Illustration by Edel Rodriguez

LONDON – The city of Bogota, Colombia’s sprawling high-altitude capital, has a problem most metropolises would envy: an abundance of inexpensive electricity.

The vast mountain range that surrounds the city abounds with fast-moving water, and hydropower is far cheaper in Colombia than any other fuel source. So it just makes sense that the municipal government would want to swap expensive, polluting oil for streams of electrons in its transportation system.

Bogota already has one of the developing world’s most envied and widely copied public transport networks, centred on a 109-kilometre web of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) lines – dedicated bus lanes linking 125 rail-like stations and nine terminals. About 1.5 million passengers are carried between these stations and terminals every day.

The system traces its origins to a trailblazing decision made by charismatic mayor Enrique Penalosa when he took office in 1998. International experts advised the new mayor to build freeways to alleviate the fast-growing city’s mounting traffic woes. Instead, Penalosa opted to bet big on mass public transit and bike lanes.

Bogota lacked the funds for a subway system, so the city instead chose to borrow the BRT concept from Curitiba, Brazil. In a few short years, Penalosa broke the chokehold that the city’s notorious drug cartels had long maintained on the private bus networks and built a BRT system called TransMilenio. Almost overnight, it became a source of civic pride and an envy of cities across South America.

A key difference between subways and buses, however, is that while the former run almost exclusively on electricity, the latter almost never do. And so as Bogota unveiled ambitious plans this year to start running its BRT network on electricity and even introduce a citywide fleet of 20,000 electric-powered taxis – reducing operating costs and pollution in one grand gesture – it encountered a unique problem. Bogota wants to introduce 790 low-emission hybrid buses next year, and the city plans to entertain bids on a fully electric fleet and convert TransMilenio’s trunk lines exclusively to zero-emission vehicles as soon as possible. The trouble is, no one can readily fill the city’s order. “Producers,” said Susana Muhamad, secretary general, city of Bogota, “don’t have the capacity to meet the demand.”

There is a word, in business circles, for a burgeoning demand that far exceeds supply. That word is opportunity.

Muhamad outlined Bogota’s conundrum as she accepted a laurel in the “urban transportation” category at the inaugural C40 & Siemens City Climate Leadership Awards in London (disclosure: Siemens covered the cost of sending the author to this awards event). The C40 organization is a network of big city governments around the world, and Bogota bested projects based in wealthy First World cities (Stockholm and Paris) in its category. It also beat out Buenos Aires, which qualified as a finalist on the strength of a transportation system that copied Bogota’s own.

Bogota might not be a name closely associated with innovation north of the equator, but it has become a mobility model for the global south – and the supply gap it has encountered holds lessons for sustainable businesses around the world.

It’s taken for granted in urban design circles that cities are engines of innovation. From the agora of Athens to the bohemian coffee houses of Victorian London to the creative-class enclaves of the contemporary metropolis, the city has long been understood as a vital wellspring of new ideas and the primary generator of the intellectual capital that drives modern economies.

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that even a global-scale challenge like climate change has found some of its best ideas and most important innovations in cities. Indeed, the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group was itself born of a distinctly urban reluctance to wait on the decisions of higher levels of government.

The organization first came together in 2005 to share best urban practices in response to climate change, and in 2009 it staged a high-profile (and much more productive) alternative summit to the Copenhagen Climate Conference. The rural-urban balance tipped in favour of cities that same year – more than half of humanity now resides in cities, and 80 per cent of us will be urban dwellers by 2050 – and as most national governments continue to stumble in their flailing search for durable climate change solutions, urban leadership has never been more critical.

Which brings us back to Bogota, whose electric-bus problem is both a welcome model of innovation and an illustration of the city’s limits. Bogota’s TransMilenio is one of the most transformative and easily copied urban infrastructure inventions of the last decade. Though Curitiba’s BRT had been up and running in Brazil since 1974, it was the unprecedented boosts to commuter speed and passenger capacity of TransMilenio, rapidly deployed in the heart of a sprawling, traffic-choked metropolis in 2000, that launched the modern wave of BRTs.

The concept has since spread to 150 cities as far away as Jakarta and Johannesburg, and marks a rare case where industrialized cities – among them celebrated sustainability leaders such as Amsterdam, Melbourne and Vancouver – have widely adopted a developing country’s model. In Buenos Aires, a flagship BRT lane now carries 200,000 passengers per day down Avenida 9 de Julio, Argentina’s answer to the Champs-Elysees. The city’s C40 transportation initiatives borrow as heavily from Bogota as from famously livable Copenhagen.

