A Kickstarter Campaign for Bus Rapid Transit: Lessons From Bogotá and Cartagena

Joel Epstein
Oct 20 · 6 min read

By: Joel Epstein

#BRT #TransMilenio #Ciclovía #transit #Bogotá #NYC #LA #openstreets

TransMilenio

TransMilenio, Bogotá’s bus rapid transit (BRT) system.

Seeing is believing but riding is even better. Earlier this month I got my own tarjeta Tullave, Bogotá bus pass, allowing me to whisk around Bogotá on TransMilenio, the city’s magic carpet bus rapid transit (BRT) system.

OK, I got carried away. TransMilenio is no magic carpet. But it is an impressive transit network that as of September 2018 was moving 2.4 million riders on weekdays. Now, with my Tullave card, I was one of them.

According to The New York Times, TransMilenio is the only transit agency authorized to generate and sell carbon credits to countries that exceed their greenhouse gas emission limits. Since climate change is real, that’s important. The system which has since grown to 12 lines and 148 stations, covers 114.4 km (71 miles) of the sprawling Colombian capital.

TransMilenio’s “paradas” are more station than bus stop.

I had long admired TransMilenio, Bogotá’s above ground subway, from afar. TransMilenio and other BRT systems successfully move millions of riders a year in Bogotá, Mexico City, São Paulo and Curitiba. Beyond Latin America, its lessons are in evidence in the successful Metro Orange Line that runs through LA’s San Fernando Valley, in Boston and in Cleveland to name a few U.S. cities that have embraced the value of bus rapid transit. As of 2014, BRTs had been adopted globally by 168 cities serving over 31 million riders a day. Unfortunately, most U.S. cities remain reluctant to give bus rapid transit à la Bogotá a go. What gives? Is it our obsession with rail as a superior means of transit? Is it Wall Street and Labor’s insatiable appetite for costly, over-engineered construction project’s like the 7 train extension to New York’s gilded Hudson Yards? IMHO, it is both. TransMilenio was custom made for congested stretches of the five boroughs as well as countless boulevards and freeways in Los Angeles and the rest of the country. With high platform boarding and ticket booths and turnstiles, TransMilenio’s handicapped-accessible paradas are more station than bus stop.

A grade separated handicapped-accessible TransMilenio station.

Given the chance in this country, BRTs could be built that would be whisking passengers inbound and outbound and between secondary employment centers in a fraction of the time it takes to build rail.

Ciclovía

Bogotá also boasts one of the world’s most extensive bike-route networks, with more than 375 kms of separated, marked bike paths called ciclorutas. In many places, the protected paths run parallel to TransMilenio making for a seamless first, last mile transportation solution.

Paved and protected bike lane nirvana bracketed by TransMilenio stations.

Best of all, every Sunday and on holidays between 7 am and 2 pm, Bogotá hosts a citywide open streets event called Ciclovía. The madre of all open streets events and the inspiration for New York City’s Summer Streets and L.A.’s CicLAvia, Ciclovía clears the smog and gets a million and a half Bogotanos of all ages out into the streets for exercise on the city’s car-free streets.

Ciclovía, the madre of all open streets events.

Experiencing the weekly event which has been called el parque lineal más grande del mundo and el día de la bicicleta brought me back to 2010, when I experienced our first CicLAvia in Los Angeles. Like the daily scene in Bogotá’s Plazoleta Chorro de Quevedo, Ciclovía is a feast for the eyes and a chance to experience Bogotá at its happiest.

Transcaribe

What Bogotá has achieved is impressive. Less well known is what Cartagena, a city of about one million on the Caribbean coast, is achieving with Transcaribe, its own BRT system. According to ITDP (the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy), Transcaribe which runs exclusively on Compressed Natural Gas (CNG), offers a hybrid service consisting of both high capacity trunk service (troncal) buses operating along bus only lanes and “pretroncal” buses, which run partly on the busway and partly on city streets.

The Central Transcaribe station in Cartagena.

The same ITDP report explains that the standard-sized buses (12 m long) used for hybrid services have two high-level doors on the left side, compatible with the BRT station platforms, and three low-level step-down exits to provide access to the sidewalks of city streets. These buses also have a lift on the right side to accommodate wheelchairs.

Transcaribe also runs buses to Crespo, a block from the Cartagena airport, which makes for a big savings over a taxi or colectivo (Transcaribe card and bus fare required).

In addition to the hybrid buses, Transcaribe has begun implementing feeder services, usually using small (8 m long) buses which connect with the trunk-line buses at the last two stations of the busway. Hopefully, this will help stanch the proliferation of noisy, dirty motorcycles which according to ITDP now account for about 60 percent of all motor vehicles registered in Cartagena, compared to 30 percent in 2008. This represents five-fold growth over the increase in the number of private cars and many of the motorcycles are used as low-cost mototaxis.

New York’s 14th Street Busway

Unless you are the City’s part-time mayor, if you live here, it was hard to miss that earlier this month New York made 14th Street mostly car-free. The overdue move which had been resisted by a handful of critics who sued unsuccessfully to stop it and said the sky would fall if it ever happened, is finally here, giving New Yorkers an important, if rare, transit and environmental win. Of course the sky didn’t fall, and for now, the 14th Street bus only lane trial is proving once again that a true busway and traffic enforcement can speed bus service and break the unreasonable grip that private cars owners, taxis and ride hailing services have had for too long on New York’s most congested streets.

Seeing what is happening on 14th Street is encouraging but to make meaningful improvements in overall bus commute times, it must be the first of many such BRT-inspired projects throughout the region. Riding Bogotá and Cartagena’s impressive BRT systems gave me the transit envy I feel when I am in Barcelona, Paris, Shanghai or Mexico City.

In Colombia as in Mexico in particular, I couldn’t help feeling that in the U.S. we are over-engineering and prettifying our expanding systems at the expense of potential future growth and a faster construction schedule. As I wrote back in 2015 about L.A.’s Wilshire Boulevard (Purple Line) subway extension,

My preference is for less marble and more portals paired with seating configurations to serve the anticipated volume of riders on a line… We seem to have concluded that… riders require certain amenities. Maybe, but maybe we would grow ridership faster and make more … happy transit riders if we built a less fanciful system faster and for less money than the subway extension and other programs are estimated to cost.

It’s time for a kickstarter campaign for bus rapid transit and for my next trip, to Curitiba, Brazil, where bus rapid transit was created. Wish me luck and please contribute! Ciao.

Yours in transit,

Joel

*Joel Epstein is a New Yorker and an advocate for livable cities and public space.

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