In Bogotá, traffic congestion became so severe that a simple commute could take hours and the air was polluted to staggering levels. In response, Bogotá directed its attention towards public transport and worked to improve conditions for cycling.

The challenge for Bogotá has been integrating bicycle and bus policies into a wider sustainable urban transport context and ensuring projects have continuity across political terms. Bogotà’s TransMilenio “bus rapid transit” system has gained international recognition as an example of sustainable mobility. Meanwhile, the strengthening of bicycle policy and infrastructure has increased the modal share of cycling, from 0.58% in 1998 to circa 5% in 2010.

Bogotá’s transformative transport policies were the result of forward-thinking mayoral leadership, with the cooperation and collaboration of a variety of stakeholders. In 1998, in the midst of new city regulations, Bogotá’s Urban Development Institute (IDU) realized the need to formulate a Bike Path Master Plan. The implementation of the plan was only possible thanks to the joint efforts of various law enforcement district entities (planning and mobility sectors) and utilities, along with strong corporate management. In 2000, TransMilenio was introduced, through a public-private partnership, and quickly developed into a widely used public transport system. Under the partnership, the private sector is in charge of TransMilenio’s operations and maintenance, while public sector is responsible for the infrastructure and overseeing the system.

To ensure the smooth operation of the bicycle network, investment of public funds was necessary for its upkeep. This was realized through a community-service scheme of social work, which targeted vulnerable sectors of the community. Over $200 million was spent on construction. The city has spent approximately $560,000 on maintenance from 1998 to 2008. The average cost of one kilometer of cycle path built in Bogotá is $600,000, while the cost of one kilometer of a 30-meter wide road is about $6.5 million.

Investment has been done exclusively with public resources from the municipality, where the main sources of income are fuel surcharges, traffic tickets and land value tax. TransMilenio was similarly cost-effective, with the first phase costing $240 million to develop 41km of bus infrastructure. Passengers on TransMilenio buses quickly rose above 800,000 daily, and in 2006 surpassed 1 million people a day.

So how was this breakthrough in public transport possible? There was a lot of strong political will, effective guidance, adequate financial support and the enthusiastic commitment of stakeholders. But one of the most important factors was promotion. It is the ambitious advertising campaigns, accompanied by an institutional presence, that have led to greater use of buses and bike paths in Bogotá. The promotional campaign has also generated benefits, such as time and money savings, civil involvement and cooperation, and heightened awareness of health and environment issues, as well as establishing an overall improvement in Bogotá’s transport infrastructure.

These projects have inspired confidence in public entities, something that can itself inspire future progress. Today, Bogotá is known for having a widely used transport system that dramatically reduced the number of cars. Not only has it been effective at reducing congestion and pollution (TransMilenio is credited with reducing carbon emissions by more than 1.7 million tons between 2006 and 2009); it was also cost-effective. It’s also a planning model that can be replicated, cheaply, in cities around the world.

Read the new Competitiveness of Cities report here.

Author: Konrad Otto-Zimmermann is the secretary-general of ICLEI.

Image: Colombian students ride bicycles during in BogotaREUTERS/Jose Miguel Gomez