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When Colombian community leader Veronica Fonseca raised her hand to speak at a meeting hosted by Bogota's mayor, she never expected her ideas on improving transport in the capital would be included in the city's plans.

Fonseca, 52, told a forum convened by city hall last year that her hilltop neighbourhood, sitting nearly 10,000 feet (3,000 metres) above downtown Bogota, needed better transport links.

She suggested a cable car system to ferry residents from her neighbourhood downtown.

"I'd seen cable car lines working in other areas of the city and I told the mayor that's what our community needs too," said Fonseca, outside her single-storey home in the steep San Dionisio neighbourhood surrounded by forested mountains.

Veronica Fonseca, a community leader in Bogota’s steep San Dionisio neighbourhood, in the east of the Colombian city, sits on a set of stairs painted as coloured pencils, April 23, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Fabio Cuttica

When officials added her suggestion to their plans, "I felt included. I never imagined that my ideas would be taken into account," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Fonseca is one of 50,000 residents who have contributed to plans to redesign a 23-km (14-mile), car-choked major thoroughfare through the capital. Most had their say in dozens of meetings, online or through door-to-door surveys carried out by city hall.

The "Green Corridor Septima" initiative is a flagship project of Bogota's first female mayor - Claudia Lopez - and aims to better integrate the city's transport network, part of a broader effort to cut climate-changing emissions and pollution.

A view of Claudia Lopez, the mayor of Colombia’s capital of Bogota, April 29, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Fabio Cuttica

She and other officials see shifting residents towards low-carbon travel and away from fossil-fuel-powered cars, buses and cargo trucks as a key pillar of the city's climate strategy and its development plans.

Mountain-flanked Bogota, a city of 8 million, is part of the C40 Cities network, a group of nearly 100 cities around the world working to drive faster action on climate change.

The cities have each committed to delivering climate action plans designed to spur uptake of clean energy, boost adaptation to climate threats and turn the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change into an on-the-ground reality.

Cable cars travel over houses in Bogota, Colombia, April 20, 2021. The gondola network helps connect residents in steep hillside districts with the city’s northwest areas. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Fabio Cuttica

These days, some of the plans also seek to harness recovery efforts from the global coronavirus pandemic, including massive new government spending, to drive a swifter green transition.

But in Colombia, a country with an economy highly dependent on oil revenue, bringing change is not always easy.

'Listened a lot'

Cyclists ride in Bogota, Colombia, April 19, 2021. The city has expanded its already extensive network of cycle lanes during the coronavirus pandemic, to help provide a virus-safe means of transport. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Fabio Cuttica

In Bogota, transport accounts for nearly half of all greenhouse gas emissions in the city.

To slash those, officials are expanding bike lanes and pedestrian paths, using more electric buses and extending the reach of electric cable cars - some partly driven by renewable solar power - that serve poor areas in the city's south.

Many of the changes are ones residents have backed in consultations.

Under the $620 million Green Corridor Septima project, bankrolled by city hall and still in its design phase, officials have made collecting and prioritising the views of residents a core part its plans.

Cyclists ride on separated cycle lanes in Bogota, Colombia, April 19, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Fabio Cuttica

"This is the first time citizens were consulted about what happens to the city's main thoroughfare," said Juan Pablo Caicedo, head of the project led by the government's Institute of Urban Development (IDU).

The city first "listened a lot" to a diverse range of city dwellers, including LGBTQ+ residents, Afro-Colombians, indigenous people, the elderly and community leaders, he said.

Their views were then used to "co-create" infrastructure plans, Caicedo said.

Building work on those plans is now set to begin next year, he said.

Residents asked for their views opted to take away space from car users and allocate more room to cyclists and pedestrians. They also asked that more streets and squares be planted with trees and greenery to make them more scenic.

They backed other low-carbon transport as well, including electric buses and scooters, and a new 12km cable car line, as Fonseca proposed.

A cable car arrives into a station in Bogota, Colombia, April 20, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Fabio Cuttica

Residents were consulted in part through an open-source online platform - Streetmix - that was custom built for the Bogota project by the Washington-based New Urban Mobility Alliance, a group of cities, non-profits, and transport services operators.

The platform allowed people to submit their ideas by editing and adding to draft plans. The effort ultimately drew 7,000 proposals from citizens, some as young as 10 years old.

