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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Mayor Marvin Rees' hope for Bristol: A more equitable city that can 'live with difference'

“I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city," Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees says. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

When the statue of 18th century slave trader Edward Colston was torn from its plinth and dumped in Bristol’s harbour during the city’s Black Lives Matter protests on 7 June, mayor Marvin Rees was thrust into the spotlight. 

Refraining from direct support of the statue’s removal, the city’s first black mayor shared a different perspective on what UK home secretary Priti Patel called “sheer vandalism”:

“It is important to listen to those who found the statue to represent an affront to humanity,” he said in a statement at the time. “I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city and wherever we see it.”

48 year-old Rees, who grew up in the city, has since expanded on his approach to the issue in an interview with CityMetric, saying “wherever you stand on that spectrum, the city needs to be a home for all of those people with all of those perspectives, even if you disagree with them.”

“We need to have the ability to live with difference, and that is the ethnic difference, racial difference, gender difference, but also different political perspectives,” he added. “I have been making that point repeatedly – and I hope that by making it, it becomes real.” 

What making that point means, in practice, for Rees is perhaps best illustrated by his approach to city governance.

Weeks after the toppling of Colston’s statue, a new installation was erected at the same spot featuring Jen Reid, a protester of Black Lives Matter. However, the installation was removed, as “it was the work and decision of a London-based artist, and it was not requested and permission was not given for it to be installed”, Rees said in a statement.

Bristol may appear a prosperous city, logging the highest employment rate among the UK’s “core cities” in the second quarter of 2019. But it is still home to many areas that suffer from social and economic problems: over 70,000 people, about 15 percent of Bristol’s population, live in what are considered the top 10 percent most disadvantaged areas in England. 

In an attempt to combat this inequality, Rees has been involved in a number of projects. He has established Bristol Works, where more than 3,000 young people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are given work experience opportunities. And is now setting up a commission on social mobility. “Launching a Bristol commission on social mobility is not only about social justice; it [should not be] possible for a modern city to leave millions of pounds worth of talent on the shelf, just because the talent was born into poverty,” he says.

The mayor is also a strong supporter of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), explaining that SDGs offer a way to talk about sustainability within a framework of many issues, ranging from climate change and biodiversity to women’s issues, domestic violence, poverty and hunger.

“What we want to achieve as a city cannot be done as a city working alone,” he insists. “We don’t want to benefit only people inside Bristol, we want to benefit the planet, and the SDGs offer a framework for a global conversation,” suggesting that a vehicle should be launched that allows cities to work together, ideally with organisations such as the UN, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund involved. 

Greater collaboration between cities would be “beneficial in terms of economies of scale,” he argues, “as cities could get more competitive prices when buying materials for building houses or ordering buses, rather than each city acquiring a few of them at a higher price.”

In an attempt to focus on the long term, Rees launched One City Plan in January 2019, setting out a number of goals for Bristol to achieve by 2050.

Investing in green infrastructure to meet 2030 carbon emission targets spelled out in the SDGs is a key area here, with the mayor noting that transport, mass transit and energy are important sectors looking for further investment and government funding: “The sooner we meet our targets, the sooner we will benefit from them, and invest in sectors that will provide people with jobs.”

Jobs, especially following the outbreak of Covid-19, are of paramount importance to Rees. Bristol’s council wants to ensure that any government money given to the city will be quickly passed on to businesses to help prevent redundancies, he says, though given that mass job losses seem inevitable, reskilling options are also being looked into, such as through a zero-carbon smart energy project called City Leap.

Another important area for investment in Bristol is affordable housing, with 9,000 homes already built under Rees’s term of office. “People could build a base for life with affordable housing, [and this would mean] their mental health would be better because they have a safe place,” he explains. “Children in families that have a home that is affordable are more likely to able to eat and to heat, [and they are more likely to enjoy a] better education.”

Taken in the round, Rees’s agenda for Bristol is its own blueprint for shaping history. The Colston statue now lies in safe storage, with a local museum likely to play host to the controversial monument. But the Black Lives Matters protestors were fighting for a fairer, more equal future, and it is here where Rees is determined to deliver.

Sofia Karadima is a senior editor at NS Media Group.