Now you know I worry and stress about many things in life, but there are two I really couldn’t give a damn about – cellphones and cars. My phone frequently endures being called ‘hipster’, ‘a brick’ or ‘flecha’ by my friends because it rings like, er, a telephone and it’s never heard of facebook, much less Instagram.
Similarly, I haven’t owned a car in years and have no interest in them. Offer me a choice between a puppy and a Ferrari and I wouldn’t have to think about it. When was the last time a Ferrari welcomed anyone home?
But I appreciate not everyone feels the same way I do – my ex-boyfriend once called me “demasiado sencilla” or “far too simple”, which is the weirdest insult ever, right? – and, besides, I get to enjoy the sight of other people’s cars every day. Puns aside, it drives me crazy.
Ask any Bogotano the worst thing about this town and they’ll tell you the ‘traffic’. Then ask them if they own a car. Sometimes, without the faintest trace of irony, they’ll tell you they have two.
Two cars? I hear you splutter. What city dweller needs two cars? Well for those uninitiated in the intricate beauty of Bogotá, the reason they have two cars is to avoid a lovely little law called ‘Pico y Placa’.
Pico y Placa decrees that for two days a week you are not allowed to use your car. A clever little machine reads your number plate and if it catches you using your car on the two days you are supposed to rely on your legs, a bike, a taxi, a bus or TransMilenio – Bogotá’s overland metro – it fines you. Of course, if you have two cars you get to juggle your number plates and sit in traffic every single day, complaining about how awful it is.
Now considering you have to be comparatively wealthy to afford two cars in this town, I’m going to take a vague stab that fining these dodgy double dealers isn’t going to make the slightest bit of difference. Instead, I think it’s high time we reincarnated the spirit of Antanas Mockus’ mayorship and started emotionally blackmailing them into action.
For this, I present you with two examples. The first, courtesy of that fabulous Freakonomics duo, Messrs Levitt and Dubner, looks at the moral behaviour of nursery school parents in Israel.
Concerned that a few parents were occasionally late collecting their children from nursery, a group of economists decided to test what would happen if those parents were fined around $400 a month for their tardiness. And what did happen? The number of children collected late actually increased. That’s right. By substituting the moral obligation to collect their child on time with a way for the parent to ‘pay off’ their guilt, the economists made it easier for the parents to behave badly.
The same thing happened in Switzerland when researchers were looking into the creation of nuclear waste dumps. Astonishingly, 50% of people asked said they would be willing to have such a disposal in their neighbourhood. Even though they understood the risks, they also realised that the dump had to go somewhere. But when the same population were asked if they would accept an annual payment, equivalent to six weeks wages, in return for living near the dump, only 25% agreed.
It seems the moral obligation to serve your community – in short, to ‘do the right thing’ – has a far greater pull than cold hard cash (and I stole that example from the brilliant Barry Schwartz, so thank you)
One of my friends has two cars so he can avoid Pico y Placa. “How am I supposed to know what the spirit of the law is?” he said when I challenged him. Another time I was in a bar in the Zona T when a guy happened to mention he did the same. “Am I really supposed to use public transport?” he spluttered, astonished.
The trouble is, our public transport can be a pain. The bus drivers can be terrible, the seats too small, the aisles too cramped, the buses too infrequent, the cycleways obstructed, the pavements cracked.
Yet I remain convinced that rich Bogotanos are the very people who could change all that (and by the way sweetheart, you are not stuck in traffic, you are the traffic)
I’ve been called a ‘Champagne Socialist’ and a ‘Limousine Leftie’ more times that I can count (I don’t mind too much about the champagne but I resent the limousine bit because, er, I hate cars) but joking aside I have always believed that privileged people are the best placed to effect social change. Often poorer people have too many personal struggles and not enough opportunities, access to education or time to oversee revolutions, cultural, political or otherwise. You only have to look at your history books to see how many revolutionaries came from the middle classes.
Even our lovely Pedro Claver – who fought so valiantly and practically for the rights of slaves arriving on those 17th century ships to Cartagena – was a graduate who’d been born into a wealthy farming family. As we know, he not only treated sick slaves and gave them food and hope – he also wouldn’t shut up about their struggle. The poor old slaves weren’t being cowardly by contrast, they just weren’t in the same position to do something about their plight.
I think if we combined the political weight, brains and wealth of the upper echelons of our society they could build us a metro to the bloody moon if we wanted. But instead they sit behind the wheels of whatever vehicle they are using to cheat the system and grumble about the bikes, buses and other cars that are blocking their path. Well it’s time we stopped threatening their finances and started appealing to their moral fibre.
The only question is… how?
Like this? You’ll love Colombia a comedy of errors.