More green, lower risk

Young boys play football in Bogota, Colombia, as a cable car passes overhead nearby, part of a transport system connecting poorer hillside communities with downtown Bogota, April 20, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Fabio Cuttica

To combat climate change, Bogota aims to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 15% by 2024, compared to 2020 levels, and by half by 2030, with the aim of becoming carbon-neutral by 2050.

Officials say the city is so far on track to meet its goals, particularly with COVID-19-related restrictions still limiting travel.

In recent weeks, however, Bogota and cities across Colombia have struggled with violent street protests over concerns about rising inequality and poverty, sparked by a proposed tax reform by Colombia's president.

That reform, now cancelled, included tax breaks and incentives for businesses looking to turn to clean energy.

A third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic also has filled hospitals and resulted in about 500 deaths a day in May across Colombia, diverting attention from climate plans as officials scramble to respond.

But Mayor Lopez, who took office in January 2020 and who is a C40 vice-chair, said combating what she sees as a "climate crisis" is a key priority for her four-year term and an integral part of the city's development plan. 

Claudia Lopez, the mayor of Colombia’s capital of Bogota, helps dig in one of more than 53,000 trees planted in and around the capital since 2020, on April 29, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Fabio Cuttica

Besides pushing cleaner transport, adding urban greenery is a focus.

Last year, more than 53,000 trees were planted in and around Bogota, with the city planning to add a total of 800,000 by 2024.

The capital also aims to cut growing disaster risks, the result of more extreme weather linked to climate change.

Bogota is a city starkly divided between rich neighbourhoods of apartment blocks and gated communities in the north and hillside slums in the south and west.

The city's poorest residents - slammed by job losses and an economic downturn sparked by the coronavirus pandemic - are most likely to live in floodplains and face worsening floods and landslides caused by torrential rains linked to climate change.

Looming trucker battles

Cyclists ride their bicycles near passing heavy trucks in Bogota, Colombia, April 19, 2021. Fossil-fuel-powered cars, buses and cargo trucks emit a big share of Bogota’s carbon dioxide emissions each day, officials say. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Fabio Cuttica

But greening transport remains one of the city's biggest challenges on its path to net-zero emissions.

Currently, fossil-fuel-powered cars, buses and cargo trucks - some belching black clouds of smoke - emit a big share of the 14,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide entering Bogota's atmosphere daily, according to Bogota's environment secretary.

With no nationwide railway system, goods and food are transported mainly by cargo trucks traversing Colombia's high Andean mountains.

A haze of air pollution lies over the city of Bogota, Colombia, April 29, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Fabio Cuttica

But efforts to get truck drivers and private bus companies to switch to lower-carbon energy, including natural gas - a cleaner fossil fuel than petrol or diesel - always spark a "heated debate," admitted Carolina Urrutia, the city's environment secretary.

Numerous attempts by previous mayors to rid Bogota of old polluting buses have met with strikes and street protests by bus companies and driver associations. Ultimately, city hall has backed down.

This time, though, city officials are working to "match" natural gas companies with bus firms looking to switch to cleaner energy.

Carolina Urrutia, Bogota’s environment secretary, stands alongside bicycle lanes in Bogota, Colombia, April 28 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Fabio Cuttica

They are also providing incentives to get rid of old polluting buses, with the city buying them and taking them off the streets in some cases.

Still, "I'm willing to bet that we will see (future) strikes in the city as the last of the buses make their way out", Urrutia said, calling some of them "the dirtiest of the dirtiest".

"This is a political battle that others have lost in the past, and it's one that we can't lose this time," she said.

Electric buses

Felipe Ramirez, head of Bogota’s Transmilenio bus system, sits inside the door of an electric bus in Bogota, Colombia, April 21, 2021. About 350 electric buses now operate in the capital, with plans for 1,485 by 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Fabio Cuttica

As Bogota tries to make progress on clean transport and improving air quality it is also boosting use of electric buses, said Felipe Ramirez, who heads the city's Transmilenio bus system.

Bogota now has about 350 electric buses circulating in the city, used by about 180,000 people a day. It plans to roll out 1,485 clean buses by 2022, which would give it the largest fleet in any city outside China, he said.

"Despite the pandemic, we're on schedule," said Ramirez, showing off a newly-built charging station near the airport, its parking area blissfully quiet compared to the city's usually thrumming bus terminals.

A technician checks an electric bus at a new charging depot built near the airport in Bogota, Colombia, April 21, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Fabio Cuttica

The station, which opened last year, is one of three such bus-charging depots now operating in Bogota.

