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Gasping for a Solution to Bogotá’s Air Pollution Problem

In December 2013, Bogotá’s Secretaría Distrital de Movilidad (District Mobility Secretariat) reported that there were 1,447,335 private vehicles registered in the city, representing a 76 percent increase in vehicles in only seven years.  

Yet the number of vehicles operating in the public service is predicted to decline from 18,482 in 2007 to just 12,333 in 2018, due to urban transport policies that will put older public vehicles out of service in order to promote the TransMilenio  integrated public transport system, which was inaugurated in 2000.

As Bogotá’s 7.6 million residents await the introduction of new public transportation, they will still have to deal with the big, black plumes of smoke funneling out of the traditional, independent and disorganized buses. Since, under the new transport policy, operators must legally surrender their bus to the public system by the end of this year, there is now no incentive to make repairs or even undertake basic maintenance checks on old buses. 

Opting to travel on foot may be one way of escaping the serpentine lineup of bumper-to-bumper vehicles on just about every major road, but there is really nowhere to hide from Bogotá’s air pollution.

Although necessary, the system of “Pico y Placa” (“peak and plate”)—which determines whether an individual car can be on the road between the peak hours of 6:00 to 8:30 a.m. and 3:00 to 7:30 p.m., based on the vehicle’s license plate—has not done enough. Bogotá’s yearly “No Car Day,” which requires bogotanos to refrain from using cars on the first Thursday of February, is also fairly innovative, but has no impact on the dangerous concentrations of particulate matter (PM10), a major cause of concern in Bogotá. These particles are able to penetrate the respiratory system, leading to various debilitating illnesses like asthma, bronchitis and other respiratory infections.  

According to the Bogotá mayor’s office, particulate matter, along with ozone and re-suspended particulate matter, are frequently found in concentrations higher than the maximum threshold allowed by Colombian legislation. The District Secretary of Health in Bogotá has said that respiratory illnesses are the number one cause of infant mortality in the capital. Around 600,000 children under the age of five are treated for respiratory problems every year.

In trying to find a solution to these issues, Bogotá’s Secretary of the Environment signed a 10-month contract with the University of La Salle in February. The project also involves the collaboration of two North American universities that are acting in a supporting role and whose identities have not yet been publicly announced.

The team has already begun to develop and implement an air quality model for the city to comprehensively and quantitatively analyze the concentration of atmospheric contaminants. Researchers will create an inventory on atmospheric emissions coming from mobile sources, such as private vehicles, fixed sources like industrial plants and gas stations, and emissions released naturally by vegetation. The study will be the first of its kind undertaken in Bogotá, and will serve to determine future strategies for decreasing air pollution. Once the inventory is completed, the La Salle researchers will set out to assess gaseous and particulate air pollution using special software.

Results are expected to be published in the first half of 2015, and will undoubtedly contribute to a much-needed improvement in the capital’s air quality, not to mention the well-being of its citizens. This is good news for anyone who is forced to breathe Bogotá’s air.

Read an AQ article about urban sustainability initiatives in Bogotá here.

*Kai Whiting is director of the energy engineering undergraduate program at Universidad EAN in Bogotá. He joined the EITI Colombia Civil Society Board and Technical Support Group in May. Follow him on Twitter: @KaiWhiting.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Bogota, air pollution, sustainability

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