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Bogota's urban happiness movement Add to ...

On a clear, cloudless afternoon, Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogota, leaves his office early in order to pick up his 10-year-old son from school. As usual, he wears his black leather shoes and pinstriped trousers. As usual, he is joined by his two pistol-packing bodyguards. And, as usual, he travels not in the armoured SUV typical of most public figures in Colombia, but on a knobby-tired mountain bike.

Mr. Peñalosa pedals through the streets of Santa Barbara in Bogota's well-to-do north side. He jumps curbs and potholes, riding one-handed, weaving across the pavement, barking into his cellphone with barely a thought for the city's notoriously aggressive drivers.

On most days, this would be a radical and perhaps suicidal act. But today is special.

Ever since citizens voted to make it an annual affair in 2000, private cars have been banned entirely from this city of nearly eight million every Feb. 1. On Dia Sin Carro, Car Free Day, the roar of traffic subsides and the toxic haze thins. Buses are jam-packed and taxis hard to come by, but hundreds of thousands of people have followed Mr. Peñalosa's example and hit the streets under their own steam.

"This is a learning experiment! We are realizing that we can live without cars!" Mr. Peñalosa bellows as he cruises across the southbound lanes of Avenida 19, pausing on the wide, park-like median. A flock of young women rolls up the median's bike path, shouting, "Mayor! Mayor!" though it has been six years since Mr. Peñalosa left office (consecutive terms are constitutionally banned in Bogota) and he has only just begun his campaign to regain the mayor's seat.

Car Free Day is just one of the ways that Mr. Peñalosa helped to transform a city once infamous for narco-terrorism, pollution and chaos into a globally lauded model of livability and urban renewal. His ideas are being adopted in cities across the developing world. They are also being championed by planners and politicians in North America, where Mr. Peñalosa has reinvigorated the debate about public space once championed by Jane Jacobs.

His policies may resemble environmentalism, but they are no such thing. Rather, they were driven by his conversion to hedonics, an economic philosophy whose proponents focus on fostering not economic growth but human happiness.

Proponents of hedonics, or happiness economics, have been gaining influence. London School of Economics professor Richard Layard, who wrote the seminal Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, was an adviser to Tony Blair's first Labour government. Prof. Layard asserts that, contrary to the guiding principle of a century of economists, income is a poor measure of happiness. Economic growth in England and the U.S. in the past half-century hasn't measurably increased life satisfaction.

So what makes societies happy? The past decade has seen an explosion in research aiming to answer that question, and there's good news for people in places like Bogota: Feelings of well-being are determined as much by status and social connectedness as by income. Richer people are happier than poor people, but societies with wider income gaps are less happy on the whole. People who interact more with friends, family and neighbours are happier than those who don't.

And what makes people most unhappy? Not work, but commuting to work.

These are the concepts that guided Mr. Peñalosa's car-bashing campaign.

"There are a few things we can agree on about happiness," he says. "You need to fulfill your potential as a human being. You need to walk. You need to be with other people. Most of all, you need to not feel inferior. When you talk about these things, designing a city can be a very powerful means to generate happiness."

In the mid-1990s, Bogota was, citizens recall, un enfierno - a living hell. There were 3,363 murders in 1995 and nearly 1,400 traffic deaths. The city suffered from the cumulative effects of decades of civil war, but also from explosive population growth and a dearth of planning. Wealthy residents fenced off their local public parks. Drivers appropriated sidewalk space to park cars. The air rivalled Mexico City's for pollution. Workers from the squalid shanties on the city's south end spent as much as four hours every day commuting to and from Bogota's wealthy north.

In 1997, a study by the Japanese International Co-operation Agency prescribed a vast network of elevated freeways to ease Bogota's congestion. Like cities across the Third World, Bogota was looking to North American suburbs as a development model, even though only 20 per cent of people owned cars.

The tide changed with Mr. Peñalosa's election in 1998.

"A city can be friendly to people or it can be friendly to cars, but it can't be both," the new mayor announced. He shelved the highway plans and poured the billions saved into parks, schools, libraries, bike routes and the world's longest "pedestrian freeway."

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