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| 11/12/2008 12:00:00 AM

Colombia, on the verge of a monumental traffic jam

A recent study conducted by recognized experts shows that with the current road infrastructure, traffic in Colombia could collapse in less than ten years. Moto-taxis could do away with public transportation in several cities, in Bogotá it could take just as long to get somewhere on foot as it will by car, and the lack of good highways leading to the port cities will be the greatest bottleneck for the country´s development.

If Colombians today feel stuck in traffic in Bogotá, Medellín and Barranquilla, they won’t be able to imagine the chaos that awaits them in the next ten years. For businesspeople trying to get their cargo to Colombian ports it will be an even greater disaster. With the increase in the number of cars, motorcycles and trucks, and the lack of roads, the country is moving towards complete immobility.

The most paradoxical of all is that economic growth, which is what has generated the accelerated increase of the number of vehicles in the country, will come to a standstill just when the big cities collapse because of poor mobility. “The cities will come to a standstill and will fall into a trap of poverty which will be very difficult to overcome.” This apocalyptic outlook is not from a script of a bad futuristic movie, but the result of a study on “Transportation as a support for the development of the country,” presented by the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá whose group of researchers was lead by the former national planning director, Juan Carlos Echeverry.

According to the study, today the rate of vehicular motorization (cars and motorcycles per inhabitant) is robustly growing and will continue to do so in upcoming decades. At present, Colombia has less than seven cars and five motorcycles for every 100 inhabitants, which is low compared with countries with similar economic development.

A model used by the study’s authors shows that when someone in Colombia earns a million pesos (about $430 USD) that person has the capacity to buy a motorcycle. At two million pesos (about $855 USD) they can purchase a car. Such a low threshold to pay for a private vehicle explains why the number of cars will triple in the next 30 years, rising from 3,000,000 to 10,400,000. Meanwhile the number of motorcycles will multiply by 5.5 times from 2,300,000 at present passing almost 13,000,000.

“The greater number of cars will have a large impact on the model of development in cities: with regards to their expansion, the number and length of their trips, in the use of public transportation, in the quantity of roads that will be needed, in road congestion, in environmental pollution, in the levels of accidents and in the end, the quality and sustainability of urban life,” the report says.

The Colombian capital is the clearest example of the chaos that is being experienced and which will only get worse. Greater Bogotá (Bogotá, Cajicá, Chía, Cota, Funza, La Calera, Madrid, Mosquera, Sibaté and Soacha) will have twice as many vehicles in 2020 as it does today. In 2030 there will be three times as many. In 2040 it will have 12 million cars.

Complicating matters even more is the effect that economic growth will have on the number of trips per inhabitant made each day. This means that the roads will have to serve a greater demand by vehicles. While more cars are on the roads, average speeds will decrease and as a consequence the duration of trips will become longer.

For Bogotá, the study calculates that the average circulation speed on some major thoroughfares of the city is today between 20 and 30 kilometers (between 12 and 19 miles) per hour during morning rush hours. But that will seem like Formula 1 racing compared to what will happen in less than five years. In 2012 the impact on the important artery -the Carrera Séptima- will be devastating. The average speed during rush hours will be seven kilometers (over four miles) per hour, as will the rest of the roads of the city. It will be almost as slow as walking.

In other cities of the country the outlook isn’t better. In Medellín and in Barranquilla for example, a growth of four times the number of vehicles is predicted. Cali, Burcaramanga, and Pereira will have a smaller growth.

But the greatest headache, that of the number of motorcycles, will be felt sooner. The number of motorcycles is growing more quickly than that of cars. Colombia is the second country in the region, after Brazil, in the assembly of motorcycles. Nearly 450,000 units are produced each year with 7% being exported. There are cities that will face a critical situation soon. Barranquilla will have 300,000 motorcycles in 30 years. Motorcycles are destroying public transportation in medium-sized cities. For example, in 2003 in Sucre, there were 260 public transportation vehicles. In 2004, that dropped to 241 and in 2007 it fell further to 180. In contrast, the number of motorcycles is growing at alarming rates. In 2003 there were 1,724. In 2007 that figure grew to 9,705. It is no secret that the motorcycle is more polluting than vehicles on a per-capita basis. Moto-taxis are dangers in terms of security and in addition they exclude children, the elderly and persons with physical disabilities. “The motorcycle is a viable option if it is used for one person, but not as public transportation,” the report says.

The problem is also in the lack of roads and their deplorable levels of maintenance. There are definitely not enough streets for so many cars in Colombia – and the streets that do exist are in terrible shape.

For example, Bogotá has 15,600 kilometers (about 9,700 miles) of roads, which is the equivalent of having .0156 kilometer-lanes per automobile. Although London, which has 40,000 kilometers (nearly 25,000 miles) of roads for an indicator of .0153 kilometers per vehicle, has a similar ratio, the difference between Bogotá and London is enormous. Roads in Bogotá are in terrible shape and the quality of signage and stoplights is deficient.

About 46% of the road network in Bogotá is in a bad state, 18% are in a poor state and only 36% are in good condition. That is, more than half of the roads are a disaster. “To improve these roads Bogotá will have to invest 2.5 trillion pesos (over a billion USD) each year and then, to assure their maintenance, will need to invest 1.9 trillion ($800,000,000) each year on a permanent basis. Facing the magnitude of the resources needed just to adequately maintain the road network, the system of roads will deteriorate more and more each year. The situation in Bogotá isn’t much different from other Colombian cities,” the report concludes.

But if mobility is bad in cities, the situation is not better along the country’s highways. Colombia is seriously behind in overland transportation infrastructure. The majority of the national highways are two-lanes, where the impact on transit is significant.

The importance of cargo transportation by highway is undeniable. Almost 85% of the movement of cargo is done by roads. The problem is worse if it is taken into consideration that most of cargo movement is done by trucks of five and more axels, whose size makes them slow and heavy. That has two direct effects. It makes transit more difficult and destroys the roads more rapidly. Heavy vehicles (buses and trucks) represent 40% of the traffic on national highways, and light-weight vehicles 60%. Heavy vehicles on two-lane highways, as in Colombia, are a recipe for chaos.

Definitely, the country not only faces a challenging geography but also has to break the bottleneck that is impeding the advance of productivity and international competitiveness. Echeverry says that it is possible to break it, and that there is no alternative. Because if it doesn’t, the quality of life could be so poor that there will be nowhere to escape.

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