After fifty years of false starts, is Bogotá finally about to build its metro?

Traffic in Bogotá. Image: Getty.

How would ordinary people get around Tokyo if the metro system was never built? Or New York, or London, or any large metropolis? Would roads be choked by traffic, pollution rocketing?

This is not just an annoying hypothetical exercise. It’s a way of putting yourself in the shoes – or rather cars, bikes, and buses – of Bogotanos.

Colombia’s capital, Bogotá, holds around 8m people, according to projections from the official statistics body. It’s approaching the size of London or New York, and dwarfs most European capitals. But there’s no metro to speed citizens across town (unlike the sparklingly clean overground that flows through Colombia’s second city, Medellín).

There is a mass transport system in Bogotá, although it only opened in 2000. The TransMilenio is a Bus Rapid Transit network. It’s like a tram network, although instead of trams it’s just bendy buses in their own lane – polluting, slow, and uncomfortable.

A map of the TransMilenio. Click to expand. Image: Maximilian Dörrbecker/Wikimedia Commons.

Nonetheless, as you might hope with any massive infrastructure project, it is better than nothing. Its introduction improved public transport in Bogotá significantly for the 1.4m people who use it each day, according to data from the World Bank.

Building a metro for Bogotá has been the flagship policy of multiple mayors of Bogotá, including the current officeholder, Enrique Peñalosa. Plans for the metro, first mooted in 1967, have already been through 12 iterations and cost 260 billion Colombian pesos (COP), around £67m, according to data gathered by the Metro project and Caracol Radio.

Plans for an underground metro were shelved in 2014, and construction on the current project was due to start earlier this year. Nonetheless, there has been momentum behind the idea in recent years, and the dream is now closer than ever. 

At the end of September, the government agreed to finance 70 per cent of the proposed scheme, which the latest study estimated to cost COP 16.4bn (£4.2m). The elevated metro will stretch for 24 kilometres, from south-east to north-east, carrying 72,000 passengers across 20 trains running each hour through 15 stations.

In a press release, issued on 25 September, the mayor described the government’s commitment to the plans as “a fantastic achievement and is the result of months of work… We have arrived at a point of no return for the Bogotá Metro.” In a separate press release, Miguel Uribe Turbay, secretary of Enrique Peñalosa’s administration in Bogotá, described the Metro as “the country’s most important infrastructure project”.

But residents of Bogotá are not all sold on the idea. Andres Felipe Castaño works in a café in the centre of Bogotá but lives in the south: currently, by far the worst-connected region of the city, and home to some of the poorest barrios, which climb up the mountains that overlook the capital. The people living in these areas can spend hours on multiple buses to reach the centre by public transport.

For him, though, the metro project is more about self-indulgence than improving transport for the people of Bogota. “They need to address the problems we have currently, instead of introducing new ones,” he explains to me in Spanish. “This is just about politicians’ egos. They want to live in a European city, a city of gringos.”

A map of the proposed route. Image: Futbolero/Wikimedia Commons.

The project has definitely not done Mayor Peñalosa any harm. He was recently named the 25th most influential urbanist of all time by magazine Planetizen.

And if the scheme works as planned, it will greatly improve transport for citizens, particularly in parts of the city’s south. Transporting almost a million people per day in the electric trains should also ease some of the problems of traffic and pollution that currently plague the urban centre.

There are still barriers in the way of the venture: the city council has to agree to co-finance it, picking up the bill for the remaining 30 per cent. There is broad agreement in the council, with former votes to endow the metro project passing without problem.

Yet, there are voices of dissent. Hollman Morris, for example, a councillor from the Progressive Movement Party has voiced his disbelief at the ambitious timeline for the project.

“They say they want to put the metro out to tender in November. That’s impossible. Only by breaking the law is it possible,” he told El Espectador in August.

