Enrique Peñalosa and Congestion in Bogota

Alternate Title: My Official Endorsement of Enrique Peñalosa for Mayor of Bogota

Congestion in Bogota is unreal. Latin American capitals are known for chaotic traffic and poor infrastructure. Combine that with sky-high immigration to Bogota of displaced persons from Colombia’s armed conflict, and you have an amazingly crowded city.

There are almost no highways in Bogota, which is a problem in a city of 8 million. Trips across town can be depressingly slow. I soon saw I’d need a bicycle.

Here are some shots that illustrate the amount of available space.

That one of two buses is on Decima downtown. I have to squeeze through that gauntlet when I ride my bicycle downtown, since there’s even less space on the outer sides of those two lanes. This time I didn’t fit. The sidewalk’s not an option because it’s congested with pedestrians. This illustrates how precious space is in this town – every inch matters.

In the middle shot those buses are moving. That’s a typical pedestrian buildup quickly crossing before the next wave of cars.

On the left you can see in the lower left corner the cicloruta, the dedicated bike path. I obviously couldn’t go too fast to get the camera out and snap a shot.

I never thought about space until I saw the speech, Power, Politics, Cities given at the London School of Economics by former Bogota mayor and current candidate Enrique Peñalosa. As mayor from 1998-2001 Peñalosa effected tremendous change in Bogota, so substantial he’s recognized internationally as a top urban development expert with an emphasis in developing (third world) cities. Since then he’s worked as an urb dev consultant and Board of Directors president of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. He attended Duke in the US, IIAP in Paris, and was a visiting scholar at NYU.

Peñalosa speaks for about 40 minutes, in English and it’s worth it.

At the 6:30 point, Peñalosa starts to talk about physical space. He talks about private property vs. public property. He’ll ultimately argue that a true democracy isn’t just about voting. It also demands we take all citizens into account when allocating public space and property. This is especially important in developing cities where the upper class is tiny but control most of the wealth and resources.

Think about it. Is it fair that so much of the space between private buildings be allocated to cars when just over 20% own cars? Think about how much space a car with one person inside uses. How much space per person does a crowded bus use? And someone on a bike?

Peñalosa says a city can be friendly to people who drive cars or people who don’t drive cars. There’s no compromise. Space is a zero-sum game. Peñalosa is clear about advocating against car drivers. He prioritizes public transport, cycling, and walking. He adds that a good measure for any investment a city makes (new park, building, road) is this question: Does it make the city more or less pleasant to walk?



Enrique Peñalosa launched Bogota’s bus rapid transit system, the TransMilenio (or ‘el TransMi‘). He took two street lanes away from cars on wide thoroughfares, dedicating them to a subway-like system of huge buses. I’ve passionately cursed the TransMilenio many times for how much of a pain in the ass it can be, but it’s important on long trips. I can’t imagine the chaos before. In Bogota’s rise and fall, The Economist calls the TransMilenio “transports of crowded discomfort.” TransMilenio’s misery can’t be blamed on Peñalosa, since he’s been out of office a decade, and usage has skyrocketed and government efficiency has fallen. That Economist article actually endorses Peñalosa while shaming the last corrupt piece of shit.

Even though it sucks, you have to understand the TransMilenio is good and necessary for developing cities. Whenever I’d get pissed at it, I’d fume that the smaller Medellin has a Metro while Bogota doesn’t. But Medellin is a narrow city half the population of Bogota. They’re crammed inside a narrow valley so they only need one line to be convenient for most everybody. Bogota’s much bigger and sprawled in every direction. The city simply can’t afford to build a subway for all the lines it would need to cover the city. Peñalosa mentions at the 35:00 point that a subway would’ve bankrupted Bogota for thirty years.


Peñalosa also built the ciclorutas, Bogota’s Bike Path Network, which took more public access from space-hogging cars. I recently heard another bike-riding gringo in Bogota complain about the ciclorutas, but I love them. It has nuisances, but generally I think they’re great and I’ve loved becoming a cyclist in Bogota. So much so there’s an upcoming post called Bikes and Cycling in Bogota.

