Photo Essay: A Tale of Two Bus Systems in Bogotá

The TransMilenio's distinctive red buses have transformed the landscape in Bogotá.

All photos by Gwen Kash.

More than a decade after its inception, Bogotá’s pioneering TransMilenio BRT system carries 1.6 million passengers every weekday. Its many successes, such as reducing pollution, improving safety and reducing travel time for Bogotanos, may be familiar to regular readers of TheCityFix.  However, TransMilenio has not been a complete solution for public transportation in Bogotá. Only 26 percent of  transit trips in the city are made on TransMilenio.  The other 74 percent of transit trips are made on what is known locally as Collective Public Transport, a chaotic network of buses operated by thousands of individual owner-operators organized into 66 different private companies.

Bogota Collective Public Buses

Collective public buses operating on Carrera Séptima.

This disorganized and inefficient method of providing public transportation has high costs for Bogotá’s residents. What most experts consider an oversupply of buses clogs the streets with excess vehicles and fill the lungs of residents with exhaust. Since drivers earn their living from the fares they collect rather than a fixed salary, they compete with each other in “the war of the penny.” This conflict results in unsafe driving as vehicles jockey for passengers. The problem is compounded by the fact that drivers commonly work 14- to 16-hour shifts. The results of this situation are lethal: a Bogotano dies from a collision involving a collective public bus on average once every three days.

Bogotá’s transportation network is about to undergo a transformation even more radical than that wrought by TransMilenio.  The Integrated Public Transport System (SITP) is scheduled to begin operations at the end of this year.

One of the buses that will continue operating as part of SITP.

The SITP represents a fundamental shift from a decentralized, chaotic network to a true coordinated system. The business structure will be modeled on the successful example of TransMilenio, with responsibility for providing service shared between 13 companies who were awarded zonal concessions through a competitive bidding process. In addition to continuing the management of TransMilenio BRT and constructing several new BRT lines, TRANSMILENIO S.A. (a city-owned company) will coordinate operations between the SITP operators.  The employment of bus drivers will become formal, with a fixed salary and bonuses for safe, effective operating replacing the era of survival of the fittest.

Many collective public buses emit visible clouds of smoke upon acceleration.

SITP is expected to significantly reduce emissions in Bogotá.  Rather than being allowed to operate for as long as two decades, buses will be retired after a maximum of 12 years. The oldest, most polluting buses will be taken off the streets as Bogotá reduces the size of its vehicle fleet by 30 percent.  The fleet will be gradually upgraded to newer, more efficient models. The remaining buses will operate when and where they are needed rather than all day every day.

Passengers exiting a bus on Ave. Boyacá.

SITP will also increase the organization of transportation in Bogotá. Currently, passengers flag down buses as if they were taxicabs. When passengers request a stop, buses grind to a sudden halt whether they are at a designated bus stop or in the middle of traffic on a crowded artery. After SITP is implemented, passengers will enter and exit buses only at designated stops; more than 2,000 are scheduled to be built. The increased order on city streets will likely result in fewer deaths from preventable collisions.

Passengers exit into traffic at a designated bus stop on the Autopista Norte.

In order to function effectively, the SITP will require a transformation of the culture of transportation in Bogotá.  For example, users must become accustomed to walking a few extra blocks and drivers must work as part of a team rather than as enemy combatants. SITP’s operators will conduct extensive driver training, and TRANSMILENIO S.A. is planning an education campaign to communicate the message “user by user,” as SITP director Javiér Hernández puts it.

User information will be greatly improved. Currently, the only known publicly available bus map is more than 300 pages long. SITP is streamlining routes with feedback from local resident committees and developing strategies to ensure that people don’t feel “lost” in their own city, an issue with a similar reform in Santiago, Chile. The improved user information and reliability of service, as well as an integrated farecard, are expected to improve convenience and ease of use for passengers.

A Collective Public Bus on Ave. El Dorado during rush hour.

TransMilenio's 76 Street station during rush hour.

To secure these impressive benefits, the SITP will entail some trade-offs. The largest of these is increased occupancy in buses. As shown above, many collective public buses run nearly empty, even at rush hour. At the other end of the spectrum, the buses of TransMilenio are packed beyond capacity.  Last year’s bus strike in Bogotá was notable for the extreme crowding and long lines to board TransMilenio. However, the photo below, taken on a normal weekday evening, is strikingly similar to this view of the same station on the day of the strike.

TransMilenio's 100 Street station during rush hour.

According to an annual survey by Bogotá Cómo Vamos, dissatisfaction with TransMilenio has been steadily increasing; this is largely due to crowding. As of 2010, users reported higher levels of satisfaction with collective public transport than with TransMilenio. Whether SITP alleviates crowding on TransMilenio with improved service in the rest of the city or increases crowding on collective public transport to the same level remains to be seen. Hopefully, SITP will successfully strike a balance between efficiency and comfort.

A collective public bus parked on a city sidewalk.

SITP will transform Bogotá in more subtle ways, as well. For example, with the construction of formal bus depots, public space currently used for bus parking will be returned to city residents.  Less aggressive driving and buses in better repair may improve the comfort of the ride. Bus operators will be held contractually responsible for maintaining adequate results on user satisfaction surveys; the link of these surveys to compensation will strengthen accountability for quality of service. Finally, many hope that the SITP will usher in a more humane era of what Carlos Cordoba, former director of Bogotá Cómo Vamos, calls “dignified public transportation.” While many things are still uncertain, one thing is for sure: after SITP, Bogotá will never be the same.

A TransMilenio bus depot near Portal del Norte.

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