The spurs to further innovation on Bogota’s streets are not strictly climate-related. In March 2012, riots erupted in the city over TransMilenio, with protestors demanding more affordable fares and a solution to the system’s chronic overcrowding. (Major TransMilenio stations are frequently so crowded at rush hour that passengers can’t even get off the buses, let alone make room for the waiting crowd to board.)

Efforts are already underway to reduce tariffs, and by switching from diesel engines to electric ones, the municipal government hopes to cut costs even further. But of course that goal would require manufacturers in distant lands, subject to national political and economic factors far beyond Bogota’s control, to step up their efforts to bring electric buses and taxis into mass production. Volvo has already tested hybrid buses on Bogota’s streets and the Chinese electric vehicle pioneer BYD has a handful of demonstration electric buses, and Bogota will start considering bids for the larger order next year. There’s no guarantee, however, that any manufacturer will be able to deliver what the city needs. In the meantime, Bogota’s commuters continue to pack into overcrowded stations as they wait for relief.

This is the flipside of the urbanization coin. As humanity crowds into cities, the opportunities for unexpected interactions yielding wild new ideas may well increase, but meanwhile city halls the world over are barely coping with the strain of rapid growth. And just as often as not, they are held back by limited municipal power structures set too low in an entirely different and less urban age.

In London, for example – birthplace of the C40 network under its founder, former mayor Ken Livingstone, and host of the City Climate Leadership Awards – a booming financial and cultural capital is struggling to expand its infrastructure to manage its current transport needs and anticipate the next phase of growth. “The transport system quite honestly is creaking at the seams,” said Jeremy Hinds of Network Rail, a lead partner in Thameslink, a multibillion-dollar commuter rail project.

Thameslink is a staggeringly large and complex undertaking – a new hub in the heart of London for one of the world’s densest and busiest rail networks. Designed to lash together a disjointed tangle of existing rail lines in the north and south and increase train traffic between them by 250 per cent at peak hours, the project has required 15 years in debate and planning and still has five more years of construction to go. Among other challenges, it has necessitated a major overhaul of London Bridge station while keeping it open and busy, as well as the laying of two new rail beds essentially on top of historic Borough Market.

By itself, Thameslink would be the transit project of a generation, but it’s but one piece of London’s transportation puzzle. Crossrail, an east-to-west sister project, comes with a £14.8-billion price tag, 21 kilometres of tunnel, and a radical expansion of Farringdon Station. London’s pioneering congestion charging and Low Emissions Zone systems, meanwhile, continue to grow – and grow in complexity – around the city. (The congestion charging system applies a levy to all vehicles entering central London during working hours, with the £150 million per year spent on public transit; the Low Emissions Zone is a restrictive tariff on large, exhaust-spewing vehicles across a larger patch of the city.) And municipal leaders are also calling for a second high-speed rail line to link London to Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester to the north – a project that has led to political squabbling over costs and benefits and that demonstrates the limits, even in London, to what a city can do on its own.

In her final book, Dark Age Ahead, the massively influential urban thinker Jane Jacobs talked about a concept she called “subsidiarity.” She defined it as “the principle that government works best – most responsibly and responsively – when it is closest to the people it serves and the needs it addresses.” The C40 network is a case study in the value of subsidiarity and its limits in the climate change era. The world over, cities have led the conversation on climate change and developed some of the most innovative strategies to tackle it.

Germany’s transformative national energy policy, the feed-in tariff for renewable energy, began as a municipal ordinance. Congestion charges – whether in London or Stockholm or Singapore – have proven to be among the most effective and efficient Pigovian taxes (i.e., taxes on negative externalities) yet created to put a clear and fair price on greenhouse gas emissions. And of course the C40 network is rife with examples of urban innovation, many of them finalists or winners in the first City Climate Leadership Awards.

Copenhagen is well on its way to a municipal target of carbon neutrality by 2025. Munich has concrete plans to become the first city of more than a million people to be powered entirely by renewable energy. San Francisco’s recycling program has as its goal nothing less than the obsolescence of the landfill itself. In Melbourne, 1,200 buildings in the downtown core will receive hyper-efficiency retrofits. In cities around the world, forward-thinking governments, spurred often as not by more immediate crises and exercising their intrinsic subsidiarity, have found their way to sustainable solutions to problems of energy use, transportation, air quality, resilience and waste.

In Bogota – as in so many cities – the traffic was a nightmare. The conventional wisdom said to build on-ramps, overpasses and freeways. Instead, the mayor created space on its streets for everything but cars – TransMilenio buses, yes, but also bicycles and pedestrians – and the city ignited a worldwide boom in a new system of transit.

That system is better positioned than any freeway ever will be to become the world’s first zero-emissions bus network. But it will need partners in industries far away to see the opportunity hidden in the urban chaos.

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