Case Study: The Zebra Program (La Paz, Bolivia)

2018-06-18 00:00:00

Augusto Mathias / National Confederation of Municipalities of Brazil

La Paz was a winner of the 3rd Guangzhou International Award for Urban Innovation in 2016. This study tour took place during August 17th and 18th, 2017.

In 2001, the Municipal Government of La Paz began a process of reflection to design a tool for the transit restriction part of the road plan, and that in turn created an opportunity to invest in road education. The review of the chaotic situation of vehicular traffic and the lack of respect for pedestrian crosswalks in the city resulted in a creative idea to develop a ‘zebra’ character based on the crosswalk stripes. They dressed as zebras to motivate citizens to improve their behavior on streets, as pedestrians or drivers, particularly in a city like La Paz, where streets are narrow.

By using youth dressed as zebras as a tool for road safety, the zebras gained the acceptance of citizens and became a kind presence that transformed the city.


Despite the initial scepticism about the possibility of changing dangerous traffic habits into harmonious and safe coexistence, and the possibility that an external element could generate behavior change.

The Zebra experience provides compelling evidence and lessons that social behaviors and habits can indeed be transformed and, that the exercise of authority is not necessarily based on a “top-down” or “control attitude” but can be the result of interaction and open communication.

The Zebras participated in the processes of construction and transformation of the city and their position became the articulating element between the Municipality and the population, showing the Municipalities commitment to improving the quality of life of its citizens. The role the articulator of the Zebras is not only due to their daily presence in the streets and to the fact that their image and language generate attitudes of affection; it is above all due to the capacity of the Zebras to educate by example, and in its potential to motivate and mobilize people.


The birth of the Zebras program is a result of the convergence of three situations: 

  • Implementation of the Traffic Plan, Transportation and Roads; 

  • Interest of working on a program that replicates the experience of Bogota to teach people to cross the street with alternative artistic resources; and

  • Possibility of counting on resources of the National Electoral Court (CNE) for public education.

In April 2001, The Technical Office, through its Road Systems Department, in coordination with the Operational Transit, Citizen Traffic and Transportation Council, developed the " Traffic, Transport and Road Plan for La Paz".

The objective of this initiative was to reduce the issues of traffic and transportation in the city, the reduction of pollution of the environment and improve quality of life in the city. The first Phase was the intervention of the Central Urban Center, for the improvement of the signalization vertical and horizontal, rehabilitation of the stop lights system, rationalization of public transportation and public parking, traffic restriction and regulation of informal commerce in the roadways.

Inspired by Bogota's experience of teaching people to cross the street with pampering and clowns and artists on the streets, the Mayor's Office, the Communication Directorate, and the Youth Unit looked for the opportunity to replicate this initiative. At that time, the Court National Electoral Commission (CNE) informed the municipality that it had resources to allocate to civic education. However, to replicate the Colombian experience, the Youth Unit did not have the necessary budget, so it proposed to create partnerships to work with street youth and students, a strategy that previously had positive results.

As an initiative of citizen education and as a vehicle restriction tool of the Road Plan, the so-called Road Education Campaign began its work in the main streets of the center of the city of La Paz. On November 19, 2001, a group of young people dressed in costumes representing a four-legged zebra, began their activities in the streets. At this early stage, the team responsible for the initiative was given the task of recruiting young men from the street who wanted to wear the zebra suit. The first recruits were some young people of the Association of Shoeshine-workers of the Plaza San Francisco and others assigned to distribute leaflets on the city center.

They organized a group of 24 young people, in two two-hour shifts: from 8 to 10 in the morning and from 2 to 4 in the afternoon. At this early stage, the young Zebra tasks in the streets and avenues of the city center, orienting themselves into group interventions in certain areas. The first suit represented a zebra of four legs, which was worn by two young men, one stood forward and the other crouched. The material of the suit was a thick cloth, of fleece type, in which black stripes were painted to resemble a zebra.

The characteristics of the suit and the lack of residents understanding of the work carried out by the zebras caused them to suffer aggression from the population.

In the beginning, interactions with drivers involved rejection, aggression, insults and blows to the Zebras. Zebras not only experienced an aggressive relationship with drivers but also with other young people who bothered and mistreated them. Despite the sometimes aggressive reaction of drivers and pedestrians, children, crossing with their parents, supported and promoted the crosswalks with Zebras. Some youth groups, such as Adventist scouts and the junior Rotary Business Association, which became involved in some Zebras activities.

During the first months of implementation of the Road Education Campaign, the Zebra showed the capacity to contribute to the life of the young people through rebuilding their self-esteem. On two occasions, young people felt the validation of their presence when a public ovation that was given to them in a celebration where they received their bonuses in the city stadium on December 24, 2001.  These situations allowed young people to feel that regardless of their economic, family or personal circumstances they could be the ones who educate people.

