BBC Autos

Other Side of the Road

The successful anti-gridlock scheme of Colombia

In Colombian cities, congestion is mitigated by a plate-number system. (Benjamin Preston)

In Colombian cities, congestion is mitigated by a plate-number system. (Benjamin Preston)

Most drivers in metropolitan areas are inured to grueling slogs through rush-hour traffic.

To combat congestion, their transportation authorities have typically wielded three tools: designating high-occupancy vehicle lanes, instituting congestion fees and, in the case of Japan, waging wars of attrition against motorists via exorbitant vehicle-inspection fees.

But in the Colombian cities of Medellin and Bogota, officials have been using old-fashioned authoritarianism to lower congestion since 1998.

The literal translation of Pico y Placa is "Peak and Plaque", and the programme is essentially a means of barring certain vehicles from roads during peak traffic hours on weekdays. In Bogotá, if a car's plate ends in an odd digit, it is restricted on odd-numbered days of the month from 6:00 to 8:30, and also from 15:00 to 19:30. Vehicles with plates ending in an even number are barred during the same hours on even-numbered dates. There is a further set of rules governing taxis and buses.

There are no restrictions on weekends, and none in the capital city's southern section -- an area where motorists would be ill-advised to travel on any day of the week. Medellín has a similar setup.

Tickets for violations are steep by Colombian standards – 283,400 Colombian pesos, about $160 by current exchange rates, and much more if a car is towed from a main avenue. Short of buying another car with a different number at the end of its plate, which some affluent citizens do, there is quite simply no way to circumvent Pico y Placa.

Such congestion-reduction schemes are not exclusive to Colombia, though. Mexico City has a similar number-plate lottery called Hoy No Circula (which roughly translates to “no driving today”), instituted primarily to curb the notorious air pollution of the megalopolis, and has been modestly successful. In the aftermath of “superstorm” Sandy, New York adopted a stripped-down version of Pico y Placa, in which single-occupancy vehicles were barred from bridges and tunnels, and motorists’ ability to purchase fuel was contingent on a plate-number system. Once the city’s subway began rolling again, the high-occupancy requirements were lifted, and as soon as tankers were able to deliver gasoline, the filling-station restrictions went away.

Entrenched opposition to Pico y Placa-like programmes would likely prevent them from getting traction in more developed democracies, and as Colombia's economy expands, the mayor of Bogotá has rattled sabres about discontinuing the city’s effort. It certainly has had its place, having prevented already congested roadways from becoming perpetually gridlocked. But the law’s inclusion of taxis and buses, as well as the difficulty it causes car-dependent commuters, has made the din of dissent too difficult for officials to ignore.

Already suspended during the Christmas holiday season for the past several years, the plate-based system is losing favour to a London-like congestion-pricing regime, whose funds would be funnelled into expanding public transportation.

As Colombian cities develop more ways for people to get from A to B, Pico y Placa itself may find its days are numbered.