In 2001, the City of La Paz launched the Zebra project as a citizen education programme involving at-risk youth between the ages of 16 and 22. Participants dress in Zebra costumes and masks and with a mixture of singing, dancing, and calisthenics assist pedestrians and guide motorists to obey the road rules and regulations. The programme aims to raise public awareness about road safety and to reduce the number of infractions committed by drivers and pedestrians alike (e.g. not respecting crossings, ignoring traffic lights and getting on and off public transport between stations). In exchange for their engagement as civic educators, participants are paid the minimum wage, provided with free health care benefits and have access to further education and professional mentorship.
Beginning with 24 participants, the project currently involves 300 zebras every year. To date, more than 3000 young citizens have taken part in the programme. Their presence on the roads is resulting in less traffic congestion and fewer accidents, and provides them with a unique opportunity to become active and responsible citizens with the incentive to overcome a number of personal challenges relating to drugs, delinquency and other illegal activities. The impact of this initiative has been mostly local but is now spreading to other cities across Bolivia as well as to other countries in Latin America. The transformational nature of the programme lies in its friendly and comic dimension and innovative manner of public engagement. Young people are given a meaningful role in society, which both empowers them and affords them with respect and dignity. They are provided with employment and educational opportunities and, as a result, many of the participants have continued their education and found jobs while some have pursued higher education qualifications (source: Technical Committee of the Guangzhou Award).
La Paz, officially known as Nuestra Senora de La Paz is the administrative capital and the third most populous city in Bolivia. At an elevation of approximately 3,660m (11,975ft) above sea level, the city is located in west-central Bolivia and is crowded into a long narrow valley cut by the La Paz River.
The population of La Paz has increased rapidly in the last decades, largely as a result of rural exodus. Consequently, the number of cars circulating on La Paz roads has grown significantly resulting in major traffic congestion and chaotic circulation. Furthermore, a large number of the city’s population commute by walking or packing into the hundreds of un-regulated mini-buses that criss-cross the steep and narrow streets.
The Zebra programme was inspired by an initiative launched in Bogotá in 1990 by former mayor Antanas Mockus, a philosopher and mathematician. The city employed mimes on the roads to ridicule car drivers breaking traffic rules and regulations. Mockus’ theory being that car drivers would respond more readily to mockery than punishment. During his tenure, traffic fatalities decreased by 50% in the city.
The Zebras’ concept derives from the nickname given in Spanish as well as in English to a striped crosswalk: paso de cebra, or zebra crossing. In the beginning, a four-footed zebra suit was provided for two people to inhabit at the same time. The outfit for the zebras has evolved to a two-footed zebra suit adapted for one person at a time.
The goals of the initiative are twofold:
- Improving citizens’ behavior on the streets and public spaces, either as pedestrians or drivers, leading to lower levels of traffic incidents and increasing the overall level of satisfaction among citizens. The programme has successfully demonstrated that citizens react positively to the friendly and creative messages from the Zebras, thus building new patterns of behavior.
- Reduce the number of young citizens involved in illegal activities. Through its programme, the city intends to provide improved life prospects to a growing number of youth who, after having been condemned to poverty, family violence or an orphanage, are more vulnerable to succumb to various illegal activities. Every young citizen joining the program actively contributes to society. The project encourages friendship and learning for at-risk youth.
The Zebras are hired by the City of La Paz on a part-time basis and are paid the minimum legal wage and provided with free health insurance benefits. Local youth organizations working with vulnerable youth groups play an important role in the recruitment of participants for the programme.
At the beginning of their mandate, the Zebras are trained over a period of two months in the transmission of civic values and traffic safety skills. Additionally, a professional mentorship program as well as tuition in nutrition, computing and self-esteem assists them in seeking future employment.
The project has been enthusiastically supported by the private sector. Through the “Zebra for one day” initiative, employees from the private sector can experience the role of a road Zebra for one day. Additionally, many private firms have offered financial support to specific activities designed for the Zebra programme.
The City of La Paz allocates a budget of more than Bs3 million (close to 500,000 US dollars) annually to employ and train citizens for the Zebra programme.
Launched over 15 years ago, the project has become a trademark of La Paz and a significant touristic attraction. To date, more than 3000 young people have participated in the project and gained new life experience as a result. More than 250 Zebras actively participate in the program every year. The City of La Paz considers the increasing number of participants and new applicants as a strong indicator of its sustainability. Likewise, the number of positive media reports and requests from the business sector to participate in the “Zebra for one day” initiative, support its impact and relevance to the community. The Zebras have become a friendly and ever-present personality for children in the city. Since the introduction of Zebras on the streets, car drivers have adopted more cautious and courteous behavior.
The scope of the Zebra’s work has expanded from the original platform of supervising pedestrian crossings and traffic lights to providing educational programmes in schools, and other public facilities.
The Zebra programme has commenced a partnership with the UK government’s international citizen service scheme to develop noise pollution reduction initiatives for classrooms and parks across the city.
A television show called “The Z”, showcasing the life of a young zebra and presenting him as a leader of his community, provides national visibility to the programme.
In May of 2014, the La Paz City Council declared the Zebra Project a cultural asset of the City (Municipal Law 119/2015).
After 15 years of operation, there is a risk of over-exposing the Zebras. The Zebras coaching team works to find innovative ways to revitalize the friendly image of the project such as Zebras helping to regulate traffic flow and mediate conflicts of car park usage.
The Zebra project is an innovative approach for traffic and pedestrian regulation in La Paz that has produced immediate changes in citizens’ attitudes and behavior.
After more than a decade of continuous work, the Zebras have evolved from supervising pedestrian crossings to urban educators involved in many areas of public service.
The Zebra initiative has been adopted by other cities in Bolivia and Latin-America.
Zebras: a Citizen Culture Project, Guangzhou Award for Urban Innovation, http://www.guangzhouaward.org/en/2016-12/29/c_66333.htm (accessed 21 March 2017)
The La Paz Zebras: Citizen culture project, Urban Innovation Database, http://www.urban-innovations.org/index.php/The_La_Paz_Zebras:_Citizen_culture_project (accessed 21 March 2017)
La Paz's beloved zebra crossing guards endure — here's what it's like to be one for a day, Travel.Mic, https://mic.com/articles/152718/la-paz-s-beloved-zebra-crossing-guards-endure-here-s-what-it-s-like-to-be-one-for-a-day#.uuMqCfMMS (accessed 21 March 2017)
Big in Bolivia: Zebras in the Streets, The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/03/zebras-in-the-streets/513836/ (accessed 21 March 2017)
“Zebras” direct traffic in La Paz, Citiscope, http://citiscope.org/citisignals/2014/zebras-direct-traffic-la-paz (accessed 21 March 2017)
Zebra-suited urbanists of Bolivia undeterred by hit-and-run death, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2014/aug/26/zebra-urbanists-bolivia-hit-run-death-road-safety (accessed 21 March 2017)