Bogota held a ‘car free day’ yesterday and I basked in the joy of seeing the city turn into a bicycle heaven, but also experienced a sense of paradox, a sentiment consistent with my overall experience living here for the past year.
There was a clear increase in bicycles and the diversity in people riding –including some young children- was truly inspiring, nevertheless, a heightened level of impatience was also palpable. In recent years, with the advent of food delivery by bicycle, cycling through the city can be a stressful endeavour and getting overtaken by reckless riders is an every day occurrence. Yet, the sight of flocks of people on bikes trying to get in front of the queues already waiting at traffic lights was something I had not seen in that scale. It reminded me of the traffic jams of Amsterdam –without the orderly Dutch style.
The streets were painted yellow with the inordinate number of taxis that took over the streets. In light of the recent debacle with Uber which saw the e-hailing platform leave the country amidst controversy of unfair labour practices, it felt like revenge. I was lucky to be able to move by bicycle, and that was not the case for everyone, yet it somehow defeated the no-car nature of the day.
I learnt a great deal about air quality, partly because my lungs felt the fumes buses, taxis and some large trucks (oblivious of the rule on the day) continued to release, but more importantly because of the outdoor classes I joined in the morning to learn about the subject. I recently learnt about MeCAB, a citizen-driven coalition fighting for better air quality in the city, and joined them in their campaign to educate the public yesterday.
It turns out that while some pollutants such as nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and sulfure dioxide do indeed reduce when lots of petrol vehicles are taken out of circulation, the level of particular matter (PM) which is so damaging to our health increases or at least stays the same because of the diesel-fuelled buses that abound in this city.
The issue was a clear point of conversation and disagreement on social media. As an avid NMT promoter I could not but feel excited about the visible increase in bicycles on the street, but I was dumbfounded by the debate of whether or not we should worry about air quality, because ‘that was not the original purpose of organising a car-free day’.
It is obvious that a day without cars is not going to solve a complex mobility problem, but if there is one thing I have learnt by living n this city for the past year is that unless we think about the subject as a holistic challenge, we are unlikely to solve the puzzle. Not unlike South Africa, the task at hand is not just about getting people to ride their bicycles, it is also about addressing safety (from crime and traffic injury), providing the incentives and penalties to promote more sustainable technologies and modes of transport and, something that I think about everyday because I am affected by it, taking air quality seriously.
While listening to the lectures yesterday I could not help to notice the contrast of the scene. In the back the beautiful mountains that frame the city and in front of the speakers the buses continuing to pollute the air as the class unfolded. It seems that we are caught between very difficult problems and easily accessible solutions often invisible to the naked eye. In this case, one of the things I have discovered since I got here is that growing up in this city I failed to see the mountains as part of the city and only now as an adult, I am discovering the multitude of benefits they provide the city. They are not only a beautiful backdrop, they hold the secret to carbon sequestration, food resources and yes, better air quality. Perhaps it is too much of a leap to say they hold answers to mobility but after taking part in a lecture series (in the mountains!) about mobility and talking about them as ecosystems and the parallels with nature, I am starting to think there might be more to explore there.
It was a fascinating day; some argued online that if nothing else, it was a good day to think about transport and possible solutions. This was certainly something that resonates with me. The difficult part is returning to the business as usual chaos on the streets of Bogotá today…