Published: Friday 31 March 2000

Commuters in Bogota recently used bicycles, roller-skates and even horse-drawn carriages, as the city observed a day-long ban on the use of private cars. The exercise was part of an environmental awareness programme. However, the city's pot-holed streets were still clogged with more than 73,000 buses and taxis. Delivery trucks and other commercial vehicles were exempted from the ban, along with the ubiquitous bullet-proof limousines and all-terrain vehicles that diplomats and members of the country's wealthy elite use for travel in the capital of more than six million people.

But a festive-like atmosphere reigned, nonetheless, as residents of the city -- in which an average of nearly 1,100 people are killed in traffic accidents every year -- celebrated the fact that an estimated 665,600 private cars had been pulled off the streets at least for a day.

To show their support for the car ban, many Bogotanos rejected the use of motor-driven transport altogether and opted for bikes, in-line skates, skateboards and even horses to get to and from work or school. They packed dedicated cycle routes, set up across the city, or wove in and out of traffic, where many of Bogota's ancient, lumbering buses appeared virtually empty as they belched out thick columns of exhaust.

Bogota's mayor Enrique Penalosa organised the ban, billed as the first of its kind in a developing country, as a symbolic gesture to foster greater awareness for the need for an environmentally friendly approach toward urban development.

Bogota, which sits 2,600 metres above sea-level, ranks as Latin America's fifth-most polluted city and it is notorious for its slow traffic, crumbling infrastructure and urban sprawl. "If we keep heading in the direction we're going in it doesn't matter how many new roads or bridges we build," Penalosa said in recent remarks to reporters, saying the number of vehicles in the city was growing totally out of hand. The most frightening thing about Bogota's "slow but sustained" environmental collapse is that most people are unaware of it, the mayor said.

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