German Sarmiento

The birthplace of the car-free day saw 296 deaths on city streets last year.

Since the mid-1990s, urban activists have held up Bogotá as an example of what a municipal government can achieve when it sets its mind to making a city safer and more friendly to people traveling by bicycle, foot, or mass transit.

The Colombian city was the birthplace of the Ciclovía-style event, in which streets are car-free for the day, allowing citizens to use the space for playing and relaxing. The model has since been widely adopted by cities around the world, including Los Angeles, New York, and San Antonio. Under one-term mayor Enrique Peñalosa, Bogotá launched a comprehensive bus rapid transit program, and cars were prohibited from parking on the sidewalk in busy parts of the city. Mayor Antanas Mockus, who served one term before Peñalosa and one term after (1995-1997 and 2001-2003), was also a champion of the pedestrian, and famously hired 400 mimes to ridicule drivers who violated traffic rules. Under Mockus, traffic fatalities in Bogotá fell by 50 percent.

But those administrations are in the past now, and according to Germán Sarmiento, a blogger and activist in Bogotá, the situation has deteriorated once more. Last year, 296 pedestrians died on the city’s streets.

"It's true that there was a lot of progress during the Mockus-Peñalosa administrations regarding pedestrians (infrastructure-wise and culturally)," Sarmiento writes in an email (I have edited his remarks a bit for clarity). "But very little of that is left nowadays. The city has suffered terribly from subsequent bad governments. Today, cars park on sidewalks that were recuperated during Peñalosa, there is terrible infrastructure for pedestrians (no crosswalks, no pedestrian lights, no speed controls and no respect for STOP signs or red lights), and a culture that literally prioritizes the way of cars in every intersection. If you are walking in Bogotá you have to be alert at all times. Cars will not only not give you the right of way, but they will accelerate. Pedestrians are astonished when a car lets them walk first."

So Sarmiento and a group of fellow urban activists, planning students, architects, and designers have taken measures into their own hands. Like the practitioners of "tactical urbanism" in California and Canada that we wrote about last week, they have redefined their streets with a few cans of paint and some imagination.

In one case, they mockingly paid tribute to an enormous pothole — "His Majesty the Crater" — that was slowing traffic in a university neighborhood. They painted the surrounding street with a Tetris-like pattern of colors and a colorful crosswalk. "The whole purpose of our act was to ironically and humorously honor and celebrate the life of this enormous pothole," writes Sarmiento. "In this particular action we were advocating for a more pedestrian-friendly environment. Days after the initiative took place, most of the potholes in the area were fixed. Nothing was done regarding pedestrian safety, but at least the government reacted concretely and directly in some way."

Another campaign, "Cebras por la Vida," or "Crosswalks for Life," has met with a more productive response. This daylong action of painting brightly colored crosswalks in places where crashes had killed or injured pedestrians got a lot of media attention, and a government agency has since expressed interest in escalating the effort. The actions bring together not only a diverse group of activists, but also engage passersby and neighborhood residents.

Sarmiento says that all the people involved, including members of the collectives Combo 2600 and La Ciudad Verde, recognize that this is about more than just painting crosswalks and getting a brief glimmer of attention.

"We are creating awareness with regards not only to pedestrian rights, but also activating citizen engagement that pressures government institutions to act on matters that are their responsibility," he writes. "The legacy of Mockus and Peñalosa is very important because it lets us know that better is possible. However, we understand today the importance of strengthening civic engagement as the only way for safeguarding any gains made by the city or preventing backslides. We believe very strongly in the need to strengthen citizen engagement in city and public affairs."

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