Episode #1: Bus Rapid Transit in Bogotá

On the inaugural episode of The UrbanCincy Podcast, urban planner Natalia Gomez Rojas joins the UrbanCincy team from Colombia to discuss bus rapid transit (BRT) systems. Randy and Natalia discuss their experience using the TransMilenio system in Bogotá, and the lessons Cincinnati and other U.S. cities can take away.

  • This discussion caused me to have a revelation regarding BRT, which others might have realized earlier. When seen as part of a system, BRT is more a description of a type of infrastructure.  
    Unlike rail transit, buses can continue their journey beyond the infrastructure that supports them in their “rapid” forms. This is what Natalia described as the local buses running along sections of the TransMilenio.  This is also the way that the BRT proposal for Chapel Hill/Durham would have worked, and the way that Chicago and Jacksonville’s downtown BRT corridors will function.  This system in which multiple routes use different segments of the BRT corridor is known as interlining, and has many advantages especially in multi-nodal cities. In that way BRT is more akin to cycletracks and highways, a segment of infrastructure which is justified by either a concentration of use, or by a desire to encourage a certain type of transit use along a corridor.

  • The sound and presentation of the podcast was very professional. Bravo.

    On the content, a small bravo for covering Transmilenio and BRT a bit more honestly than most other English-speaking outlets, but a ‘bad bravo’ for not covering it critically enough.

    All urban planning outlets should bring a critical eye to everything it covers — including and especially BRT. There’s a vast disconnect between BRT’s promised benefits and what it actually delivers — that needs to be explored.

    Here are some comments:

    – did you not know about the Transmilenio (TM) protests/riot? why or why didn’t you know about, or cover, these events? http://www.theatlanticcities.com/commute/2012/03/why-are-people-rioting-over-bogotas-public-transit-system/1537/

    – we had a good laugh when Natalia explained the Pico y Placa (Peak and licence Plate) system and that, instead of being forced off the road, drivers just went out and bought another car, so now we need to ask, “How bad is TM that car drivers will go out and by _another car_ instead of being forced to ride the bus to work?” Simply put, bus travel is a boon to the auto industry — it always has been, since GM dismantled North American streetcar systems.


    – Think about this fact about Bogota before you try to compare it to Cincinatti:
    * 22,000 buses and 55,000 taxis transport 82% of the citizens. 
    _82 percent_ (give or take) public transit mode share? Incredible. New York City gets 55%, and that’s off the charts compared to any other American city. This means that Bogotanos are poor compared to Cincinnatians, and very few people own cars there, relatively speaking. That said, their incomes are rising and they are buying cars at the clip of about 100,000 new cars per year (in a city population of about 12,000,000). At some point, Bogota will need to provide dignified public transit, or a real walking and biking network. Else, the city will continue its precipitous decline.

    – The real-time arrival information displays have been shown to increase ridership by about 1%. I love the signs, but if we want to actually increase ridership, we need to get serious about dealing with the two primary internal factors (i.e. factors that transit agencies have some control over) that affect ridership: 1) fare prices (decrease them), 2) frequency (increase it). 

    – TM may have actually been a big improvement over what Bogota had before TM, but we have to realize that before TM, there was effectively _no public transit at all_ in Bogota. So this is not about BRT, this is about the benefits of public transit generally. BRT was responsible for bring a modicum of government oversight to the Bogota transportation network — it managed to reign in some of the lawlessness and havoc that existed when private operators duked it out on the streets every day in some sort of dystopian libertarian nightmare (i.e. an Ayn Rand dream sequence). The US does not have this problem, thus will see little to no improvements to public transport from implementing BRT systems, which are inherently low-ROI.

    – BRT systems often require less up-front capital costs because you don’t have to lay track and install electrical infrastructure/wires/poles, but the downsides are 1) lower ridership, 2) less middle class voter/funding support, 3) noisy buses, 4) increased local pollution, 5) higher operating costs, 6) less room for cycletracks, etc.

    – The main reason to put transit systems above- or under-ground is to keep the surface streets available for private cars. Don’t fall into this trap. Light rail is the best option for motorized transport for most cities. Give the trains signal priority — done. Easy.  http://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorialopinion/article/1144159–toronto-suburbs-deserve-something-better-than-subways-light-rail

    – If someone thinks getting Cincinnati to spend a lot of capital up front is tough, just tell Cincinnatians how much more expensive it will be to operate buses on a yearly basis than trains. One-time costs are not so bad, but ongoing major subsidies are what drive anti-transit folks crazy. Trains have higher carrying capacities, thus require fewer drivers to carry the same amount of people as buses. 80% or so  of public transit agency budgets go to employee salaries/benefits/etc. 

