Bogotá BRT pioneer

Posted on March, 01 2012

Rapid transit to sustainable urban development 

Rapid transit to sustainable urban development

Bogotá is practically iconic, a poster child for sustainable transport, due to its smart use of a Bus Rapid Transit system. The city radically improved public safety, greenspace, housing, transport, air quality, and education, during a 3-year term of office of mayor Enrique Peñalosa, elected as an independent in 1998. Among Peñalosa’s main integrating concepts were the visions of equality and child-friendliness.

Keywords: child-friendliness, visionary leadership, Bus Rapid Transit, land bank, car-free

While conventional wisdom supposes sustainability takes time, former Bogotá mayor Enrique Peñalosa made great strides in a concentrated space of time. Peñalosa rejected a proposed city beltway, and began building a 300+ km bicycle network instead. He used saved and remediated land for parks, playgrounds, libraries, schools, and sports areas. To solve transportation bottlenecks, the city began limiting car-use with a number-plate regulation, and set up a high-capacity BRT system (TransMilenio Bus Rapid Transit). Each week on Sunday and on other holidays, more than 100 km of roadways are closed to motorised traffic, and once a year the entire city (nearly 30,000 ha) goes car-free, a celebration that has been made permanent via a referendum.

The first BRT was built by Curitiba in 1974, but TransMilenio popularised the concept, and it has spread to dozens of cities since, not least in developing countries. The BRT's of Curitiba and Bogota are still the largest in the world, with up to 2 million passengers per day (see also Curitiba and Guangzhou).

Public health benefits
Air quality has improved significantly. There have been large reductions in sulphur dioxide and particulate matter, and some reductions in nitrogen dioxide (see also Amsterdam and Vitoria-Gasteiz). This is attributed to reduced car-use, reduced distance travelled, and emissions controls on cars. Traffic-related deaths and injuries dropped steeply, especially in city areas where the BRT system is implemented. In the city as a whole, traffic deaths dropped from over 1,300 per year in 1995 to under 700 in 2002. Bogotá has also reduced its murder rate by two-thirds. In its centre, where murder rates were the highest in the world, Bogotá created a 23 hectare park, demolished more than 600 buildings, and created pedestrian-friendly streets leading to high-quality, protected urban spaces (see also Portland).

The TransMilenio BRT
A key Peñalosa innovation was to use money saved on roads to invest not only in the TransMilenio but also in bicycling infrastructure, land remediation, dozens of new schools, libraries, and early-childhood day-care centres, and more than 1,000 parks and playgrounds. Bogotá had urbanised rapidly, with nearly 50% of its built environment illegally established, often lacking basic services (e.g. water, sewage) and on precarious ground, such as steep hillsides. Peñalosa’s administration conducted large-scale slum upgrading and legalisation and created a land bank company (Metrovivienda) to enable controlled and high quality urban development.

Visionary leadership and integrated understanding were key to the transformation of Bogota (see also Seoul). In most of Peñalosa's initiatives, the same basic work can be seen: taking chaotic and dangerous urban spaces, like – crime-infested plazas, traffic-congested roads, slums, degraded land, and sidewalks blocked by parked cars, are – and converting them to more people-friendly places.

Global ambassador
Peñalosa has become a global ambassador for sustainable urban development. Integrating multiple solutions around concepts like child-friendliness, equality, revitalisation, human dignity and hope is a key that Peñalosa has been bringing to cities around the world. Consistent with this is the combination of climate-change mitigation with raising quality of life for urban residents.

In Bogotá, however, Peñalosa's legacy is uncertain. Peñalosa lost his re-election bid to a candidate who promised voters an underground metro system, yet while the metro has not materialised, increasing prosperity in Colombia has boosted car-ownership. Bogotá's leadership is promising expanded car infrastructure, like elevated highways and parking places, at a level comparable to cities like Mexico City, Los Angeles and Detroit.

Ando Despacio, 2008, “Bogota: edging back from the brink”, Sustainable Transport, Winter, Nr 20,

Enrique Peñalosa, 2011, “A City Talks: Learning from Bogotá’s Revitalisation”, Architectural Design, 81: 90–95

Lloyd Wright, Ricardo Montezuma, 2004, “Reclaiming public space: The economic, environmental, and social impacts of Bogotá’s transformation”, Walk21-V Cities for People, The Fifth International Conference on Walking in the 21st Century, June 9-11 2004, Copenhagen, Denmark,;

Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), 2003, “Enrique Peñalosa Inspires Change Across Africa”,

Michael Replogle (transportation director, Environmental Defense), 2006, “Opinion: What dynamic local leaders can teach us about environmental stewardship”,

New York Public Radio (WNYC), 2006, “Bikes Connecting Bogotá and the South Bronx”,

Key data are retrieved from the UN World Urbanization Prospects: The 2011 Revision,

Text by: Aaron Thomas

© Karl Fjellstrom /
Map Bogota
© Duan Xiaomei / / GMEDRI
Public transport Bogotá