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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Where did London’s parakeets come from?

Parakeets in the skies above Wormwood Scrubs, west London. Image: Getty.

Visitors to London’s many green spaces would have to be stubbornly looking at their feet to not see one of the UK’s most exotic birds.  Dubbed “posh pigeons” by unimaginative Londoners, these brilliant green parakeets stand out among the fauna of Northern Europe’s mostly grey cities.

‘Parakeets’ is actually an umbrella term referring to the multiple species, which can now be found in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and various German cities. By far the most common is the Indian ring-necked parakeet, easily recognisable by the stylish red ring around their neck, a matching red beak and, of course, the loud squawking.

In the last 50 years these migrants from South Asia have arrived and thrived, settling into their own ecological niche. In the UK, London is a particular stronghold, but although they may have originally settled in the leafy streets of Twickenham, the birds can now be found in cities as far north as Glasgow.

The story of how they ended up in London is a matter of some discussion and plenty of myth. One often reported theory is that the capitals’ current population are the descendants of birds that escaped from Shepperton Studios during filming of The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Others would tell you that they escaped from Syon Park in the early 1970s, when a piece of debris from a passing plane damaged the aviary and allowed them to escape. This chimes with their original concentration in South West London.
My favourite story by far is that they were released by Jimi Hendrix on Carnaby Street in the late 60s. Bored of London’s grey skyline, he set the little fellas free to liven up the place.

However they got here, from 1970 onwards their numbers boomed. In 1992, 700 birds were recorded in London Bird Report. By 1998, 2,845 were seen in the London Area, and by 2006 the ring-neck parakeet was 15th most sighted bird in London.

Darwin would be proud at how well they adapted to the new environment. Toughened up by the hard Himalayan climate, they handle the cold northern European winters better than most locals. Global warming is often brought up in discussions of the parakeets, but it is certainly only part of the story.
It helps, too, that the birds have a 35 year lifespan and few local predators, enabling them to breed freely.

As with any new species, the debate has raged about whether they are harmful to the ecosystem. Strangely reminiscent of the debate over human migrants, often the birds have often been accused of stealing the homes of the natives. The parakeets do nest in tree cavities also used by jackdaws, owls and woodpeckers – but there is little evidence that native species are being muscled out. 

The also provide a food source for Britain's embattled birds of prey. Owls and peregrine falcons have been know to eat them. Charlie and Tom, two city dwelling falcons monitored by Nathalie Mahieu, often bring back parakeets as food.
Of more concern is the new arrivals’ effect on plants and trees. By 2009 their numbers in the UK had grown so much that they were added to the “general licence” of species, which can be killed without individual permission if they are causing damage.

And Parrotnet, am EU funded research project studying the development of parakeet populations across Europe, has warned of the risk they pose to agriculture. In their native India, the parakeets are known to cause widespread damage to crops. As agriculture develops in the UK in line with warmer climates, crops such as maize, grapes and sunflower will become more popular. In India the birds have been documented as reducing maize crops by 81 per cent.

So the parakeets remain divisive. Environmentalist Tony Juniper has disparagingly described them as “the grey squirrel of the skies”. By contrast, the University of York biologist Chris D. Thomas has argued that the parakeets should be left free to move and breed. He sees those wary of the parakeet boom of “irrational persecution” of the bird.

For good or ill the parakeets are here to stay. As so often with migrants of all kinds, there has been some unease about the impact they have had – but the birds, popular amongst Londoners, certainly add colour to the city. Thriving in the urban environment thousands of miles from their natural habitat, they are a metropolitan bird for Europe’s metropolitan cities. 

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