    – There’s an American bicycle tour operator in Bogota who sometimes talks TM: http://mikesbogotablog.blogspot.com/2011/11/can-petro-tame-bogotas-traffic.html

    – What Andres says about Transmilenio in comments on a previous post is not a surprise — people who have ridden TM and BRT systems often have a very different view from the people who stand to benefit from promoting, transit officials who implement it, city officials who champion it, and columnists who never plan to ride it. People who actually have to ride these new BRT systems (or pseudo-BRT systems — whatever y’all want to call them) is often one of disappointment, surprise, even anger.

    – Streetscape improvements do not require a new bus system, nor a new light rail system — usually it does require new/wider sidewalks and new/wider bike lanes and cycletracks.

    – Are grade changes really stopping Cincy from getting a light rail system? San Francisco has lots of light rail, an above- and below-grade metro, etc. For really steep grades we still use cable cars.

    – People, even Cincy folks, will support rail. The Cincy streetcar is, of course, a perfect example. Car-centric cities like Denver, Houston, Phoenix, and Charlotte have all built light rail systems and are planning more. Most American transit advocates think about providing some bottom-of-the-barrel bus service, that, inevitably, does not garner any middle class support, because nobody who is middle class has to ride those systems. Instead, concentrate on building dignified transit systems that will appeal to people who have a choice of whether to drive or take public transit. They will like the rail system and they will vote to run and expand it with their tax dollars. Simple. People are not angry about spending their tax dollars — they’re angry about not getting anything in return for their tax dollars.

    – the choice between either at-grade BRT or below-or-above-grade Subway/Metro is a false choice, and makes no sense. What about LRT/Light Rail Transit? if any mode of transport is going to be accused of being ‘surface subway’, shouldn’t it be a train that, instead of running above or below grade, runs at grade (on the surface)?

    – There is a whole network of government agencies and public relations firms that promote automobility and BRT (BRTI, WRI/EMBARQ, etc.). When you look at the money involved in building/buying/selling/operating roads/buses/tires/cars, you start to understand why investing a few tens of millions of dollars in various think tanks and PR firms is money well spent. BRT is always more expensive than LRT, for a host of reasons. You can make a small down payment today and pay a LOT more in the future, or you can make a big down payment today and pay a LOT less in the future (and have a great city) — smart cities are building LRT (like Toronto). Delhi has 8,000+ public transit buses. NYC has 5,600+ public transit buses.

    – ‘Trains on rubber wheels’, also ‘surface subway’ — why not discuss light rail transit (LRT) as the true surface subway because…that’s what it is. A bus is nothing like a train — if it were, people would ride the bus.
    – The whole idea that BRT is ‘yet to be done right’ in America is a red herring. It’s meaningless. BRT has existed in the US for 30+ years. If we can’t do it right after 30+ years, then we are not ever going to be able to do it right — do something else instead.

    – Describing the streetscapes created by BRT as “strange is being generous. 

    – Articulated buses are another name for ‘bendy buses’ or ‘big bendy buses’ or ‘really long buses connected by that slinky-looking thing’. To use them in LA (Orange line), they had to get special permission from the Feds because the buses are inherently dangerous and unsuitable for cities, require concrete instead of normal pavement, etc.

    – Streetfilms has a bunch of hagiographic films about BRT. http://www.streetfilms.org/bus-rapid-transit-bogota/

    – Bogota’s Transmilenio streets are often not ‘streets’ in the conventional sense — they’re massive highways that move very slowly, and now have new bus highways in the middle of them — those are the dedicated rights of way for the TM buses. This highway-within-a-highway is a disaster for riders, pedestrians, and cyclists — even before we talk about the incredible pollution and overcrowding and crime/pickpocketing/groping/etc. A local reporter rode the TM to experience firsthand “the daily suffering of 3 million fellow Bogotanos” and had his wallet stolen. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dH-KrT1LMsc&feature=youtu.be

    – TM is a disastrous, corrupt mix of private bus companies running with little to no government oversight (or, more accurately, running with government protection) — a warning against privatization.

