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Urban Mobility and the Colombian experience: Institutional Failure, Informality and Autonomy.

7 min. read.

We continue with our series on themes from the global South, with a short article by our editor-in-chief, Luis Lozano-Paredes. This series on the global South is a call by the AESOP Young Academics to include the experiences, theories, and practices emerging from Latin America, Africa, and parts of the Middle East and South-East Asia.

These contexts, we insist, are still too overlooked in the discussions of urban-related academia. We hope that the inclusion of short to medium-short articles on urban issues and practices from the South can help correct this tendency still too focused on discourses from the North. This article and series is also an invitation for you (the reader and young academic) to contribute to the discussion by sending an academic essay, short article, stub or letter to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


Urban mobility and the Colombian experience: Institutional Failure, Informality and Autonomy

The Colombian experience confirms urbanists such as Jane Jacobs (1961), who stated that the “visual” order is often confused with social order. The praised transportation systems that flourished in Colombian cities at the beginning of the 21st century were deemed by planners to behave an “orderly” way and were no doubt an improvement on the built environment. However, in their evolution, they did not recognize the reality of the social constructions behind mobility in Colombian cities and, as has been shown for the city of Bogotá (Bocarejo et al. 2015), they have caused social fragmentation.

The case of Colombia, however, adds another element to the equation, and that is the idea of ​​institutional failure: The supposed modernization of collective public transport towards an integrated mass transport system has harmed the supply and accessibility of transportation to the most vulnerable neighbourhoods of Colombian cities. The latter due both to the lack of coverage and poor design and planning of the proposed BRT routes, which has also limited the number of passengers using the service in vulnerable parts of Colombian cities. This poor design and planning of routes in terms of the analysis of urban development and the reception and perception by the population is manifested in the lack of recognition of the realities of mobility and pre-existing complexities.

Colombia could be defined as a state in which the institutions are completely overwhelmed by the reality on the ground. Ironically, these democratic institutions often display a seemingly prolific production of legal standards, regulations, prescriptions, and judicial decisions that generally end up being irrelevant (Bayón and Rodríguez 2003). Again a supposed visual "order" that is confused with a genuine social order.

The existence of rules on paper is in no way a guarantee of the stability of a system, not even of its agency in the formulation of coherent public policies. In Colombian transport systems this is represented in the abstraction of the current legal and institutional framework, which does not respond to the reality on the ground and which leads to the lack of adequate representation on the part of the different actors involved in transportation. The latter leads to "blindness" among legislators, local, national and regional governments, as well as urban planners who do not recognize the physical and social realities of the cities with which they were working.

Informalidad en Colombia: medios de transporte ilegales - Archivo Digital  de Noticias de Colombia y el Mundo desde 1.990 - eltiempo.com

Informal Mobility in Colombia. Image: EL TIEMPO

Transport systems prior to the imposition of BRT systems, no matter how “chaotic” , "informal" and unregulated they were, “recognized” elements of the social construction of cities due to the nature of their evolution and yet, structured and closed systems replaced them. The latter has not caused the reduction of these informal constructions but instead, the growth of informal transport provision with small market niches characterized by a high demand for transport and which respond to inadequate coverage of the BRT systems.

What is interesting about this phenomenon, given the need for new definitions of urban planning and public policy for contexts such as the Colombian one, is a reality of self-organization and autonomy of urban denizens in southern contexts.

What does this mean for Southern cities? In the case of these Colombian cities, the institutional failure in urban planning is exposed in the reaction to the creation of BRT transport systems by the poorest and more vulnerable parts of the population. And how, both in the absence of coverage and in the presence of better and previously known mobility alternatives, transport unfolded in the expansion of informal systems (Vecchio, 2018), which have even shown themselves capable of acting as last-mile components complementary to BRT systems. Likewise, by ignoring the control measures of the authorities, either by avoiding them or by certain attitudes of the security forces that simply "look the other way", the alternatives of informal transport (and the people behind them) have complemented the lack of good service in an act of pure social innovation.

A possible recognition to urban actors who develop informally while providing good service and well-being must be addressed more profoundly in future research. It is necessary to understand that, in addition to a problem of regulation, efficiency or economic inclusion, there are basic unresolved issues in the way in which cities in the global South and Latin America are planned and governed.

A course of action

Concerning urban services such as transport, it is necessary to initiate a course of action in which those behind the informal processes in cities have the possibility for their realities are recognized and introduced in a new planning methodology: That the construction of the urban reality in the global South and in Latin America and Colombia, in particular, refers to the predominance of informal processes that cannot and should not be ignored and addressed with a simple elaboration of regulatory policies.

The latter is where the need arises to study how new forms of autonomy and self-government are created in the population. Not only to recognize the intrinsic quality of informality and alternative transportation but also to account for the power associated with this phenomenon. In the construction of informal governance mechanisms in transportation, it can be concluded that there is an evident will in Colombian cities to transgress an imposed order that is in many ways unfair. Just as there is also the will to respect the preexisting social constructions.

Future transportation policies that address these problems must be evaluated in the context of these alternative organizational models that have important implications for society. Likewise, these policies must reliably recognize the nature and benefits that arise from informal governance.

The social innovation behind the design of new economic relationships and interrelationships behind informal transport must participate in a framework in which we understand diffuse designing and that "everyone designs" (Manzini 2015) their own goals and structures for social innovation. Furthermore, that people have the right to do so autonomously and freely. Recognizing that prototyping a better transportation system will only occur when social innovations such as alternative transportation are recognized, structures are liberalized, policies are regionalized, and different modes of mobility are characterized locally.

Urban transportation planners and policy makers in general must consider the importance and relevance of community and social innovations, and policy proposals must take into account the impossibility of centralized urban governance and planning in spaces as complex as the cities of the global South.

It is necessary to recognize the social entrepreneurship behind these phenomena, the true nature of the relationships between people on the ground. In emerging and developing countries, the focus should be on empowering people to be entrepreneurs and innovators and building community innovations that produce the condition for their own well-being.

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