says Germán Escovar Álvarez. Trained in transportation at MIT, he’s an advisor to the secretary of mobility of the city. He explains that more cars and especially motorcycles are being bought in Bogotá: “Some people have long trips where public transport does not fully respond to their needs. In Latin America, as development and wealth increases, one of the first things people want is a car. That’s one of the things we’re concerned about. That’s why we’re investing in public transport, bike lanes and sidewalks. We have one of the largest bus electric grids in the world. But there are trends that are hard to reverse. And the national government is promoting clean vehicles aiming to foster employment and promote economic activity.”
In 1998, Pico y Placa (Peak and Plate) was launched, restricting car use during rush hours in the city centre, based on their licence plate and the day of the week. This worked for a while… until it backfired: people started buying a second vehicle to circumvent the restriction.
In 2020, a modified policy was introduced: Pico y Placa Solidario. Citizens can now buy a permit to drive without restrictions: prices start at 12 dollars for one day, 520 dollars for six months (in a country with a 250 dollar-minimum wage). Drivers can also waive the restriction for free if they share their cars with at least two other passengers.
“About 33,000 car owners are using the paid permit every day,” says Escovar. “That was the first time we started charging to drive. The money goes to public transport, so it is transferring funds from people who can afford the permit to the low-income population who use public transport. But people who drive have different levels of income. So, the fee for the permit isn’t fixed but depends on estimated emissions (engine size, type of fuel, year of manufacture), if a car is registered in Bogotá, and the commercial value of the car.
The restriction is now from 6am to 9pm. We will probably need to get rid of Pico y Placa at some point. But we’re approaching it step by step. In the long term, as we capture more information, we aim to charge according to the characteristics of each person, the characteristics of their cars and the use they give them. Therefore, usage should be measured in kilometers, not days.
So the city called for proposals to test systems that eliminate enforcement problems and explore new ways to reduce congestion. ClearRoad, a US-based transport and technology company, was one of the companies selected to run a pilot.
ParceGO: the pilot
“Initially, we came to Bogotá to demonstrate congestion pricing using plug-in devices,” says Frederic Charlier, who founded ClearRoad five years ago. He’s an automatics engineer with a business MBA who was the project manager of the first Oregon road usage charging program in 2015, and in France launched the tolling service ‘Bip&Go’, which now operates in Spain, Italy and Portugal too. “But the city’s secretary of transportation said it needed to be mobile phone based, because there realistically would be no way for them to install dongles in every vehicle.”
The traditional way of doing congestion pricing (as implemented in London and Stockholm) relies on cameras, which require a huge investment. “Those models only work in highly centralized megacities,” Charlier says.
Even Los Angeles wouldn’t be able to do that because the density in the city centre isn’t large enough to justify the infrastructure investment.