LAURA CESAFSKY: Bogotá’s TransMilenio, Urban Design and the Nature of Built Environment Objects

Laura Cesafsky

Laura Cesafsky is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of Geography, Environment and Society at the University of Minnesota. She is currently investigating the sociotechnical evolution of Bogotá’s TransMilenio and (now) Sistema Integrado de Transporte Público (SITP). This research is funded by Fulbright Colombia, the U.S. National Science Foundation, and the University of Minnesota Graduate School. All views presented are, however, her own.

Bogotá’s TransMilenio, Urban Design and the Nature of Built Environment Objects

By Laura Cesafsky

Bogotá plays a starring role in journalist Charles Montgomery’s 2013 book, Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design, one of a handful of new popular titles to publicize the transformational power of urbanism. Toward the end of the 20th Century, Montgomery writes dramatically, Bogotá had become “a truly horrible place to live—one of the very worst on earth; seared by a decades old civil war and sporadic terrorism in the form of grenades and firebombs; and hobbled by traffic, pollution, poverty and dysfunction” (pg. 5-6). But then, buoyed by an inventive form of spatial planning oriented toward producing a more open, public, and interconnected built environment, the Colombian capital miraculously turned itself around.

This tale of Bogotá’s unforeseen redemption has been celebrated in documentaries and countless blog and newspaper articles. The story is typically told from the perspective of the urbanists and politicians who created the design strategies that made Bogotá famous: new public transportation networks and pedestrian bridges; parks and plazas; and architecturally significant schools and libraries in the downtrodden peripheral neighborhoods. The city became a spatial planning model. It garnered awards for being at the “forefront of urbanism,” such as the Golden Lion Cities Award at the 2006 Venice Architecture Biennale (Leguía 2011). Bogotá became a testament to the idea that, “[e]ven amid economic doldrums,” as Montgomery put it, urban life can be improved by “changing the shapes and systems that define urban existence” (p. 6).

But then something curious happened. Bogotá declined just as fast it was “reborn.” The public optimism suddenly began to wither, and trust in the competence of local government evaporated. At the heart of these troubles was the same object that was central to Bogotá’s renaissance: TransMilenio. This bus rapid transit system (BRT) brought inclusive mass transit to the traffic-clogged city for the first time in decades, as well as a sense of pride and collective progress. With its armada of bright-red, high-capacity buses, augmented by a system of feeder buses, TransMilenio extends from the chic restaurants of northern Usaquén to the impoverished fringes of southern Usme. The TransMilenio system was so quickly successful, so visible, that it became a symbol of the city and an object through which it narrates its own political existence. All the more troubling, then, that TransMilenio has become so desperately overcrowded, run-down and mired in scandal that it has become citizens’ most loathed mobility option. Today TransMilenio users routinely spill out into its exclusive lanes and disrupt circulation in defiance of perceived failings. The urbanist movement has been captured by other cities like Medellín, which adopted and modified Bogotá’s innovations and branded them Social Urbanism.

*TransMilenio represented from above, as a form, and a citizen's re-interpretation of the system's geography

TransMilenio station Ciudad Universitaria, looking west towards Bogotá’s central district. Photo by Laura Cesafsky.

Urban design made much of Bogotá’s ascent. What is it to make of the city’s decline? Montgomery’s Happy City charts one course: relative denial. The author confesses the city’s current troubles only in the last two paragraphs of a chapter composed of dozens of flowery pages that celebrate the visionary urbanism of Enrique Peñalosa, the mayor who oversaw Bogotá’s spatial transformations. Montgomery delivers the bad news as if it did not fundamentally threaten the argument of his book: that design has a magical power to transform urban social life. Rather than grapple with what it means for urbanism when a design star falls, Montgomery blandly concludes that Bogotá’s transformative years offer an unspecified “enduring lesson.” What is that lesson?

A host of political and institutional factors underlie Bogotá’s transformations, many of which date decades before Mayor Peñalosa’s tenure (Dávila 2004). Yet if we insist on understanding the city’s recent history as a story of space and society, we cannot imagine its early success as internal to design practice while shrugging off its later struggles as external derailment, like a meteor knocking Planet Urbanism off its celestial trajectory. More generally, I want to suggest, the tribulations of Bogotá and TransMilenio invite critical reflection on how design theorizes the existence of built environment objects and how these objects “act” within the broader urban milieu. Without resolving the question of material agency in urban design that Bogotá’s story provokes, in this post I forward some observations and speculations.

Spatial Form and Social Transformation
It is crucial to consider design’s material philosophy because the field is experiencing its own astonishing rebirth, in part by publicizing “success stories” like Bogotá. There is growing interest across the development industry, the academy, and popular urbanism in design solutions to the defining challenges of the new century, climate change and social inequality. The compact, mixed-use, interconnected, open and transit-oriented metropolis is the new panacea. But spatial form has long been imagined to solve problems. In his groundbreaking Garden Cities of Tomorrow from 1902, Ebenezer Howard made the production of ideal communities a problem of layout among homes, industries, and nature. The tidiness of Howard’s Garden Cities on paper would presumably be transmitted to the “society” (not pictured) that was to carry out its ideal existence amid his ideal forms. Critical social theory finds fascinating the idea that by shaping spaces one can shape society. Or rather, since social theory has problematized this idea as environmental (or physical) determinism long ago, it is the reaction to that critique that is worth examining today.

