Enrique Penalosa’s Transmilenio
An advanced city is not a place where the poor move about in cars; rather it is one where even the rich use public transportation
Enrique Peñalosa, mayor of Bogotá
Enrique Peñalosa’s famous quote explains the outlook behind Bogota’s pioneering bus rapid transit system, also known as the Transmilenio.
First envisioned in the Brasilian city of Curitiba in the 1970s, bus rapid transit – BRT – has rapidly spread across cities in Latin America as an innovative solution to the public transportation challenges faced by many. BRT offers a cost-effective and flexible means to expand mass transit in fast growing cities. So far, a number of developing nations have taken the lead on innovative transportation solutions such as BRT, particularly because they are seen as a lower-cost and more expedient way of building public transit than the heavy infrastructure and investment needed for other forms of public transit, like railways or light rail.
The best BRT systems in the world rival or surpass rail-based systems in terms of passengers per hour transported, with a significantly lower implementation cost. However, examining the Transmilenio in greater detail reveals some of the challenges cities face in successfully implementing BRT systems.
BRT can best be described as a hybrid between rail and bus systems. The Transmilenio in Bogotá exemplifies several best practices in BRT systems. Transmilenio buses have designated lanes on streets and highways to minimise traffic congestion. Riders enter at designated stations, using a smart card to swipe in, and board buses from a platform, similar to a metro system. Today, the Transmilenio is recognised as a Gold Standard BRT by the BRT Standard 2013 – a collection of pro-BRT organisations led by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy -, transporting more than 80,000 passengers per hour and 1.7 million passengers per day.
The Transmilenio stands out as a specifically pro-poor transportation investment.
At the time when it was adopted, Bogotá had the choice of investing in expanding highway capacity or investing in public transportation. Citing a car ownership rate of only 25%, Peñalosa specifically envisioned the Transmilenio as a public transit project to benefit the poor, an investment in a ‘transportation system giving priority to the needs of the poor majority rather than the automobile minority.’ The mayor of Bogotá’s decision was supported by a consensus among scholars and practitioners about the important relationship between public transportation and urban poverty around the world. Even the World Bank specifically called upon poverty reduction as a guiding framework for developing transportation systems in the developing world.
Designated lanes facilitate higher speeds for Transmilenio buses, although congestion within the system remains a problem.
Over a decade after its implementation, the Transmilenio has had mixed results for Bogotá’s poor. One challenge is high fares. The city’s BRT system is lauded for being financially self-sustaining via a flat fare structure, minimising the need for government subsidies. However scholars such as Juan Pablo Bocarejo at Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá have critiqued the fare structure for excluding poor residents who cannot afford to pay. The public transport system also presents a challenge in accessibility for remote neighborhoods in Bogotá. Free feeder buses run from the portal station at the end of each line to assist in connecting residents with the main network. However, these buses are not necessarily adequate in facilitating poorer residents’ use of the main Transmilenio bus network. For residents living in informal or slum conditions in the hills of the capital’s periphery, paratransit options like colectivos – mini-buses operated by private, semi-regulated companies – are often required to access the Transmilenio. These services are cheaper: the peak fare for Transmilenio buses is 1,700 Colombian pesos or about 0.90 US dollars compared with fares of 1,000 Colombian pesos or about 0.50 US dollars for colectivos.
In the 2011 mobility survey conducted by the city, almost three times as many residents in the lowest income bracket relied on colectivos for their primary mode of transportation than used the Transmilenio.
In addition to its challenges in reaching the poor, the Transmilenio has also not fulfilled Peñalosa’s dream of creating a public transportation system used by the rich. The 2011 mobility survey reveals that less than 5% individuals in the highest income bracket use the BRT system as their primary mode of transportation, compared with over 50% of residents who are relying on a private car. Overall, as poverty rates fall and the middle class grows, car ownership rates are on the rise in Bogotá. The number of private vehicles in Bogotá grew at annual rates hovering around 10% between 2010 and 2013.
Moving forward, the Colombian capital’s BRT system faces challenges to remain relevant and innovative. In a city where public transportation remains the most popular way of getting around – 64% of Bogotanos use public transit as their primary method of transportation, the Transmilenio still dominates the public transit sector in terms of share of riders. It however has the lowest rider satisfaction rating compared with others options. On a scale of five, with five being the highest possible score, the Transmilenio only scored 2.8 compared with an average of 3.5 for other forms of public transportation. The public’s dissatisfaction with the Transmilenio could be explained by several factors. One is captured in Bogotanos’ nickname for the system, the ‘Trans-muy-lleno’, making a pun with the Spanish word for ‘full’ to capture the extreme crowding aboard buses. Plans to construct an underground rail system to address capacity issues have been stalled for years, leading to residents being packed like sardines on the overcrowded BRT system. Additionally, in 2013, Transmilenio buses traveled on average slightly slower than private vehicles, eliminating the speed advantage granted to the BRT system by their designated lanes. In order for the Transmilenio to retain its title as the “Gold Standard” of BRT around the world, city planners will need to find ways to address these deficiencies.