Also kick ass about bike culture is Ciclovia – several thoroughfares are closed on Sundays and holidays for cyclists, joggers, rollerbladers, dog walkers, and walkers. Nobody denies it makes the city pleasant. Bogota takes it even further with No Car Day, a whole day when personal cars aren’t allowed on the streets.

Street Vendors

Upper income citizens with cars aren’t the only ones who take more than their fair share of public space. Some of the lowest income citizens, street vendors, steal space specifically in congested areas. Street vendors create bottlenecks to increase exposure to their trinkets. By laying out their big blanket of widgets in the sidewalk, they force pedestrians over and into the bike path in many areas.

Enrique Peñalosa put laws in place restricting street vendors in some areas, especially Chapinero. He’s hated among those workers, but tough shit. It’s not easy to get mad at these poor people doing what they do just to survive, but a city can’t have that.  I’ve heard Carrera 13 through Chapinero was unpassable in the 90s. And it’s still bad because the street vendors have returned. Check out these pics of the “bike path.”

Exhibits A, B, and C prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that street vendors steal space from pedestrians and cyclists.

One time it was a little jammed on the bike path at Calle 72 and Carrera 11, as always, and I was in a hurry as always. I had to veer off the bike path a little to avoid some pedestrians. A vendor had baseball caps laid out on a blanket. The blanket stretched all the way up to the edge of the path. I veered only a little, but enough to run over the brims of the last two caps. The old man yelled, “¡Oi, papa!” But I didn’t care. Move your shit, bitch.

Trucks Prohibited

There’s currently a law to take effect soon which would prohibit large commercial trucks from entering the city. Because products still need to get here, there will be distribution centers located around the outskirts of town. The oversize trucks will deliver there, where product will be switched to smaller trucks which are allowed to enter the city.

My Highlights from Power, Politics, Cities

There’s liberal ideas throughout Peñalosa’s speech which may turn off right-wing gringos, but you have to understand that 60% of Colombia are in the bottom two social classes (2 of 6). Distributing wealth and resources more equally in Latin America is important.

The poorest people live in dangerous neighborhoods far from where they work. Mobility is crucial. The TransMilenio and bike paths increase accessibility for everybody.

At 13:00 Peñalosa mentions how upper income car owners in developing cities, thinking they’re more important, park on sidewalks. Here’s a shot of that from Chicó:

This one isn’t so bad because there isn’t high pedestrian traffic and the car doesn’t completely block the sidewalk. But you often seeing cars parked sideways so pedestrians have walk in the street in order to pass.

At 15:00 Peñalosa says a good measure for a city is how pleasant it is for children, the elderly, handicapped, and the poor.

At 26:00 Peñalosa says low density population cities (St. Louis and most of the US) make it very expensive and almost impossible to provide low cost, high frequency public transportation. Bogota’s density is almost as high as Manhattan’s. If you like life in the suburbs, this vision is not for you. And it’s impossible for cities like Atlanta, Houston, or Los Angeles.

Throughout the video Peñalosa says city planning isn’t technical. There’s no black and white, no clear-cut right and wrong. City planning and urban development is political. It’s up to the people what kind of city they want to live in.

At 30:00 Peñalosa makes a MAJOR CULTURAL POINT about social class in Latin America and Southern Europe: Why are there more bicycles in the Netherlands than Spain or Italy when the weather’s much better in Spain and Italy? Spain and Italy are the primary sources of the status and social class bullshit that exists in Colombia and greater Latin America. A businessman in Spain or Italy considers himself way too important to be seen riding a bicycle, but the Dutch corporate executive jumps on an old bike like everyone else.

At 36:00 he makes a point about symbols. Building TransMilenio sent a message that public transport is more important than car owners. And later he says protected bicycle paths raise the status of cyclists. “A protected bicycle way shows that a citizen on a $30 bike is just as important as a citizen with a $30,000 car.” AMEN!

At 38:00 Peñalosa paints an interesting picture. Imagine a developing city in Africa, Asia, or Latin America that allocates most of their streets for public transport and bicycles. Almost no cars. Wonderful.

I Met Enrique Peñalosa!