Time is ticking for final approval. Andrés Escobar, the head of the Metro project, told La Republica that if they do not get this final confirmation by 11 November, the scheme would have to wait until after the 2018 presidential election in May. This is due to the (actually highly sensible) ‘Law of Guarantees’, which prohibits passing large public projects that could affect an election in the four months leading up to it. (Congressional elections are also taking place in March.)

Nonetheless, the director of the National Planning authority, Luis Fernando Mejía, hopes to put the project out to tender at the end of this year, with the first line starting to operate in 5 years.

Horacio José Serpa, a councillor from the Liberal Party and the President of Bogotá council, is equally optimistic. He believes there are enough parties in favour to pass the financial proposals in the council, and that they can get it through the two debates and votes necessary before 11 November, he tells me over Whatsapp. He wants this is to be the start of greater investment in the city’s transport network.

The metro scheme is undoubtedly an ambitious plan at every step, and will set Bogotá up to compete with other metropolises. Whether it will be enough to improve the lives of the citizens who most need access to reliable, efficient public transport is another matter.

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Owning public space is expensive. So why do developers want to do it?

Granary Yard, London. Image: Getty.

A great deal has been written about privately owned public space, or POPS. A Guardian investigation earlier this year revealed the proliferation of “pseudo-public spaces”. Tales of people being watched, removed from or told off in POPS have spread online. Activists have taken to monitoring POPS, and politicians on both sides of the pond are calling for reforms in how they are run.

Local authorities’ motives for selling off public spaces are normally simple: getting companies to buy and maintain public space saves precious public pounds. Less straightforward and often overlooked in this debate is why – given the maintenance costs, public safety concerns and increasingly unflattering media attention – developers would actually want to own public space in the first place.

To answer that question it’s important to note that POPS can’t be viewed as isolated places, like parks or other public spaces might be. For the companies that own them, public spaces are bound up in the business that takes place inside their private buildings; POPS are tools that allow them, in one way or another, to boost profits.


In some cities, such as Hong Kong and New York, ownership of public space is a trade-off for the right to bend the rules in planning and zoning. In 1961 New York introduced a policy that came to be known as ‘incentive zoning’. Developers who took on the provision of some public space could build wider, taller buildings, ignoring restrictions that had previously required staggered vertical growth to let sunlight and air into streets.

Since then, the city has allowed developers to build 20m square feet of private space in exchange for 80 acres of POPS, or 525 individual spaces, according to watchdog Advocates for Privately Owned Public Space (APOPS).

Several of those spaces lie in Trump Tower. Before the King of the Deal began construction on his new headquarters in 1979, he secured a pretty good deal with the city: Trump Tower would provide two atriums, two gardens, some restrooms and some benches for public use; in exchange 20 floors could be added to the top of the skyscraper. That’s quite a lot of condos.

Shockingly, the current president has not always kept up his end of the bargain and has been fined multiple times for dissuading members of the public from using POPS by doing things like placing flower pots on top of benches – violating a 1975 rule which said that companies had to provide amenities that actually make public spaces useable. The incident might suggest the failure of the ‘honour system’ under which POPS operate day-to-day. Once developers have secured their extra square footage, they might be tempted to undermine, subtly, the ‘public’ nature of their public spaces.

But what about where there aren’t necessarily planning benefits to providing public space? Why would companies go to the trouble of managing spaces that the council would otherwise take care of?

Attracting the ‘right sort’

Granary Square, part of the £5bn redevelopment of London’s Kings Cross, has been open since 2012. It is one of Europe’s largest privately-owned public spaces and has become a focal point for concerns over corporate control of public space. Yet developers of the neighbouring Coal Drop Yards site, due to open in October 2018, are also making their “dynamic new public space” a key point in marketing.

Cushman Wakefield, the real estate company in charge of Coal Drops Yard, says that the vision of the developers, Argent, has been to “retain the historical architecture to create a dramatic environment that will attract visitors to the 100,000 square feet of boutiques”. The key word here is “attract”. By designing and managing POPS, developers can attract the consumers who are essential to the success of their sites and who might be put off by a grubby council-managed square – or by a sterile shopping mall door.

