ones, of course, but also the white, private taxis – often blacked out – which have been hired by all the rich folk who would ordinarily have driven in to work.
There are plenty of other vehicles too, school buses, electric motorbikes, delivery vans, you name it. Amusing photos emerged this morning of the Autopista Norte and one of the longest traffic jams Bogota has seen this year. Quite a feat for a city as chronically congested as this!
So no car day is not really no car day. I can’t see that it has any real benefit to the environment. The buses still belch, and the taxis are just as polluting as normal cars.
The real drag is the no car day just makes life more difficult for the poor and the lower middle class. The strato six lot whiz by in their private cabs while strato 4 and 5 jump in the yellow taxis. The rest? Well, I can’t imagine there are many that could stomach cycling in from Soacha, Ciudad Bolivar or Kennedy.
Populist decisions seldom make any real difference. The no car day will please some of course, and the district will point to an increase in numbers using his blue buses. But as all too often, Colombia’s political class content themselves with attacking the symptoms, not the causes of the problem. Instead of wasting money on pointless initiatives why not invest heavily in proper, fit for purpose, public transport?
Until then, the real winners will always be the taxi driver cartel.
Kevin is a political consultant and lobbyist who cut his teeth working in the UK Parliament. He is a regular panelist on Colombian television, a political communication strategist and a university lecturer. Kevin is the founder and editor of Colombia Politics.