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What Bogota Can Learn About Traffic Jams From Singapore And Shanghai

Latin American governments have shown scant interest in restricting cars and improving public transport. But some citizens in smoggy Bogotá have chosen a different path.

Gnarly traffic in Bogota, Colombia
Gnarly traffic in Bogota, Colombia
Carlos Felipe Pardo

BOGOTÁ — Could people start making cleaner air a priority over cars? Cities such as Singapore have successfully cut pollution by restricting car use. Now, perhaps in a sign of our times, people are warming to the idea in the Colombian capital of Bogotá, where cars are still king.

The Catharsis Bogotá project, a polling initiative backed by El Espectador and Despacio, has asked residents to offer their views on how the city could improve life and mobility. In a departure from Latin America's love of personal mobility, many respondents have urged the city to curb car use.

Sustainable transport researcher Darío Hidalgo says it's a notable change of perspective for Colombia, in line with similar developments elsewhere in the world.

Singapore, for example, had a period of immense car congestion as economic conditions there improved, and reached a situation in the 1970s similar to those of many Latin American cities today. At one point, the city-state asked economist William Vickrey to advise it on possible solutions.

His idea was not that Singapore relieve congestion by building more roads or devising complex technological solutions. Instead, he proposed charging car users and owners what their habits were really costing society. In practical terms, that meant imposing enough costs on car ownership (including monthly auctions of registration rights) to triple their sale price. He even formulated the first-ever congestion charging system, which cut traffic jams in half.

Such measures are unpopular and politically risky, but effective. Other cities since have implemented similar measures. There is London's tax on cars entering the city, and Stockholm's modulated charging in keeping with hours and traffic levels. In London, car traffic has declined 20% and in Stockholm, 25%. London has also improved security, increased bicycle use by 72%, and even brought down taxi fares. Public transport has also improved, and demand for it has grown 14%.

Shanghai has used number plate auctions to finance bus technology and cut public transport fares for some residents. Its restrictive measures have at least managed to slow rising car numbers, which grew from around two million in 2004 to 3.5 million in 2010. Comparatively, car numbers in Beijing rose from two million to about five million in the same period.

The Inter-American Development Bank (BID) compiled a report in 2013 on 12 Latin American cities, including Bogotá and Medellín, observing the difficulty of such "demand management" measures. Their unpopularity has basically made car restrictions plunge in priority for politicians, while hampering systematic moves to improve public transport or make it more attractive.

Regional governments have yet to understand that it is often the same cities that charge a premium for buying, driving and parking private cars that also turn out to boast top public transport and better walking and cycling accessibility.

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AI And War: Inside The Pentagon's $1.8 Billion Bet On Artificial Intelligence

Putting the latest AI breakthroughs at the service of national security raises major practical and ethical questions for the Pentagon.

Photo of a drone on the tarmac during a military exercise near Vícenice, in the Czech Republic

Drone on the tarmac during a military exercise near Vícenice, in the Czech Republic

Sarah Scoles

Number 4 Hamilton Place is a be-columned building in central London, home to the Royal Aeronautical Society and four floors of event space. In May, the early 20th-century Edwardian townhouse hosted a decidedly more modern meeting: Defense officials, contractors, and academics from around the world gathered to discuss the future of military air and space technology.

Things soon went awry. At that conference, Tucker Hamilton, chief of AI test and operations for the United States Air Force, seemed to describe a disturbing simulation in which an AI-enabled drone had been tasked with taking down missile sites. But when a human operator started interfering with that objective, he said, the drone killed its operator, and cut the communications system.

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