As recently as a decade ago, Bogotá and Medellin were considered among the world’s most dangerous cities. However, over the past decade, those two Colombian cities went from being crippled by the drug trade and guerrilla warfare to being some of the more innovative civic centers in the region.
I recently traveled to these two cities, as well as Cartagena, a Caribbean coastal gem that is the country’s most popular tourist destination. All three of these cities have built massive transportation infrastructure projects within the past 15 years. It became evident to me that the projects in Bogotá and Medellín were much more successful than Cartagena. I could tell this not just from experiencing these networks firsthand, but my overall experience in each city had a good correlation to these networks.
Bogotá, Colombia’s sprawling capital city of 8 million, was a pleasant surprise in efficient transportation. The city’s famous TransMilenio bus rapid transit (BRT) system, that began operating in December 2000, provides fast, designated bus service amidst the sea of Bogotá’s snarling traffic. I found it to be safe, clean, easy to use, and efficient.
However, TransMilenio is very much a work in progress. Buses can be overcrowded, and the system, currently at approximately 87 kilometers long, is in dire need of expansion. Plans call for 300 kilometers of bus lanes throughout the city. It’s worth noting that, while there is much to be added, the city’s poor southern neighborhoods are a part of the current network. This has made commuting to and from the neglected south easy and fast.
But when it comes to Bogotá and transportation, TransMilenio is only half of the story. Every Sunday and public holiday, some of the city’s major arteries are closed from 7a.m. to 2p.m. to car traffic. They become oversized cycling/walking/running/skateboarding/roller blading/dog walking lanes for Ciclovia, a program viewed as a revolutionary way to get people out of their houses and cars, and get them to be more active and more in touch with their city.
Like TransMilenio, Ciclovia extends well into the impoverished south, giving residents something to be proud of. With numerous snack, juice, and bike repair stalls along the way, Ciclova has also had an economic benefit.
With Bogotá’s new focus on being green, healthy, and environmentally conscious, it came as a big surprise to me as to how clean the streets were, especially in comparison to other South American cities I’ve visited (including Buenos Aires and Santiago).
Bogotá, one of the world’s biggest cities, has become one of the world’s most efficient to traverse, healthiest, and green conscious, a rather remarkable feat. None of this would have been possible without empowering and including those in the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
A remarkably similar trend of inclusion has led to Medellín’s resurgence since the end of the city’s notorious drug and guerrilla wars. While Medellín was once regarded as the most dangerous city in the entire world, it’s now the envy of Colombia.
Medellín is nestled in a valley of the very mountainous Antioquia district, with areas becoming poorer in the hills to the north and west. They were unsafe, full of gang violence, short of public services and just plain unattractive. The raids of the 1990s and 2000s pushed out the gangs and led to the city’s transformation.
Innovation was needed to allow the hillside slums to get in touch with the rest of the city, a problem made worse by the tricky geography. Behold, the Metrocable: public transportation in the form of 10-person gondolas that look as if they’re straight out of a ski resort. This unconventional mode of public transit finally allowed residents to easily get to Medellín’s Metro, Colombia’s only subway system. After the first line, Line K, opened in 2004, popularity allowed two more lines to be put in place.
New cultural attractions, such as the Biblioteca España, Planetario Medellín, and Parque Explora were built in the north, while Hewlett-Packard relocated their Colombia headquarters on the northerly campus of Universidad de Antioquia, within walking distance of Parque Explora and the planetarium. In addition, the third of the three Metrocable lines, Line L, located at the end of Line K, leads to a new lush, expansive park called Parque Arví, which is co-run by the Medellín Metro.
One of the biggest residual effects of the Metrocable has been the people’s restoration of trust in the local government, something that had been heavily damaged as a result of Colombia’s infamous drug cartel problems. Medellín is now a city that residents are increasingly proud to live in. Streets are clean, the crime rate has dropped dramatically, and new office developments are all playing a role in revitalizing the area and increasing trust. Due in large part from these recent developments, Medellín won the 2012 Most Innovative City prize, and they will host the 7th UN-HABITAT World Urban Forum in April 2014.
Here’s the lesson to cities that not investing in a city’s residents can make things worse.
Located on the Caribbean coast, Cartagena, with its impeccably kept walled Old City, is Colombia’s most popular tourism destination. Much of the city’s investments have gone towards making the Old City safe for tourists.
If one were to walk outside of the Old City’s walls, one would see an unsafe, dirty city that resembles a stereotypically dirty Caribbean city. The Cartagena government has tried to improve transportation livelihood by erecting a BRT line; while many stations have been built, the line is non-operational, and construction has stalled. In the meantime, locals are left to rely on private colectivos (minibuses) to get around the city.
Cartagena shows that when governments don’t invest in its citizens, the citizens don’t take care or pride in its city. Cartagena was by far the dirtiest city I saw of the three, and the city outside the walls of the Old City has a bad reputation for crime.
DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this article are personal and not those of FEMA, DHS, or the US Government.