    – Bogota is indeed considering rail systems, tram systems, metro/subway systems, etc. It’s the largest city in the world without a substantial rail system, and this is why the protests/riots are occurring — the transportation system, including Transmilenio, have failed. This is not a system any American city should want to emulate.

    – Excellent to point out that reliability/frequency is one of two major factors determining transit ridership. Average and top speeds of trips are largely irrelevant, so talking about them is a red herring — they simply don’t matter much. People on both sides of the BRT suggested it be re-acronymed as Bus Reliable Transit instead of Bus Rapid Transit, because the systems do not always become faster, but they do usually gain some reliability (while giving up other benefits). I prefer Bus Road Transit since it is more descriptive of a transportation system which often reuses existing roads/rights of way, but is also often used to build new roads. The other major ‘internal factor’ driving transit ridership is fares. IMO, fares should be free outside of rush hours, and if no overcrowding conditions occur, then free always. Cities need to decide whether they want to a) emulate a developing city with a failed transportation system, or b) have a very successful public transportation system with very high ridership.

    – Only part of one of the world’s bus rapid transit systems has been electrified, and that because they were able to re-use existing overhead wires from previous tram service. One of the reasons you will not see electrified BRT systems is because it costs money to do electrification, and electrification undercuts one of the Big 3 industries that conspire to get and keep people in cars — the oil industry. Once citizens start talking about electrification, the capital costs of light rail transit (LRT) get closer or cheaper than those of BRT, and people desire/prefer trains to buses, so they opt for trains. The oil, car and bus, and rubber/tire industries are not interested in building and supporting train systems — that’s a different industry. So we hear talk of ‘clean diesel’ — it’s sort of like ‘clean coal’ — i.e. there is no such thing.

    – Very happy to hear the comment on bus systems around the world generally being uncomfortable, diesely, etc. Comfort is not something American transit advocates talk about because it’s implicitly understood that people who ride the bus don’t deserve comfort. Needless to say, I think transport advocates should concentrate more on treating transit riders respectfully. 

    – The total population of Bogota is largely irrelevant — what matters in population density. Best i can tell, Bogota is 5 times as dense as Cincy, which is part of why TM has been such a disaster for Bogotanos. Just the health care costs and suffering of Bogotanos (asthma, etc.) over the past 10 years of TM’s existence should keep any sane city from ever building a BRT system.

    – The expansion of Transmilenio’s routes/phases will only hurt it more, not help it. the TM network is like any road or rail network — as you get closer to building out the network, you experience ‘network effects’ — i.e. higher ridership at all times of day. Without congestion pricing, expect more riots.

    – If you want to know what’s going on in Bogota regarding transmilenio and metros/trams/etc., just search twitter and google news with Chrome and use the auto-translate feature of Chrome (or right-click to Translate).

    – All throughout the conversation we hear that Bogota is talking alternatives to TM, new ways to transport people, etc. This is an admission that TM has failed. The system simply does not work. It’s ok to say it. We should be honest about it. It was a well-intentioned mistake, but walking, biking, rail should have been the options in the first place.

    – SF is supposedly attempting to build ‘rail-ready’ BRT. There is no such thing, and SF is the 2nd most dense city in America (population-wise). One of the future BRT lines is the first or second heaviest-use bus transit corridor on the West Coast — which includes some pretty big cities. We need rail. We’re going to build BRT. Building BRT when you need rail only means you have to spend massive capital costs twice, while severely disrupting existing transit lines. Ottawa learned this lesson already, as have a couple of other cities — we should not repeat their mistakes.

    – Y’all sure picked a lively topic to start your podcast with. 🙂

    – Small, incremental improvements are a _great_ idea. See NYC’s Select Bus Service (SBS). And remember to prioritize/allow walking and biking first — this will always be preferable and less expensive in the long term to providing motorized transport.

    – Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) may have been well-intentioned, but it is just a bad idea — it is a failed transportation system — it has done great harm to Bogota. If Bogota had implemented real walking and biking infrastructure or light rail 10+ years ago, it would be in _much_ better shape today. It’s OK and even desirable to experiment — they should be proud. But now they’re behind their peers again — they need to be forward thinking again. Knowing which trends to follow can be a leadership quality all its own.

    • Mr Smith,

      Aside from a couple of  (what I think are) inaccurate bits, I think you’re spot on with your perception of TM- which should very much be more harshly critical but people got caught up following along with the happy-go-lucky perception of success Mr. Peñalosa sold the BRT to the media with.