In April 2002, the Road Education Campaign led by the Zebra Youths was reinitiated, expanding the coverage of intervention. For the year 2003, the young Zebra accompanied the second phase of the vehicle restriction and the use of the crosswalks. During this period, the young people decided to enter the Program mainly motivated by the need to receive a benefit that will enable them to continue studying, and the desire to do something for their city.

The population of the young Zebras comprised of 18 years old in a situation of risk and that needing work. Taking into account the characteristics of the people, the delivery of benefits to the youth was a constant challenge. In 2003, the monthly delivery of benefits and medical care to the young Zebras was institutionalized in a partnership between the municipality and the Rainbow Foundation. Also, in 2003, the first modifications were made to the four-legged suit, becoming an individual zebra suit. It was plush overalls with a front closure and shirt collar, with the body a jumpsuit, and the head was of sponge with big red or green eyes.

During the period 2001-2003, the central theme that the young Zebra works were the roadway, focusing on the demonstration of the pedestrian crossing and the accompaniment to the first and second phase of vehicular restriction, as well as the use of stopping points. The guidance given to young people to act was limited to recommendations related to road and pedestrian crossing. At this early stage, the evaluation of the performance of the young people’s was limited to compliance with the internal regulations regarding assists, faults and permits. The young people organized themselves in a campaign to manage their participation and prioritise the well-being of the youth in fulfilling their task in the streets.

During the period 2001-2003, the preparation of the Zebra Youth was restricted to recommendations related to road and pedestrian crossing. As of 2004, it was recognised that to carry out their task on the street, young people required prior preparation in signage, body language and performing arts.

The Small Theater Group designed a workshop of physical expression and theatrical arts with the aim that the young Zebra’s necessary knowledge and self-knowledge be better managed in the streets. The workshops provide the Zebras with the tools, attitude, body gestures and language to be more effective communicators. Scenic routines were developed that represented daily events of the city were presented during by the Zebras while stop lights were red. 

The character of the Zebra displayed a message that then captured the attention and generated a reaction from residents. Following this, the role of the Zebras expanded into schools and cultural events.

After this process, the Municipality institutionalized the program and its changes incorporating the process into policies of promotion, training, conservation and restoration and dissemination of both the cultural heritage of a resident culture and the promotion of the exercise of residents' rights and obligations to generate sustainable development based on principles of inclusion, intercultural, democratization, diversity and transparency.

At this point, was decided that the character of the Zebra, would be given the name of Urban Educator, and that began to give importance to the professional and artistic preparation of young people. Eventually, the youth were organized in two shifts to take advantage of the time of their actions and for them to have the opportunity to organize their time and could continue their studies and it was recognized that to carry out an effective action young people should learn to observe their actions proactively.

During the daily encounters, the Zebras and Zebra Team reviewed the activities of the day, identified what had worked and what had not, and selected the most successful strategies. In this process of continuous review through an open dialogue, the Zebras became a team capable of using the tool of observation for their work; also, they met their mission. The practice of open dialogue was the first step towards teamwork and towards a form of organization that was flexible tools to deal with the perceptions and attitudes of the public. Until that time, the role of the Zebras had not been understood by Municipal officials. Gradually they became perceived by the Municipality as a link and buffer in the municipal-residents government relationship. Also, the Zebras managed to change the perception and reaction of the population ceasing to be an enforcement presence, to being an educator who looks out for the well-being of the public.


The Zebra experience presents lessons that behaviors and habits of urban inhabitants can be transformed through interaction and open communication.

The Zebra goes beyond traditional education practices where children and young people are passive actors and recipients of knowledge. The Zebra turns young people into co-creators, protagonists of urban change, and responsible citizens. The Zebra confirms the possibility of educating through example and performing arts to transform emotions and behaviors. The Zebra shows that all urban spaces can be educational and that with creativity alternatives can be constructed to find different ways of engaging the population.

The program receives support from the private sector through several ways and sometimes participating in the “Zebra for one day” program, which is currently ongoing, has been a way for employers and employees in the private sector to actively participate in the campaign and raise awareness on various topics and themes.  Also, many private firms have offered financial support for specific activities designed for the Zebras. Without a doubt, one of the biggest outcomes of the Zebra has been and continues to be the mobilisation of youth at risk and the corresponding reduction in illegal activities. In essence, every young resident joining the program becomes a new human being who gains dignity, a sense of purpose and the desire to contribute to society.


A growing number of residents living and cars circulating in the city are two significant challenges, due to high immigration rates from the rural areas. Migrants often do not know most of the rules related to traffic and other social activities and thus tend to “misbehave”. That is why the innovation still needs to reinforce even the most basic ideas it promotes. The risk of over-exposing the zebras is also present, but fortunately, the coaching team keeps finding innovative ways to revitalize the image of the program to keep it fresh and friendly.


