Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)

1995

Mayor of Bogotá uses street theatre to educate drivers and pedestrians

Prior to 1995, the city of Bogotá, Colombia, used to have high rates of accidents when pedestrians tried to cross the streets at intersections. Many times drivers would not pay attention to stop signs or to red lights, and when they stopped, the cars would often be positioned right on the intersection, obstructing the path of crossing pedestrians and even other cars, with the ensuing traffic chaos and potential danger. Also, many pedestrians did not cross the streets at the assigned corners but randomly at any place on the street causing deadly accidents weekly. Before 1995, crossing a street in Bogotá, as a pedestrian or as a driver, sometimes was more an adventure than a normal act.

That year, the newly elected mayor of Bogotá, a 42 year-old philosopher, mathematician and university professor named Antanas Mockus, recognized that previous attempts to address this issue had not been successful because of their exclusive focus on punishment, and decided to shift the emphasis towards education. With this approach in mind, Mockus developed a creative idea to deal with drivers and pedestrians. Instead of castigating them with a ticket or with a mandatory course on traffic rules, he thought that it would be more effective to educate them right there in the intersections at the moment the infraction was committed.

Then, from July to October of 1995, Bogotá City Hall hired four hundred young actors and students of dramatic arts. Their work was to dress and act as mimes, illustrating the chaos and the danger produced by the actions of drivers and pedestrians, and showing them good civic behavior. The mimes were always sure that there was a public around to witness and applaud the good behavior and to laugh at their mimicking of bad behavior.

In order to teach pedestrians to cross at the designated places, and to teach drivers to stop at the stop signs, City Hall employed mimes, professional policemen, young auxiliary policemen and “virtual policemen”. The virtual policemen were big folding screens posted in strategic corners with drawings of policemen’s faces and very small windows from which a real policeman could sometimes witness the streets. It was difficult for the drivers to verify if there was a real policeman behind the screen or not.

The experiment started one early morning at several intersections of 19th Avenue, one of the busiest streets in Bogotá. One of the intersections in particular, at 19th Avenue and 7th Street had zebra-like stripes painted by their stop signs. When a car didn’t stop or stopped on the stripes, suddenly a mime appeared to mimic the bad behavior of the driver. The mimes, with faces painted in white, black outfits, and white gloves, gave instructions to the drivers and pedestrians on how to respect the conventional traffic signs without using a word, without force and without punishment. If the driver failed to move the car from the zebra-stripes, there was a police waiting to intervene. Often citizens would start to applaud the mimes, and even the policemen when they appeared at the appropriate moment. The legal fine was the last measure. The first step was the pedagogical sequence of events that taught the more than ten million residents of the city to enjoy a more peaceful, respectful and organized urban life.

Mockus believed that the shame of not being perceived as a good citizen by the community was an effective pedagogical tool to nurture good civic behavior. In addition to this particular campaign related to the zebra-like strips and the respect for traffic rules, the mimes included public education messages to reduce littering, and to help seniors and disabled citizens cross the street. With drama, humor and shame as educational tools, citizens were the judges of the actions of their neighbours. After four months of working in these two important arteries of Bogotá, the mimes went to work in another nineteen intersections of the city.

There is a story of a Bogotanian driver that one day asked the mayor why bother with these pedagogical issues about stopping behind the zebra-like strips, if not all of the streets in Bogotá had the black and white strips. Mockus answered: “The lines are not marked on the asphalt, but in the minds of all of us”. Arturo Guerrero, an well-known Colombian journalist, noted that this story summarizes Antanas Mockus’ philosophy. More than constructing an asphalt city, he wanted to build a spiritual metropolis in the psyche of its citizens.

Did this pedagogical effort make a difference? According to a technical study undertaken by Bogotá City Hall and published by the Inter-American Development Bank, before the the beginning of the campaign (July 1995) only 26% of drivers and pedestrians respected conventional traffic signs. A few months after the campaign, in 1996, this percentage rose to 75%. The study also noted that as a result of these efforts, drivers and pedestrians alike improved their civic behavior, had more adherence to traffic rules, and showed more solidarity and respect for others. As Mayor of Bogotá, Antanas Mockus implemented many other creative pedagogical projects that embrace art, humor and imagination.

For instance, also in 1995, he undertook a campaign to reduce the number of guns in the street. For the Christmas season of that year, Mockus made public the high percentage of homicides committed with guns in Bogotá: 73%.  Under the motto “That all guns rest in peace for this Christmas”, the City Hall started a campaign of voluntary disarmament. The industrial community of the city, and the international community through embassies, supported the campaign by giving Christmas gift bonuses to the citizens that voluntarily delivered their guns, ammunition and grenades. Some citizens didn’t ask anything in return for their weapons. The 2,538 guns that the City Hall collected were melted and the metal was used to produce thousands of spoons for children. Each spoon had the inscription: “I was a gun”. This campaign contributed to a noticeable reduction in the number of homicides, from 397 in 1995 to 291 in 1996. By 1997, the percentage of violent deaths had come down to 25% in comparison to 1996. A recent new study, in November of 2003, released by the National Department of Statistics (DANE) from Colombia, showed that the percentages of homicides have kept the same low rates for the years 2002 and 2003.

Antanas Mockus was a mayor that was aware of the pedagogical potential or cities, and made a conscious effort to educate the citizens of Bogotá on several issues through creative and imaginative projects. Mockus was Mayor of Bogotá twice, first from 1995 to 1997, and later from 2001 to 2003.

Sources:

Mockus, A.(2001) Cultura Ciudadana, programa contra la violencia en Santa Fe de Bogotá, Colombia, 1995-1997. Estudio Técnico. Reference Number: SOC-127 Washington: Publicaciones de la División de Desarrollo Social. Banco Interamericano de Desarrollo 1300 New York Av. N.W. Washington D.C. 20577. http://www.iadb.org/sds/soc 

DANE, 2003. Departamento Administrativo Nacional de Estadísticas. “Bajan Índices de Violencia en Colombia. Bogotá, Colombia. Comunicado de Prensa del estudio realizado sobre los Índices de Violencia en Colombia. Noviembre 23, 2003. In the CEPAL Press Release to Subscribed Journalists. Comunicado de Prensa de la CEPAL (Comisión Económica para la América Latina).  

Prepared by Luisa Fernanda Quijano(OISE/UT, 2003)

Editor's Note:

If you are interested in the innovative pedagogical approach to city governance of Antanas Mockus, you will enjoy the article 'Academic turns city into a social experiment: Mayor Mockus of Bogotá and his spectacularly applied theory', by María Cristina Caballero, published in the March 11, 2004 issue of the Harvard University Gazette. Available online at: http://www.news.harvard.edu/gazette/2004/03.11/01-mockus.html 

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