The city's fleet of electric buses, largely funded by private bus operators, feature all the latest technology, from phone charging ports and free Wi-Fi to security cameras and lifts for disabled users.

The electric bus fleet will keep more than 94,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere each year - the equivalent of taking off the road about 42,000 cars a year, Ramirez said.

Finding enough land to build new electric bus terminals and charging stations has been a challenge, he admitted, as was negotiating a financial deal with bus operators to run the system.

As a cyclist passes, driver Cesar Cantillo operates an electric bus on the road in Bogota, Colombia, April 21, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Fabio Cuttica

Under public tenders through the state-owned Transmilenio bus system, private bus firms buy and operate the electric fleet in exchange for 15-year concessions.

Getting Bogota residents out of their cars and off their motorbikes remains another challenge for the city.

Cars remain the preferred mode of transport for the rich for their convenience and security, with many wealthier residents seeing buses as not safe enough and too crowded.

The city is also still waiting for a long-overdue subway system, now slated to open its first line only by 2030.

Bicycle school

Students at “The Bike College”, a new public school in the poor neighbourhood of Bosa, prepare to ride their bicycles at the school grounds in south Bogota, Colombia, April 22, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Fabio Cuttica

At a spacious new school in the poor neighbourhood of Bosa, in Bogota's south, staff are encouraging a new generation to take up low-carbon transport.

'The Bike College', which fully opened in February, aims to promote cycling culture in an area surrounded by hillside slums home to hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan migrants and Colombians displaced by the country's long civil war.

"We're putting the bicycle at the centre of education. Riding a bike gives students an equal status" to those outside the slums, said headteacher Jose Willington.

As he stood on a sports court at the school, children sat nearby learning about road safety from instructors, while others practiced riding their bicycles for the first time, wobbling along.

At the campus, which serves more than a thousand primary and high school students, "we don't just see the bike as a means of sustainable transport but as a lifestyle - a way of healthy and sustainable living," Willington said.

Jose Willington, headteacher at “The Bike College”, a new public school in the poor neighbourhood of Bosa, stands with his cycle as students practice riding behind him at the school in south Bogota, Colombia, April 22, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Fabio Cuttica

Being part of Colombia's cycling culture - the nation has produced Olympic gold-medal cyclists and a Tour de France winner - can offer teenagers an alternative to joining the small-time drug gangs that plague city neighbourhoods, he said.

Taking up cycling may also help them find jobs, Willington added.

Along with receiving a high school diploma, students at the school can graduate with an additional qualification in bicycle mechanics, which can help them start a small business or land a better job.

Getting more residents moving on two wheels is hardly a new idea in Bogota.

In the 1970s, the city launched the world's first weekend cycling routes, which today still see 130 km (80 miles) of roads closed to traffic each Sunday and filled with about 1.5 million cyclists and joggers.

The success of that effort is one reason successive mayors, including Lopez, have remained focused on expanding cycling as a key to greening transport in Bogota.

An instructor engages with new cyclists at “The Bike College”, a new public school in the poor neighbourhood of Bosa, in Bogota, Colombia, April 22, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Fabio Cuttica

Even before the pandemic, Bogota was crisscrossed by a 550-kilometre (340-mile) network of bicycle lanes, the longest in Latin America.

The city added another 80 kilometres of lanes at the beginning of the pandemic as a way of promoting safe travel and social distancing, and to ease crowding on buses.

Today about a million trips a day are made by bicycle in the city.

Plans are underway to add a further 280 kilometres of bike network by 2024, maintain existing cycling lanes and provide 5,000 more parking spaces for cyclists, for a total investment of more than $200 million.

At workshops at The Bike College run by SENA - the government's vocational work training department - students study how to repair high-end and electric bikes, make sportswear and build road safety apps.

Isabella Vargas, 16, a student at “The Bike College”, a new public school in the poor neighbourhood of Bosa, stands with a bicycle and tools to repair it at the school in south Bogota, Colombia, April 22, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Fabio Cuttica

The project is the first of its kind in Colombia.

"You get to learn new things like how to take apart and assemble bikes," said Isabella Vargas, a 16-year-old pupil who wants to become an engineer.

"We also learn that helping to create a sustainable environment is a duty we citizens have."

Reporting for this story was supported by C40, a network of the world’s large cities committed to addressing climate change.

Reporter: Anastasia Moloney
Editors:  Laurie Goering
Photographer: Fabio Cuttica
Producer: Amber Milne