The innovation is applied in policy implementation, mobility strategy of the city and, as the program evolves, as part of an ambitious residents culture and participation strategy. The Zebras Program will remain an essential tool for improving mobility in the city despite an ever-growing number of cars that circulate within the city, but also support many other city campaigns related to social and environmental objectives, such as taking care of the elderly or learning how to recycle garbage.

Improving the behavior of the residents on the street and public spaces in general, leads to lower levels of traffic incidents and increase in the levels of happiness within the city. It has been demonstrated that residents react positively to the friendly and creative messages given by the zebras, thus building new patterns of behavior.

Lessons Learned

The methodology developed by the Municipality to transform vulnerable young residents into urban educators with high impact in the society has evolved to become a trademark of the institution, called “The Transformational Zebra Methodology”.

It has inspired young people with troubled childhoods to realize themselves and to visualize and realize a life-program, a new attitude towards life and new tools and confidence in interacting with people, such as drivers and pedestrians every day. This methodology is being replicated by primary school teachers of the city.

The Zebras Program is a human innovation regarding the implementation of public policy aiming to solve at least two human problems seen every day: 

  1. Vulnerable youth at the verge of becoming delinquents or falling into drugs, with no apparent life direction in sight; and 

  2. Low levels of resident culture and participation among the city´s population.

Given its remarkable success over the years, currently, there is no municipal event without a group of zebras bringing joy and laughter to the residents of all ages. Many children often ask to have the Zebras as the main entertainment at their birthday parties, with traffic education and responsibility the main topics they promote in such events.

Many young Zebras of 15 years ago are now fine women and men, with stable jobs and who now have their own families and, in some, cases have opted to pursue higher education. Every one of them is a life story that deserves to be told as a way to inspire the new generations who are suffering similar challenges in their lives.

Motivated by their friendly approach and the transformational methodology they apply to drive behavioral changes; even the most reluctant residents will end up smiling and following the recommendations and advice offered by the zebras.


The zebra initiative was a local innovation which, in turn, has been borrowed by some other cities in Bolivia and Latin-America over the last few years. To the best of our knowledge, it was the first of its type back in 2001 and the fact that it considered not only people disguised as zebras but actors with a social purpose, made it even more revolutionary.

Through the look and experience of a city that for more than a decade has started the process of cultural transformation, it was asserted that the cultural change towards a better coexistence in the city is a possible ideal. The cultural shift of La Paz is a construction possible because it is guided by the educational impulse of the Zebras who assume the culture residents as a way of being, of living and living together.

The history of the Zebras is the story of the transformation of the lives of thousands of youth at risk committed to the profound transformation of their lives and their city.

The history of the Zebras inspires all of us to be better residents. It is also an invitation to truly engage in transforming the city of La Paz, the transformation of our way of being, and living together.

The Zebras of La Paz are recognized in other municipalities, and now they are starting to be known across the world.

The Zebra program makes institutional agreements to replicate the program as closely as possible to what the zebra philosophy implies; they also maintain contact with these cities to know how the program is progressing.

Among the follow-up activities carried out by the Municipal Government, there is training and meetings between cities so that volunteers can share and grow as a group at the national level.

The Zebras have transcended borders and set out to conquer other cities like in Germany, Spain, Costa Rica and China.

The Zebra program not only helps them in traffic in Bolivia, but many of the people in those outfits also need the job. It is an opportunity to put their lives back on track and give something back to the city.

Seeing them in action inspires, the seniors appreciate their attention, the children run to embrace them, and young people ask for selfies. Also, many laugh out loud when they see the performances of the characters: they dance, stand in front of moving minibuses, or encourage pedestrians to pass at the right time.

Due to the interest in the program by residents, tourists, a club called Zebra Club was created. Even the mayor of La Paz, Luis Revilla, also participated in the program, to express his pride for the youth and recognize that it is a work of sacrifice in dealing with the weather and heat, but also with passersby and drivers.

The registration is free. The only requirement is to receive training to know the zebra philosophy, basic rules and recommendations to operate in the midst of the traffic.

The opportunity to live the experience of being an educator through the Zebra program for a day, which enables all residents interested in wearing striped skin and out to the streets for an hour.

The Club, which allows the participants to contribute to the city with social work in nursing homes, hospitals, schools and other public spaces.

So far, hundreds of residents have carried out reforestation, classroom cleaning and recreational programs for older adults, among other tasks.

In fact, the greatest impact of the Zebras characters is the impact they produce in children, who run to embrace them and tell their parents not to cross when the traffic light is red or not to thrown garbage in the streets, because said by a zebra, either on the street or in one of the workshops in the schools.

La Paz for its response to a “very serious challenge” confronting cities worldwide—the subordination of pedestrians to cars—with “great humor and understanding,” and said they hoped the project might inspire “more civilized streets” around the world.