February 18, 2016

Transit concerns in Bogotá: is Bus Rapid Transit a victim of its own success?

Elyse O'Callaghan

Elyse O’Callaghan

The Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system in Bogotá, Colombia (the Transmilenio) is the largest, fastest, and generally one of the most highly renowned systems in the world. It opened with 90% popular support in 2000, received the first ever Sustainable Transport Award from the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy in 2005, and currently serves 2.4 million people every day in a city of 8 million in the city center and 11 million in the metro area.

In the years since its launch, while ridership has risen due to latent demand and a constantly increasing population with an average urbanization rate of 5.5% (one of the highest rates in Latin America), popular opinion has plummeted. 2015 polls show only 20% of Bogotános have a positive opinion of the Transmilenio due to high crime rates, over-crowded buses, and up to 45 minute waits at some stations during rush hour.

Despite this, people continue to flock to the Transmilenio by the millions every day because traffic congestion is so severe in Bogotá. Even though people only own cars at a rate of 200 in every 1,000 (far less than rates in Europe and the US that range from 500-800 cars per 1,000 people), this level of car ownership and use has fully saturated most city roads.

Informal, private bus networks also exist with buses stopping wherever they are hailed. While these are cheaper than the Transmilenio, they are significantly slower due to traffic, dangerous, and have decreased in numbers from 20,000 to 6,000 since 2000 according to Dario Hidalgo with the World Resources Institute for Sustainable Cities; the city plans to eradicate them completely with further Transmilenio expansion. With divided boulevards for 4 total bus-only lanes over approximately 70 miles of roadways in the city, the Transmilenio is the fastest, safest, and most reliable way to get around the city.

The current crowding issues with the system are due in part to general lack of infrastructure investment since 2004 as well as the original design specifications for the system; according to Hidalgo, the system was originally designed to accommodate six (6) people per square meter. In comparison, BRT systems in European countries such as Sweden are designed for two (2) people per square meter. This design parameter paired with increased demand has resulted in unhappy riders and an ideal environment ideal for pickpockets.

Beyond the crowding and crime on the Transmilenio, Bogotá’s inability to handle roadway congestion also poses a threat to the city economy. Juan Pablo Bocarejo at the University of the Andes conservatively estimated that the debilitating city traffic costs the city approximately 0.5% of its annual GDP. While the percentage is low, this amounts to $800 million in this booming city. Further complicating the political and social context, crime has been on the rise in recent years and the country as a whole is in the midst of a controversial peace process with the FARC: the militant, Marxist guerilla group.

Opinions on how to address the pressing transit issue are split among experts in the region. Bocarejo suggests that from purely a unit cost perspective, current plans to spend $7.2 billion on 30-km (18-miles) of a new subway could instead be put to better use to fund 200-km (125-miles) of BRT expansion for the same price. Alternatively, Hidalgo insists that the subway is a critical element of the long term plan to complement the existing system.

While a complementary system appears to be the only solution in the most congested central areas of the city where at-grade right of way does not exist for additional BRT lanes, this would simultaneously prevent further Transmilenio expansion to provide access to the poorer neighborhoods on the outer edges of the city.

With over 1/4 of the urban population reliant on public transit, congestion relief is in high demand and the voting public has spoken; for the first time in over a decade, the incumbent party lost the mayoral office in last fall’s elections. Enrique Peñalosa was re-elected after a 14 year hiatus from the office. Peñalosa is a local traffic consultant who held the office from 1998 – 2001 and launched the Transmilenio in 2000.

At this point, Bogotános and businesses are open to anything that will ease the congestion, which begs a few questions: what do they consider an acceptable level of service improvement and how much are they willing to pay for it? Also, at what point does the failed transit lead to failed businesses and exodus of investors? What balance of BRT and/or rails systems will address GDP AND social equity needs?

Mr. Peñalosa has the money, support, and experience to address this infrastructure need, but will he have sufficient time and resources necessary to address the needs of this larger and more complex problem in the midst of major societal shifts and high expectations?

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