I’d heard Peñalosa doesn’t just talk the talk about not driving cars. He can be seen around town on his bicycle. One night I went to Zona Rosa, on my bicycle as usual, which I park in the Andino garage for free. I pulled up to the bike rack and saw a tall Colombian I recognized. I’d watched the Power, Politics, Cities video at least five times by then (over ten now), and thought I recognized Enrique Peñalosa giving his ticket to the attendant.

I tapped his shoulder to turn him around and said, “Oiga vecino, creo que nos hemos conocido, no? Como es su nombre?” He looked left, then right, then quietly, almost whispering, “Enrique Peñalosa.” I switched to English and started drooling all over him. I told him how much I love his ideas. I said that everything he wants in a city, I want in a city. I told him I’d watched the Power, Politics, Cities video many times and I have so much admiration for him.

He asked what I was doing in Colombia. He gave me his email address and I told him he’d win the mayoral election. He was wearing a helmet, ligas, and a flourescent vest. I was wearing a helmet, which I only wear after 6pm so the cops don’t bother me, and ligas. No flourescent vest. But I felt we were the same. I gave him a big handshake and he left.

Bogota Mayoral Race

Alvaro Uribe, the popular right-wing ex-president credited with restoring security to Colombia, recently endorsed Enrique Peñalosa. This caused a stir because Uribe’s a Liberal, but Peñalosa is in the Green Party. The endorsement caused last year’s presidential candidate Antanas Mockus to quit the Green Party.

Peñalosa is favored to win, but some surveys have shown Polo candidate Gustavo Petro leading the race. I’m sure Petro’s a great guy, but GET SERIOUS people. Peñalosa is among the top urban development managers in the world. Intelligent economists all over the world with no interest in Bogota are hoping he wins. There’s no debate. Peñalosa is the guy. Let’s just elect him and enjoy the progressive city he’d build.

Never in my life have I liked a politician so much. But watching that video, I’m like a bobblehead agreeing with everything Peñalosa says. He’s not a politician as much as he’s a visionary and top-notch urban manager.

Follow Enrique Peñalosa on Twitter.

UPDATE: Peñalosa lost the mayoral race to Gustavo Petro. Maybe Bogotá doesn’t deserve him.



  1. Hopefully Penalosa will win. Public transport is crucial in big cities. I grew up in Morelia, Mexico and I always took public transport to school and other places. It took its time, but I always got there safely. I also used to get around the city on my bike and I would often go out of town on my bike with a group of riders to different places on the outskirts of the city for exercise. I’ve been in several accidents because car drivers are clueless or don’t give a shit about cyclists (I once made a dent on the backside of a VW bug which went through a red light right into me as I was sent flying over it). I don’t bike as much now, but the point remains clear: drivers don’t give a shit about cyclists. As I’ve gone back to visit my hometown over the years and see it grow exponentially outwards in all directions (like Bogota) and the traffic congestion increase, it has been made clear that cars have been given priority over other methods of transportation, and today I would be afraid to get around on the bike. There are no dedicated bike lanes, although public transportation (public buses) are still efficient and get you where you need to go. Anyhow, it’s good if Penalosa gets elected to office again and gets city planning right back on track.


  2. Here’s hoping Peñalosa wins. Great ideas and he seems to have his heart in the right place. Of course, the election’s still a long way off, but here’s hoping.

    Wishing you all the best,



  3. That kind of urban shit is enough to turn me off to Bogota entirely. I can handle it, but I despise commuting. I do hope they make some serious strides to ease the congestion. The other point, of course, is that if they could end the civil conflict, there would be less displaced citizens in Bogota and that would ease the problem nicely.

    Of course, ending the civil conflict is no small task.


  4. Serious conflicts are difficult to end because it requires two sides to do it. To FARC this is an existential conflict. That being the case, the only way it will end is when they no longer exist, or they own Colombia. Consider Rome and Carthage, Zimbabwe and Cambodia. As to ‘Left’ solutions, you should be really nervous at the blood that acompanies their solutions. Stalin killed 30+, Mao around 100+, Pol Pot half the country, Hitler 6+ jews not counting war dead, Cuba I don’t know the number. All those numbers are in millions.

