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Bogotá has some of the worst traffic. It's finally getting a metro, with China's help

A view of the metro car during the inauguration event of Bogota's future metro system as a school of culture for public transport, on Aug. 10.
Chepa Beltran/Long Visual Press/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
A view of the metro car during the inauguration event of Bogota's future metro system as a school of culture for public transport, on Aug. 10.

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — The Colombian capital is home to 11 million people — and to some of the worst traffic jams in the world. That's why, after more than 80 years of dithering, Bogotá officials are finally building a metro, with help from China.

On a recent morning, workers moved mounds of dirt with bulldozers and installed steel reinforcement rods at one of the metro construction sites in central Bogotá. Line 1 of the metro, which will be an elevated train running 14 miles from the outskirts to the city center, is scheduled to open in 2028.

"This is what we are betting on," Deyanira Ávila, Bogotá's mobility secretary, tells NPR. She predicts that the metro, along with more dedicated bus lanes, bike paths and sidewalks, "will transform the city."

A makeover is long overdue.

Last year, an international traffic index created by location technology company TomTom, ranked the Bogotá metro area as having the world's worst rush-hour gridlock — beating out megacities like Manila, Mumbai and Tokyo. The survey said Bogotá drivers spend more than 10 days per year stuck in rush-hour congestion, when the average car speed slows to just 11 miles per hour.

The sobering statistics may seem odd coming from a city that's not especially crazy about cars. Bogotá has about 250 cars per 1,000 driving-age residents, says Arturo Ardila Gómez, a Colombian who is the lead transport economist at the World Bank. That compares to more than 800 cars per 1,000 driving-age residents in many U.S. cities.

However, Ardila Gómez says Bogotá's roads were poorly designed, with few express lanes for through traffic and a lack of traffic lights, causing bottlenecks at intersections. Thousands of potholes force cars to slow down and swerve while aging vehicles break down on the streets.

"We still have cargo trucks from the 1950s and '60s," says Ricardo Montezuma, an urban studies professor at Bogotá's National University.

In addition, millions of Bogotanos live in poor and working-class neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city. That means long commutes all at the same time and over the same roads to get to jobs at factories and office buildings, most of which are located in the city center or in the northern business district.

Isabel Acero has to board three buses to get from her home in south Bogotá to her job at a downtown call center.

"That takes two hours," she says, adding that she must do it all over again when her shift ends. "It's horrible."

A bottleneck of merging traffic at rush hour on Avenida El Dorado and Calle 26 in Bogotá, Colombia.
/ Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
A bottleneck of merging traffic at rush hour on Avenida El Dorado and Calle 26 in Bogotá, Colombia.

Bogotá has managed to get by all these years without a metro because it built a bus rapid transit system. Called TransMilenio, it uses dedicated bus lanes rather than city streets and has been replicated by cities all over Latin America. But even though it is one of the world's largest BRTs, TransMilenio was built 25 years ago, has failed to expand along with the city's population and is now badly overcrowded.

Efforts to build a metro date back to 1942, when Bogotá was home to just 300,000 people and relied on trolleys for mass transit. But politics kept getting in the way, says Luis Ángel Guzmán, an urban planner at Los Andes University in Bogotá.

Bogotá City Hall is often a steppingstone to the presidency and, to win votes, Bogotá mayors want to take credit for building the metro. Thus, a succession of mayors kept redesigning the project — some pushing for a subway, others for elevated trains — to put their personal stamp on it.

"Every mayor, every four years, totally changes the plans," Guzmán says. "The result is that we have nothing."

That leaves Bogotá as the world's third-largest city without a metro. But that's finally starting to change, according to urban development blog The City Topic.

Two years ago, workers broke ground on Bogotá's metro, which will eventually include three lines and combine elevated trains with subways. The first line is being built for $4.5 billion by a consortium of Chinese companies, one of the latest examples of Beijing's infrastructure investments in the Americas.

Meanwhile, city officials are scrambling to convince residents to stop driving and try other means of transport. They already restrict the use of cars based on license plate numbers and may start charging fees for driving in congested areas. Construction workers are building more dedicated bus lanes and sidewalks and are adding to Bogotá's 338-mile-long network of bike paths, which is Latin America's largest.

"We can't go on thinking that cars are the best way to get around," says Ávila, the mobility secretary, whose Bogotá office is adorned with enlarged photos of bike paths.

Ironically, all these mass transit ventures are, in the short term, causing more traffic snarls as motorists must now detour around some 650 construction sites

"When I talk to people there are a lot of complaints about traffic," Ávila says. "But they say: 'At least these projects are going forward.'"

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