Urgent Action Required: Improve TransMilenio Service

Photo by Gerardo Arévalo Tamayo.

A version of this post was originally published in Spanish on ElTiempo.com.

TransMilenio has been recognized as an iconic transformation of public transport, inspiring dozens of cities to implement low-cost, rapidly implemented and high-impact bus rapid transit (BRT) systems around the world (learn more about the state of the global BRT industry.) In the last week of March and the first week of April this year, TransMilenio users protested against the mass transit system. The protests resulted in service blockages and vandalism.  As a member of the team that launched TransMilenio in 2000, I’m hurt to see the destruction of some buses and stations. And it hurts much more that TransMilenio service is appalling, when it has the chance to recover its status as a world-class system.  Solving the problems involves three elements: political will, sound technical actions and financial resources.

We have not heard Mayor Gustavo Petro engaging fully to find a solution to the problems. We have not seen his secretaries jointly launching an action plan. We have not seen private operators committing to do their part, to go beyond the simple fulfillment of contracts, for the sake of users and their companies.  That leadership is a necessary condition.

Supplying buses is not enough. The technical solution involves multiple elements:

  • urgent repair of deteriorated infrastructure;
  • shorter circular services in sections with greater demand;
  • reconfiguration of the assignment platforms and doors to different routes, to reduce agglomeration inside the stations;
  • improvement of the operational controls to reduce bus “bunching,” a problem that substantially reduces capacity and quality of service;
  • better coordination of traffic lights, providing adequate priority to users of the trunk buses;
  • expansion of critical stations;
  • construction of parallel trunk routes to relieve the burden at the peak section (Av. Caracas);
  • construction of non-grade intersections;
  • parking controls in streets served by feeder routes, providing priority lanes and improving control.

It’s also necessary to rethink citizen education and the promotion of the positive aspects of the system (we’ve written before about why TransMilenio is still so special.) User participation is also important in suggesting and monitoring improvements. It is also essential to finish Phase III (under construction for the past four years) and begin the design and construction of new trunk ways, delayed for more than five years, compared to the original plan.

With regard to the funding of capital and operational costs, it is necessary to allocate resources to plan and execute these initiatives. The proposed city development plan for the next four years has some resources allocated, but will they be enough?  It is also possible to reduce the operational costs by bidding on the operation of new buses, especially to replace those of Phase I, which are already reaching one million kilometers. The call is to take action, not to engage in endless discussions. TRANSMILENIO S.A., the city agency in charge of planning, controlling and contracting the bus services, is aware of these issues and has been working in implementing some measures.  But without leadership from the mayor himself, without the joint work of his government team, and without funding, the solutions are far away.

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