Community Voices: Integrated Public Transport in Bogota

Public transit users wait at a bus stop on Bogota's Carrera Séptima. As part of the reorganization of the city's transit, more than 1,500 new bus stops will be installed, including movable flag stations like the one above. Photo by Gwen Kash.

Bogota’s Integrated Public Transport System (SITP) is poised to transform transit in the city when it is launched this December. The project is projected to improve order and efficiency, mitigate pollution, and reduce traffic injuries and fatalities. Such a transformation represents an opportunity for major improvements in the city’s quality of life, particularly for low-income residents. For more information about what the program entails, see the first part of our series on SITP in Bogota.

What do the locals think of these coming changes? To find out, we went out into the barrios of Bogota and talked to more than 180 residents. The first major finding was that, five months before the projected start of operations, only 37 percent of respondents had heard of SITP, and fewer than 10 percent had any knowledge of what the program is.

Once informed about SITP, 75 percent of those interviewed had overall positive expectations. Alcides, 58, expects “better human relations.” José Manuel, 62, said the new system would make travel more pleasant, giving him “more encouragement to get out of the house.”  Andrew, 29, said “this is what the city has been waiting for – something more organized. ”

However, SITP faces serious challenges to adequately address the needs of transit riders. In particular, there is a high risk of increased transportation costs, since the current system allows informal discounts for a large proportion of users. Before boarding, some passengers ask the driver, “Will you take me for a 1,000 COP?”  This is a significant reduction from the official fare of 1,400 COP (US$0.74).  Of those surveyed, 9 percent of respondents said they always receive this informal discount and 32 percent indicated that they sometimes receive it.  For example, Irene, 61, said she had no complaint with the public transport service because “people have always been good to me; someone always takes me for a thousand.”

Smart cards, perhaps the greatest innovation of the SITP, will increase the convenience of transportation, but they will end this informal discount. SITP has been designed to avoid cost increases for users. However, according to officials at TRANSMILENIO (TM), who are overseeing the project, the financial models used to design the system were based on the official fare and did not include these widespread discounts.

The discontinuation of the discount will create a cost increase of up to 40 percent for low- and moderate-income transit riders who currently receive it, and perhaps more for those riders, primarily women, who travel with children. This raises a question of adverse economic impacts on sensitive groups from the formalization of the transport payment system under SITP.  Freddie, 46, said that SITP will be “a complete failure, because the poor are used to saying ‘can I ride for 1,000 COP?’ They’re going to negatively affect poor people.”

On the other hand there are complaints about the current service, and questions as to how SITP can address them. The most common complaint, mentioned by 35 percent of respondents, is that the buses are very crowded.  The new system will reduce the bus fleet in Bogota by 25 percent, leaving 12,000 buses in operation. The District Administration has announced that it will transform to redistribute routes to better deal in town and improve the service. The municipality has dedicated significant resources to meet this technical challenge, including soliciting public participation on route designs through local SITP committees. How well SITP meets this challenge is likely to figure prominently in public reception to the reform.  Sandra, 34, mentioned the need to balance efficiency and comfort, saying, “it’s good to scrap the old buses, but they have to maintain the same level of service because people will ride packed in like canned sausages.”

Another common complaint, cited by 33 percent of respondents, is that public transport is too slow. It is unclear how much SITP, which will operate in mixed traffic, can improve the speed of transit. According to the District Administration and researchers from the Universidad of the Andes, it is possible that SITP will improve travel times by 10 percent. However, this improvement is not guaranteed because the buses will continue to operate in the middle of traffic jams. At this time, no funds are allocated to prioritize the movement of buses on congested major corridors. The effects of the recent election of Gustavo Petro as mayor of Bogota remain to be seen. Petro will take office in January, just after the scheduled launch of SITP.

Methodology: To obtain these results, researchers conducted interviews with 186 passengers on public transport in the neighborhoods of Fontibón, Kennedy, Las Lomas, Normandy, and San Cristóbal del Norte. The interviews took place between June 20 and July 6, 2011. Additionally, 16 experts, including professors, consultants and district officials, were interviewed.

This research was conducted by Gwen Kash in coordination with Dario Hidalgo of EMBARQ (the producer of this blog.)  The project received financial support from EMBARQ and the Institute for the study of the Amercias at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. TransMilenio SA provided staff to support the implementation of the survey.

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