      I’m no urban planner or anything but I guess as a lifelong Bogotan I’ll comment on a couple of those points I don’t fully agree with for the sake of deeper discussion.

      -I too thought of the riot situation in Bogota as a notable reason for all-too-constant disruption and malfunctioning of the system. Nonetheless, I think Cincy cannot be paralleled in any way with the social and infrastructural circumstances that surround transmilenio in Bogota. The capital city of a hot country will certainly be very much more prone to frequent disruptive riots for any and every reason. Especially so considering TM traverses many arteries that connect to foci of disruptions, ie. the NQS route goes past the hotbed of leftist (and covert terrorist backed) protests that is the National University; the stadium where hooligans of rival football teams riot at the minder chance; others go into terribly empoverished shanty towns where civilian order is an exception to the rule. And the layout of TM makes it extremely vulnerable to disruptions: even if a mere citizen decides to simply stand in the middle of one of the exclusive lanes (while crossing the street, taking a phonecall for example) the system- and all the routes along this very line- will be forcefully delayed.

      -Pico y placa was a temporary and initially succesful measure (when introduced simultaneous to TM) of decongestion. but as the spanish saying goes, ‘nothing is more permanent than what’s temporary’. So an initial measure to an expanding TM, a promised SITP (integrated, structured local bus system) and a dreamt light or heavy rail (Which was- then and now- in ‘very serious studies’) was perceived with optimism. 12 years after, Transmilenio Phase I is the only one ‘working’ and poorly so- so for the past two  mayoral periods, people went for buying cars (especially in a fairly positive economic situation as we’re enjoying). And if you’re not booming, you can still buy a motorcycle for around a 15 (fifteen) dollar down payment.

      -Bogota allegedly has 8M people. but that’s far from the point, really. and I guess informal measurements could put that up to about 10M, and if you even want to count in cities in the vicinity eventually absorbed by this ever-growing city (Soacha, Chía), it’ll keep going up.

      -Finally, bogota (vía Messrs Peñalosa and Mockus) did implement an alleged walking and biking infrastructure. In my opinion, a structure that was widely regarded as anti-automobile but fell due to (in my opinion) 4 things: it was incompatible with national policies on motor transit (thus, blocking driveways and curbside parking spaces for the sake of preserving the sidewalks brought involvement of even the supreme court in ludicrous ‘right to park’ sort of trials); it was unacompanied by a strong security policy, so cycling to and fro at dusk or dawn was perceived as very unsafe; The laid out bike paths (ciclorrutas, not to be confused with the sunday ciclovía) were nice and appealing for a couple of years but unkempt and invaded by street the years that followed; and the very structure of the ciclorrutas (requiring widening of sidewalks and a specified path, as opposed to some integrated routes on the right or left of streets as it goes in Cincy and elsewhere) was incompatible with the uncontained growth of the city, and therefore the 340+kms of paths are well far from reaching every corner of the city).

      I’m otherwise in agreeance with your other points and vow to comment on them by tomorrow, I’ve had a hectic weekend and heard much (but not all) of the podcast so far…

      Regards from Bogota, Colombia

    • The main focus of the conversation was intended to be about the application of bus rapid transit in Cincinnati. We decided to discuss TransMilenio as a case study, but could probably do an entire episode just on the trials and tribulations of TransMilenio.

      Certainly the protests and riots in Bogota are serious, and we did touch on the causes (price escalations, delayed expansions, and overcrowding), but we didn’t want to focus soley on TransMilenio.

  • Where is the streaming player? 

    EDIT: found it. took awhile for it to load on my computer!

    •  Great! Glad you got it to work. Also try subscribing on iTunes to avoid any streaming issues in the future.

  • I left a (very long, much edited) comment that is apparently stuck in moderation.

    Podcast had great audio quality, professional format, etc. Would have liked to see a generally more critical stance, though.


    • Thanks for leaving that in-depth comment, Peter. We received it, and it was immediately approved, but for some reason it is not appearing. No need to fear though…the comment is not lost and we are working on fixing the issue that is preventing it from showing.

    • The comment was being filtered as spam for some reason — it’s now appearing below.  Thanks for your feedback.

    • Thanks y’all — first time that happened with Disqus. It uploaded fine, but eventually disappeared into moderation after I edited it like 10 times in 10 minutes.  Must have hit some type of edit rate limit.