In the face of similar charges of environmental determinism, the discipline of human geography simply began to offer social explanations for observed phenomenon. But this intellectual move would have been absurd for design, a field whose organizing idea is that improving city shapes and systems improves urban life. Charges of determinism highlighted a problem that design could not avert by shifting to Marxian theory or discourse analysis: How are the human and the material imbricated? My inquiry into design theory leads me to suspect that the field has neither thoroughly confronted this question nor developed a careful sense of infrastructural objects’ powers. Instead, causality between urban forms and purported social effects remains underspecified and unscientific. Journalists, designers and politicians are free to link, almost willy-nilly, Colombian urban design innovations with sweeping reductions in things like violent crime (Sanchez 2010). Across Latin America, pacification and social inclusion are now routinely framed in terms of “opening” the city and tearing down physical barriers between elite and poor neighborhoods. Former Mayor Peñalosa tours the globe arguing that he built “democracy” into the spatial form of Bogotá.

Peñalosa’s logic is more symbolic-poetic than social-scientific, and it works from a formal imagination. In this sense, Peñalosa speaks very much in the language of design, for which urban form is a key analytic tool. Urban form is an abstraction that renders the city a continuous fabric of fixed physical features—channels, enclosures, surfaces, objects, ambiences—that organize flows (Lynch 1981). Form is like the cityscape of little white boxes in the architectural lobby that, from an aerial perspective, produces equivalence among disparate things like parks, transportation systems and office complexes. As design scholar Aseem Inam (2013) puts it in a great new book, Designing Urban Transformation, the operative assumption is that the built environment is a stable, concrete container for the chaotic play of city sociability. Form makes infrastructures into structures: durable and broad-scale ordering mechanisms. Is it possible that the problem of physical determinism in design has its roots here in the idea that urban form is a stable container, and that in order to do away with this determinism, spatial form needs to be dismantled?

Let’s look at a crisp example of how this imagination that infrastructural objects are stable frameworks for social relationships comes to ground stories of design-led transformation. The following is an excerpt from an article by Lorenzo Castro and Alejandro Echeverrí (2011), two Colombian urbanists working in Bogotá and Medellín, that appeared in a recent special issue of Architectural Digest on Latin American urbanism.

[T]he intention was to create a complete and unique image of the city that, rather than ignoring socioeconomic differences between its territories, was capable of bridging these through the design of a series of iconic urban elements associated with cross-city systems…In Bogotá, this quality civic architecture was overlapped with a network of public transport [i.e. TransMilenio] and cycle routes…to generate a city that is integrated, continuous, open and accessible to everyone, inclusive, environmentally sustainable and capable of facilitating a sense of civic pride and stewardship among its citizens (p. 3-4).

Here Castro and Echeverrí forward several curious ideas. One is that desirable socialities like inclusivity and stewardship are produced through spatial form. Another is that a sociotechnical object as heterogeneous and complex as a BRT system is form—a channel that opens or closes the city—and that we can know its social effects simply by tracing its shape. And yet another is that these social transformations would be as durable and permanent as form itself.

The Lessons of Modernism
Calling out physical determinism and/or embracing concepts like context, multiplicity and uncertainty (as postmodern planning theory has) does not quite deal with the problem of material agency. I have suggested that the formal imagination in urban design might provide a firm basis for physical determinisms still manifest in the field’s discourse. Yet after modernism’s demise, rather than to inquire into form or devise a new theory of the built environment, planning theory shifted its gaze towards the problem of choice. Of the three major lines of critique that emerged from the disappointments of the era—critiques of blueprint (total) planning, of lack of public consultation, and of physical determinism—planning theory has pursued the second most vigorously, exploring democratic and decision theory in the last decades (Taylor 1998).

In Great Planning Disasters (1982), for example, Peter Hall seeks to account for a series of iconic failures in urbanism. He asks: Why do experts make bad choices and carry forward troubled projects? What is fascinating is that, as Hall himself points out, most of his cases are large-scale transportation systems. Hall could equally have asked: What is it about transportation systems as complex socio-technical entities that frustrates efforts at implementation and governance? In other words, this move toward questions of choice in planning theory implied, perhaps inadvertently, that if the right players and the right procedures had decided on spatial interventions, they would perform according to our initial plans. But what if the problem lies more in the way that infrastructural objects exist, or in the way we imagine them to exist, and less in the procedures that are employed to choose them?

