Building bridges across imperfect contexts: a view from Bogotá

All forms of mobility coexist in Bogotá

Speaking to my mother about a visit I’m helping facilitate, she made a comment which hasn’t left me. She asked me what I was doing back in Bogota this week and I explained that a few government officials from African and Latin American cities are in town to take part in an exchange about mobility and transportation convened by UN-Habitat. She looked at me with incredulity and said “so people think they can learn how to do transportation here? That’s strange”.

She certainly has a point, and I am not naïve. Bogota has not figured out how to resolve the transportation question; in fact it has made some catastrophic mistakes along the way. Nevertheless, it is a place where experimentation happens and where public, private & the informal sector strive to find ways to respond to the never ending crisis. One only needs to look out the window or walk down the street to see the ingenious ‘bicycle-powered’ taxis; the cargo bicycles carrying a multitude of goods, at times in mind-boggling quantities; and small enterprises trying to solve the “last mile solution”.

In addition, there is the weekly Ciclovia (Open Streets) which continues to capture the world’s imagination, including local residents, who Sunday after Sunday, transform their own demeanour towards the city and each other. There was little explaining required today. Indeed, our guests all remarked on how incredible it was to see so many people occupying the streets in imaginative, and harmonious ways. As Ciclovia’s founder Jaime Ortiz says, in ‘total peace’ (la paz total!)

Exchange participants enjoying Ciclovia

The experience would not have been complete without Bogota’s typical and magistral down pour. As Andres Felipe Vergara from the City’s Transport Department, who joined us in the cycle ride explained, the rains follow the Ciclovia schedule, and almost on cue at 2:30pm, we were graced with some heavenly, albeit rather cold rain.

The rain is part and parcel of experiencing Bogota and participants embraced it.

The rest of the visit will be a combination of experiences which include traveling to Ciudad Bolivar by cable car; visiting one of the largest factories in the city, using electric cargo bikes to distribute their goods across the city; talking to a few experts; and of course meeting with City officials to hear about some of the regulatory challenges as well as plans for the future. I am particularly excited about a conversation on gender and transport, specifically, the experience of domestic workers in this city — a likely similar precarious reality in the cities visiting- as well as the role of civil society and the donor community in the transport ecosystem.

Inviting City officials from other cities in the South is not something new and is not a magic bullet, but there is something powerful about visiting someone else’s city to check out how they deal with similar problems; particularly if they lack the resources, systems, and safety nets that most cities in the Global North have.

This visit will hopefully not only be about transport, but also about people, their culture and livelihoods; a center piece of the engine behind Local South; a new initiative seeking to build on what so many have been trying in different ways to build bridges across Africa and Latin America.

I, personally, as a part-time resident of Bogota, hold high hopes that in this exercise, conversations will spark ideas not only amongst those who are visiting from abroad but also those who are at the forefront of trying to improve things for Bogota’s residents.

Let’s see how the rest of this exchange unfolds.

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Marcela Guerrero Casas

I am passionate about cities, public space & community engagement. Born in Colombia, I have spent my adult life in the US & South Africa. Cape Town is home.