A 2011 London Assembly Report found that the expansion of Canary Wharf in the 1990s was a turning point for developers who now “assume that they themselves will take ownership of an open space, with absolute control, in order to protect the value of the development as a whole”. In many ways this is a win-win situation; who doesn’t appreciate a nice water feature or shrub or whatever else big developer money can buy?

The caveat is, as academic Tridib Banerjee pointed out back in 2001: “The public is welcome as long as they are patrons of shops and restaurants, office workers, or clients of businesses located on the premises. But access to and use of the space is only a privilege and not a right” – hence the stories of security guards removing protesters or homeless people who threaten the aspirational appeal of places like Granary Square.

In the US, developers have taken this kind of space-curation even further, using public spaces as part of their formula for attracting the right kind of worker, as well as consumer, for nearby businesses. In Cincinnati, developer 3CDC transformed the notoriously crime-ridden Over-The-Rhine (OTR) neighbourhood into a young professional paradise. Pouring $47m into an initial make-over in 2010, 3CDC beautified parks and public space as well as private buildings.

To do so, the firm received $50 million  in funding from corporations like Procter and Gamble, whose Cincinnati headquarters sits to the South-West of OTR. This kind of hyper-gentrification has profoundly change the demographics of the neighbourhood – to the anger of many long-term residents – attracting, essentially, the kind of people who work at Procter and Gamble.

Elsewhere, in cities like Alpharetta, Georgia, 3CDC have taken their public space management even further, running events and entertainment designed to attract productive young people to otherwise dull neighbourhoods.

Data pools

The proposed partnership between the city of Toronto and Sidewalk Labs (owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet) has highlighted another motive for companies to own public space: the most modern of all resources, data.

Data collection is at the heart of the ‘smart city’ utopia: the idea that by turning public spaces and the people into them into a vast data pool, tech companies can find ways to improve transport, the environment and urban quality of life. If approved next year, Sidewalk would take over the mostly derelict east waterfront area, developing public and private space filled with sensors.

 Of course, this isn’t altruism. The Globe and Mail describe Sidewalk’s desired role as “the private garbage collectors of data”. It’s an apt phrase that reflects the merging of public service and private opportunity in Toronto’s future public space.

The data that Sidewalk could collect in Toronto would be used by Google in its commercial projects. Indeed, they’ve already done so in New York’s LinkNYC and London’s LinkUK. Kiosks installed around the cities provide the public with wifi and charging points, whilst monitoring traffic and pedestrians and generating data to feed into Google Maps.

The subway station at Hudson Yards, New York City. Image: Getty.

This is all pretty anodyne stuff. Data on how we move around public spaces is probably a small price to pay for more efficient transport information, and of course Sidewalk don’t own the areas around their Link Kiosks. But elsewhere companies’ plans to collect data in their POPS have sparked controversy. In New York’s Hudson Yards development – which Sidewalk also has a stake in – ambiguity over how visitors and residents can opt out of sharing their data when in its public square, have raised concerns over privacy.

In Toronto, Sidewalk have already offered to share their data with the city. However, Martin Kenney, researcher at the University of California at Davis and co-author of 2016’s ‘The Rise of the Platform Economy’, has warned that the potential value of a tech company collecting a community’s data should not be underestimated. “What’s really important is the deals Toronto cuts with Sidewalk may set terms and conditions for the rest of the world," he said after the announcement in October.

The project could crystallise all three motives behind the ownership of POPS. Alongside data collection, Sidewalk will likely have some leeway over planning regulations and will certainly tailor its public spaces to its ideal workers and consumers – Google have already announced that it would move its Canadian headquarters, from their current location in Downton Toronto, into the first pilot phase of the development.

Even if the Sidewalks Lab project never happens, the motives behind companies’ ownership of POPS tell us that cities’ public realms are of increasing interest to private hands.

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