By Lina Quiñones, Mobility Intelligence Director at the city of Bogotá

City Voices is a new Urban Mobility Weekly initiative highlighting the work that our city partners are doing to improve and advance the mobility landscape for their citizens. Talking with key city officials, the series will focus on how urban communities are overcoming challenges, finding solutions, and seizing the opportunities to render mobility more sustainable, accessible, intelligent, and inclusive.

Bogotá, the capital and largest city of Colombia, is a dynamic and innovative metropolis when it comes to urban mobility. Before the creation of its TransMilenio system in 2000, the largest BRT system in the world, this city of almost 8 million inhabitants – and more than 15 million trips per day – was already facing serious congestion problems. As a result, as recently as the 1990s, the Colombian capital’s public managers sought to improve the city’s mobility standards through bold travel demand management solutions. It was from this need that, in 1998, Mayor Enrique Peñalosa implemented the “Pico y Placa” scheme.

Systematically tackling congestion

Pico y Placa can be classified as a transportation demand management (TDM) strategy. This initiative consists of limiting the circulation of private cars and other types of vehicles in the most congested zones, organized by days and periods of time. A policy present in several Latin American cities, in the case of Bogotá, the operationalization of this measure is based on banning the circulation of certain vehicles during the morning (6:00am to 8:30am) and afternoon (3:00pm to 7:30pm), according to the last digit of their license plate and the day of the week. Hybrid and electric vehicles are excluded from this policy. Overall, this scheme is well accepted by the population and has shown positive results, but has become less effective over the years as some drivers have acquired a second vehicle to be able to travel by car every day.

COVID’s impact on the strategy

Like other metropolises, urban mobility in Bogotá suffered many impacts during the pandemic. With the significant decrease in the use of the public transportation systems caused by the reduction of commuting, the occupancy limits imposed by the central government on the system, plus the fear of contamination, many citizens shifted to the private car. As demand for private car travel increased, an old and well-established Bogotá public mobility policy was temporarily suspended during the quarantine period: the Pico y Placa measure.

The Pico y Placa vehicle restriction measure was temporarily removed in order to reduce crowds on public transportation and thereby reduce travelers’ risk of catching COVID. Subsequently, when the quarantine was relaxed, congestion increased and caused the average speed of cars (km/h) to again decrease, almost to the levels of previous years, so it was necessary to re-incorporate the Pico y Placa measure in September 2020. However, the reintroduction of the measure brought exceptions for health service personnel (doctors, nurses, etc.) as well as an exception for vehicles carrying 3 or more passengers, aiming at a more efficient use of private vehicles.

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Figure 1 – Average speed per month in Bogota 2017-2021. Source: SIMUR-Indicadores Movilidad Bogotá

One of the problems highlighted by the pandemic was the high dependence of the public transportation system, and TransMilenio in particular, on revenue collection through fares paid by users. Even after the end of the quarantine and with the return of near normality, the demand for public transportation has remained below average as compared to before the pandemic. With the decrease in demand, the system’s administration began to look for new sources of revenue and ended up creating a bold solution for financing the public transportation system through cross-subsidization between modes of transportation: thus the “Pico Y Placa Solidario” scheme was created.

Spreading benefts across multiple systems

Started in September 2020, the Pico y Placa Solidario is a measure that allows car use without the same restrictions of the original Pico y Placa system. Under the current conditions, the driver must pay a fee for a daily, monthly, or biannual pass, similar to a payment they would make to use the public transportation system. 100% of the economic resources obtained from the measure are then directed to improving the public transportation system, as it is used by the majority of Bogotá’s citizens. With this system, a person interested in using his or her private car to get around the city must register at Bogotá’s Mobility Office. The registration is paid with the fees varying according to the type of vehicle. The interested person must also take a pedagogical course with 4 modules, provided by the Mobility Secretariat, where topics related to the benefits of the Pico y Placa Solidario scheme, road safety, environment, and sustainable mobility are addressed. Finally, the driver will be able to carry out, on a voluntary basis, a “social compensation”, which can consist of a monetary donation or an activity in favor of the community, such as the collection and separation of recyclable material.

According to the most recent data, only 14.3% of trips are made by private car in Bogotá. However, cars occupy 85% of the city’s road network, causing congestion and time loss for everyone. Furthermore, in Bogotá more than 500 people die each year in traffic accidents, most of the victims being pedestrians and cyclists, and 75% of the city’s air pollution is caused by motor vehicles. This pollution indirectly contributes to the death of more than 2000 people per year from respiratory problems. The new Pico y Placa Solidario scheme aims to mitigate these inequalities through monetary compensation, education, and social awareness of the environmental impact of private car usage.

In the short term, car usage might actually increase a little bit, as people who would have not been able to use their cars under the previous restriction will now be able to pay a fee to use them. However, the aim is that the policy will discourage drivers from buying a second vehicle to avoid the restriction, helping them to ultimately understand that there’s a cost associated with their use of the roads. This should help Bogotá to make a smooth transition to a distance-based congestion charge scheme within the next year or two.