    The poverty is a function of social suppression endemic to former Spanish colonies. Los Ricos don’t want the poor to become better off because that means they will have less. Fact is that wealth is not a zero sum game, but they don’t buy that. Maybe Chile does now, but that is it. Ugly truth is that the best thing that ever happened to Chile is Pinochet. Direct redistribution doesn’t work.


  5. That is a very interesting blog. In London cycling is dangerous (although people do it), is cycling dangerous in Bogota?

    I think people cycle more in Holland and Denmark because it is a lot safer – more cycle paths. The idea of cycling in Italy is crazy – Italians are too dangerous at driving !!

    I am not sure if this
    ““A protected bicycle way shows that a citizen on a $30 bike is just as important as a citizen with a $30,000 car.””
    Is a left wing view point. I don’t think protecting all citizens equally is a left wing view point. Well not for UK left wing anyway. Here left wing means :-
    1) Certain people e.g. single mums are more important than others and should have housing YOU can not afford
    2) If you don’t work for the Government your pension is not important.
    3) Taxes make us richer

    Left wing certainly does NOT mean treat everyone the same. Maybe it should do but doesn’t.

    If you want to know why Latin America is poor and the USA, UK, Canada etc aren’t sure there is just one thing that explains it – the R.C.


  6. If it was the RC church, then why is Mexico also poor?

    Additionally, does anyone want to ride bicycles to work in Phoenix or Houston in the summer? Or perhaps Fargo in the winter? One size fits all transportation decrees are always insane.



  7. Coward !!! 🙂

    Seriously though, it doesn’t mean that bicycles aren’t a good thing for Bogota. They probably are based on what I’ve read. But good solutions require reason, not dogma is the only point I had.


  8. “Mike on July 18th, 2011

    If it was the RC church, then why is Mexico also poor?”
    I think you will find that Mexico is a Catholic country


  9. A couple corrections…. Peñalosa is NOT considered a leftist here in Colombia, he’s actually center-right. And Bogotá is NOT as dense as Manhattan, it’s much MORE dense. Bogotá is the 9th densest city on Earth, beating out NYC, Moscow, Tokyo, Mexico City etc….

    Otherwise, great article 🙂


  10. Conservative philosophy cedes to the government any activity that can not be performed by the private sector — national defense, public health, public safety. We are not against public transportation, just ineffecient, unionized, fossilized systems as exist in USA. Private Operators could do a better job as they do in Mexico with route taxi system.

    In the US left has curious obsession with trains. It is part of their Euro envy. They enjoy inflicting light rail systems on San Diego, LA, San Jose, Seattle, Sacramento, Portland. Incredibly expensive to operate and nobody rides them because we prefer cars. They set up huge bureauocracy with police departments, lucrative boards of directors positions, & lots of union jobs.

    Transmileneo is kind of specialized system that could be run by gubmint. Word around the campfire from old friends is that they have security problems. Have not been to Bogota for a while so I do not know.

    Jimmy Huero


  11. I spent a week in Mexico City and purchased a bike to get around. The freaking Chilangos have no compunction about pushing around cyclists.

    They do have some bike paths down center medians of busy streets. Sometimes the bike path is a steel grate that runs over the subway route and you hear the subway trains 30 feet underneath you. One bad weld and you you fall onto the top of a subway train.

    There is a burgeoning bike movement which I am sure will grow in left (PRD) dominated Mexico City. DF is flat and will soon have many more bicycles — just as soon as the police learn to extort money out of cyclists.

    Jimmy Huero


  12. I cycle around Los Angeles for Cardio — often in high profile gang areas. At night I have been stopped close to 1 dozen times by LAPD. They advise that my light was of insufficient brightness or that I appeared to be intoxiated. Neither of these was ever true, they just wanted to search me for guns and drugs.

    They stop me because despite by black irish ethnicity I “skew” cholo– short hair, Ben Davis Pants, & old school tatoos. Meanwhile a bunch of Emo Kids ride by on single speeds drinking beer and the officers do nothing. Price to pay for a mis-spent youth.

    Jimmy Huero


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