Utter chaos

by Juan Álvarez

Nonstop (Issue III/2019)

In the late 1980s, the life of a ten-year-old in Bogotá largely consisted of being ordered around by his parents. Their remarks were usually typical enough: "Don't be late home," or "Don't wander off too far". Among the more enigmatic and strict prohibitions was one that oft repeated by my mother: "Don't go down to the Caracas at all".

But as the DNA of a prepubescent snotty kid demands, my curiosity eventually prevailed and so came the day when I no longer listened to my mother and sneaked quietly towards the street that the middle and lower classes in Bogota still call "Caracas" today, that 37-kilometre-long, violently pulsating traffic artery that meanders from north to south at the foot of the hills (a Colombian euphemism for the imposing foothills of the Andes) before becoming the "Autopista Norte" at Calle 80.

I still remember exactly the picture I had at that time, an early and bitter foretaste of the chaotic country which I had been born into by pure chance: the buses were scrap heaps on wheels. They zigzagged between the lanes like hungry, nervous flies. The trees were dwarfs, not because they had been recently planted and were young and fresh, but because they suffocated by the noxious exhaust fumes and were stunted and malformed. And the motors of the cars were so densely packed that they threatened to crush one another.

I saw people crying. I saw people roasting meat for lunch on electric grills in their open trunks, while the cars kept rolling at walking pace in an endless queue. I saw couples, for ages in front of red traffic lights, gesticulating wildly behind the wheel and - at least that's how I imagined it - divorcing themselves twenty traffic lights later.

Today - almost thirty years later - the picture has hardly changed. The Caracas continues to roar. At the very least, it stands as an emblem for the average Bogota citizen, that species that gets into the local bus, or TransMilenio, before those wanting to disembark can leave its doors. It is a species that is hooked on cars, and buys them like others snap up T-shirts; a species that sees it as their sacred right to get behind the wheel just to pop to the bakery on the corner.

The rich, and, surprise, surprise, especially the poor, pile on to the Caracas, where moving forwards means tracking the geography of separation which is etched into the city’s layout.

And there have been attempts to tame the Caracas and re-educate those dwelling in the city. Back in the 1990s, the then mayor Antanas Mockus decided to take creative action in the face of traffic chaos, spontaneously replacing the traffic policemen in Bogotá with mime artists who stood at the crossroads and acted as if they were injured whenever a driver crossed a red traffic light.

But nothing helped. Because of Mockus' successor, a disastrous being called Enrique Peñalosa. Contrary to all scientific evidence, he sold the city the idea that buses were the best choice for local transport, better than underground or suburban trains, those fast vehicles that don't clog up motorways and which most Colombians only know from hearsay.

And so the Caracas of the present is also the Caracas of my youth. Meanwhile the torment of Bogotá’s traffic, and the so-called “solutions”, come and go like the rain. And even those who switched to bicycles, and who pedal along the pavements in the absence of cycle paths, are no longer happy in this city. On the contrary: the eternal shouting, ranting and ringing of bells have now spread beyond the street’s edges. And every year Bogotá, once again, occupies one of the dishonourable top places in the global traffic-jam rankings. Maybe in the future this will change. Maybe we will slip one or two, or even 15, spots further down the list because we have built one, or twenty new streets, and our politicians, in turn will be able to breathe more easily.

But I won’t be able to breathe more easily: The accumulated muddle on our roads will continue. Bogotanos, with all their fears, will still be encased in their pollutant capsules, confident of their right to drive to the bakery just five blocks down the road. And we will still be unable to move forwards, locked in slow motion in our perpetual traffic jams, concrete manifestations of our society’s failure.

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