Mobility is about so much more than transport in the global south
– African and Latin American city exchange in Bogota, Colombia
22-26 October 2022, Bogota, Colombia: It is easy to become despondent about mobility challenges, particularly in the global south, with so many demanding pressures on cities and their people. Hence, the power of connecting with similar realities and contexts to find innovative solutions and inspiration to tackle one’s own. What is more, once a mobility challenge is tackled, solutions to other problems can be found. After all, mobility is not just about moving people or goods from point A to point B, it is a tool to experience and build our cities collectively.
A recent exchange for African and Latin American cities which took place in Bogota from 22 to 26 October provided an opportunity for a small delegation from Dar es Salaam, Kigali, Quito, Montevideo and Belo Horizonte to engage with the Bogota context and reflect on their own challenges. The experience included a mix of activities ranging from the iconic Sunday’s Ciclovia (which shuts down 100km of streets to motorized traffic every week), the relatively new cable car TransMicable and a private sector initiative to use bicycles for last mile deliveries; through to traveling in the daily heavy traffic and having conversations about the individual experience of vulnerable populations like domestic workers in Bogota.
The immersion was only partial as time was limited; nevertheless, there were powerful points that emerged in the course of the exchange which highlight the benefits of tackling transport challenges and the potential of South-South exchange.
Mobility infrastructure as a tool for social cohesion
The group travelled by cable car to one of Bogota’s most vulnerable areas called Ciudad Bolivar, where for decades internally displaced people have settled and where, particularly after the pandemic, informal settlements have expanded significantly. Before its construction in 2018, residents of this area could spend up to two hours traveling from the last BRT station to their homes (over and above what could have been multiple hours more from the station to the city centre). The cable car has shortened this to 15 minutes.
The conversation with the team that manages TransMicable conveyed the technically impressive undertaking this infrastructure entails, but it also uncovered the story of residents who feel ownership of this public asset and have found ways to build new narratives around it. This is evident in the museum located at the last cable car station that tells the story of Ciudad Bolivar, as a place that was “self-built”. It also helps that that 76% of the staff comes from neighboring areas.
As Eveline Trevisan, coordinator for sustainable mobility in the city of Belo Horizonte in Brazil said, clearly moved by the experience, “it made me realise how much more we need to do back at home to incorporate a social component to our mobility projects.” Indeed, the need for social integration can’t be overstated in our cities and transport can and must be the physical as well as the symbolic conduit to building those bridges.
Bicycles can be an economic engine
Bogota is well known for its bicycle culture and the delegation explored the concept of ‘cycle logistics’ which aims to use low carbon transport to provide an alternative to ‘the last mile,’ or the last portion of the trip required to transport goods to end user costumers. In most cities, this is something very costly because of inadequate infrastructure, unpredictable traffic flows and cumbersome logistics. In cities of the global south, those challenges are exacerbated by the lack of regulation that embraces new technology and innovation.
As Janvier TWAGIRIMANA, Transport External Links and Donors Coordinator from Rwanda's Ministry of Infrastructure, MININFRA, remarked “it is interesting to see how the private sector is taking the lead in Bogota to test such ideas. It shows that government need not be the one to provide solutions, that in fact, appropriate responses to transport challenges must come from all sectors and eventually complementary measures can be found.”
It is not only companies; the informal sector has also found a way to use the bicycle to feed the economy. Across Bogota, pop up bicycle workshops and “bicycle-powered taxis” can be seen operating to fulfil gaps in what is offered by the formal market.
It is not a perfect ecosystem, and many of the pedal powered vehicles that have emerged are retrofitted with diesel engines which go at high speeds on cycle lanes, increasing risk and pollution. Nevertheless, they highlight the potential that exists in creating an enabling environment for similar innovations; the trick is finding the regulation and the incentives to ensure they contribute to a more climate-friendly business practice, and to job creation.
South South cooperation starts with a good meal
In this particular exchange, the relationships built were truly the foundation and the key to a successful visit. Not having met before, a group of local government officials from such diverse backgrounds needed very little to find common ground. On the first day, as everyone shared a little bit about their respective cities, it was clear there was a personal attachment to the geographical space but also to the realities each represented.
Gisel Paredes, head of transport in Quito introduced herself and said “Quito is one of the most beautiful cities, particularly its city centre where my office is located. I look onto its beautiful streets and landscape every day.” The group agreed, she had, in a matter of seconds, sold the location for the next exchange.
As the exchange unfolded, it was evident that the challenges and experiences were so similar, it was easy to empathise. They included the difficulty in navigating hierarchies and strict systems, the pressure of the media who are always on the lookout to criticise, as well as the real challenges around safety and the politics of each city to mention just a few.
Each participant shared something from their experience, and importantly, created new ones as we convened around several meals; from busy markets, to an outdoor picnic to one of the nicest restaurants in the city, food gave us the platform to create new memories and cement friendship.
There are so many more opportunities to learn from mobility in our cities and to find avenues to share and learn with and from other cities across the globe. Richard Delgado from Montevideo’s Sustainable Mobility Department in Uruguay, stressed the importance of sharing information as many cities, particularly in Latin America are going through similar processes and can learn not to repeat the mistakes that have been made by their peers.
Ultimately, it is clear that solutions are never applicable without a significant degree of adaptation and tweaking, else the results are the BRT systems that don’t’ cater to the local population or the bicycle schemes that end up prioritizing the needs and priorities of the private sector over the common good. Building relationships for this information and knowledge to flow can really go a long way.