Take the tragic history of the Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex in St. Louis, Missouri. Just two decades after it was constructed, this Modernist utopia of clean apartment living turned into a more troubled version of the concentrated poverty it sought to replace. It was so troubled that it was demolished dramatically in 1972, marking for many observers the death of planning’s modern era. The lesson of Pruitt-Igoe could be that planners made horrible, undemocratic, context-ignorant choices. It could be that uncertainty makes planning impossible. But a recent documentary film on the fate of Pruitt-Igoe (Friedrichs 2012), at least, strongly suggests that Pruitt-Igoe could be usefully understood, and perhaps learned from, as an object story—that is, as an empirically traceable series of events happening “inside and out” of an infrastructural element that transform it over time (Latour & Yaneva 2008). No one, as it turned out, planned the nuts and bolts of how the project would be physically maintained. While Pruitt-Igoe planners anticipated continuing demand for city living, the U.S. national government was initiating a blatantly racist housing policy that pushed whites and their money out into exclusive suburbs, leaving inner cities to fend for themselves.

TransMilenio represented from above, as a form, and a citizen’s re-interpretation of the system’s geography. Source:

Object stories are the heart of the field of philosophy of technology (Verbeek 2010). The field offers a myriad of intellectual resources that design could borrow from, but the basic idea would be to envision—and more difficult, to represent—built environment objects as shifting socio-technical embroilments rather than stable containers. Following this view, the fate of a park, a building, or a bus system is not given in its design. It emerges spontaneously at the nexus of the human and the material as it is reproduced through everyday practice. One cannot look at a design rendering and “read” its social character from its aesthetics and clean lines. One cannot know the social power of an object by asking its creators what they intended them to achieve, as Bogotá’s documentarians did. These are not commonplace ideas in urbanism, but neither are they novel. Design scholar Aseem Inam (2013), for example, emphasizes the changeability of urban objects and wants to see interventions judged by their actual effects rather than by intentions. Planner and designer Jan Gehl (2011) is well known for his meticulous social-scientific research into what particular public spaces actually compel people to do in “real life.”

In my research on TransMilenio, I find it useful to understand three factors as fully constitutive of the infrastructure itself: temporality (aging, breakdown and maintenance), social infrastructure (arrangements for planning, building, financing and governance) and use (how it is taken-up in everyday life). Like Pruitt-Igoe, TransMilenio demonstrates how material deterioration affects perception and use. Sliding glass doors that once smoothly parted for approaching buses are now pried open by passengers. Alternatively, the doors remain permanently ajar, allowing droves of commuters to sneak onto the system in plain sight. The tumultuous dynamics of electoral politics also create inhospitable conditions for TransMilenio to thrive. TransMilenio was so well branded that it became closely associated with the political legacy of Mayor Peñalosa; seeking to cement their own legacies, subsequent mayors have not invested in it. The form of the system has had little effect, as TransMilenio is now associated with precisely the maladies (crime, fear, uncitizenly conduct, government ineptitude) that its inclusive geometry was supposed to reverse. What once looked like the future—TransMilenio! Into the new millennium!—now looks distinctly like the past.

The complete object story of TransMilenio is impossible to tell in a blog post. Perhaps nothing substantial would come of the exercise, as we would conclude that the system, like any infrastructural object, is irreducibly unique. But who knows? What if, after the dust settled on Pruitt-Igoe, planning and design had taken a different direction and started cataloguing, comparing and creatively representing the sociotechnical fates of built environment objects? We might now have a healthy archive of infrastructural lives that informs city-building. As it is, spatial planning maintains scant resources to support long-term evaluation of its own interventions (Oliveira & Pinho 2010). The story of Bogotá’s transformation spins the globe as if nothing had changed, as if the city were stuck in a frozen smile. My hope is that urbanism will learn that Bogotá is not a good exemplar of the “power” of urban design. Rather, the city’s story reflects an underdeveloped understanding of the very built environment that we imagine will resolve our social and ecological maladies.

Castro, L. & Echeverri, A. (2011). Bogotá and Medellín: Architecture and Politics. Architectural Design, 81(3), 96-103.
Dávila, J. D. (2004). La transformación de Bogotá. In Cepeda Ulloa, F. (Ed), Fortalezas de Colombia. Ariel and Banco Interamericano de Desarrollo (p. 417-39).
Freidrichs, C. (Director). (2011). The Pruitt-Igoe Myth [Motion picture on DVD].
Gehl, J. (2011). Life between buildings: using public space. Island Press.
Hall, P. G. (1982). Great planning disasters (Vol. 1). Univ of California Press.
Inam, A. (2013). Designing Urban Transformation. Routledge.
Latour, B., & Yaneva, A. (2008). Give me a gun and I will make all buildings move: An ANT’s view of architecture. In Geiser, R., & für Kultur, S. B. (Eds), Explorations in Architecture: Teaching, Design, Research (80-89).
Leguía, M. (2011). Latin America at the crossroads. Architectural Design, 81(3), 8-15.
Montgomery, C. (2013). Happy city: transforming our lives through urban design. Macmillan.
Oliveira, V., & Pinho, P. (2010). Evaluation in urban planning: Advances and prospects. Journal of Planning Literature, 24(4), 343-361.
Sánchez, Ángela. (2010, January). Social Urbanism: The Metamorphosis of Medellín. Barcelona Metropolis. Retrieved from
Taylor, N. (1998). Urban Planning Theory Since 1945. Sage.
Verbeek, P. P. (2010). What things do: Philosophical reflections on technology, agency, and design. Penn State Press.


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