Opinion: Bogotá’s vision for public transport hangs in the balance
A crowd of passengers boards the TransMilenio BRT in Bogotá, Colombia. Photo by Mariana Gil/EMBARQ Brazil.

A crowd of passengers boards the TransMilenio BRT in Bogotá, Colombia. Despite new, larger buses operating within the TransMilenio system, Bogotá still faces significant challenges to providing sustainable public transport options for its urban residents. Photo by Mariana Gil/EMBARQ Brazil.

“Optimism is undermined by the amount of work required for full implementation.”

Before withdrawing his nomination as Bogotá’s ombudsman in December 2011, Paul Bromberg recommended that the incoming administration “joyfully receive the public transport system of Bogotá (Sistema de Transporte Público de Bogotá [SITP])”. Although Mayor Gustavo Petro’s new administration reluctantly adopted his recommendation, that’s the only progress in urban mobility it can boast to date. Much work remains, as new SITP buses still co-exist with thousands of obsolete and inefficient vehicles, a legacy of Bogotá’s past.

One recent positive step, and a possible turning point for sustainable mobility in the city, was the launch of new gray buses operating in Carrera 7a in October 2013. Now the blue, orange, and burgundy buses – the new colors of the SITP – are running closer to capacity, especially when compared to ridership levels of mid-2012. Currently, there are more route options than ever before and users are wise to the fact that they have to pay double fare to switch buses.

We also see many more bi-articulated buses in the TransMilenio bus rapid transit (BRT) system – these buses can carry more passengers and are coupled with crucial capacity expansions, such as the impressive National Museum underground station and the new access at the 100th Street Station. Passengers can also use the original smart cards at all TransMilenio stations, which was previously impossible due to technical and contractual glitches. This generates some optimism: it is possible that the city can achieve the desired public transport transformation by 2014 that it has been working towards since 1968.

However, this glimmer of optimism is undermined by the sheer magnitude of obstacles Bogotá currently faces. The April 2014 goal for full implementation is no longer possible. There are too many new buses to incorporate and even more obsolete buses and minibuses to simultaneously phase out. There is also a dire need for a giant boost in user education to change habits, in addition to a need for improving signaling and implementing bus depots. The most critical point seems to be the financial stability of some operators, particularly the groups formed by the “small vehicle owners”. This group was able to gain a significant share of the SITP after enormous effort, but faces considerable organizational and financial difficulties.

In an attempt to address the challenges confronting the small vehicle owners, Mayor Petro has launched a proposal that raises more questions than answers. He launched a “public-private alliance” to save the small vehicles as a resource for the city, “not to remain kneeling in front of five operators” – arguably referring to the large bus operators of the SITP. Direct support with public resources to private operators, large or small, has not been well received by citizens, as these private operators have been under contract to provide buses since 2011.

In light of this controversy, the important thing to focus on is the quality of service SITP provides to its users – the citizens of Bogotá – rather than ideological debates over the ownership of the vehicle fleet.

If the city has to throw some operators a lifeline, the proposal of Deputy Minister of Transport Nicolás Estupiñán seems most fair: help them get loans, which will ultimately be repaid using the rules laid forth in the 2011 contracts. Other proposals may change the contractual conditions, reward failure to comply, and do not solve the fundamental issue at hand – insufficient and poor quality public transport service.  Professor Antanas Mockus was right when he stated: “No Latin macho likes raising other people’s children.”

This Op-Ed was originally published on November 29, 2013 in Spanish on El Tiempo.com.

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