Jun 29, 2008

Bogotá's BRT 'warts and all'

A stop on Calle 19 of Bogota's Transmilenio BRT system.
Photo by Kinori, taken 10 July 2004. Via Wikimedia Commons.

A new journal article provides a sympathetic but 'warts and all' examination of Bogotá's celebrated (and much emulated) Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system, Transmilenio, and the dangers that it is now facing.

Fresh from hearing former Bogotá Mayor, Enrique Peñ
alosa, speak at the World Cities Summit in Singapore last week, my interest was piqued.

The article, "Bus Rapid Transit: Is Transmilenio a Miracle Cure?", is in the July edition (vol. 28, issue 4) of Transport Reviews journal (paywalled, sorry). It is by geographer and expert on Latin American cities, Alan Gilbert of University College London.

The abstract explains:
... The article describes its main characteristics and applauds the improvements that it has already brought to urban transport in Bogotá. Naturally, the system is not without its flaws and these need to be drawn to the attention of those who might copy the Bogotá example. ... There is a real danger that 'Transmilenio' will stagnate as its popularity declines and as demands for a metro increase. Given the strengths of the system that would be something of a disaster and, most certainly, not in the interests of the poor.

Some of the most compelling points in Gilbert's account focus on the power plays in Bogotá's public transport industry. A key feature of Transmilenio is its total transformation of the bus industry structure and regulatory arrangements. However, this transformation has been happening one phase at a time and huge swathes of the city have much the same kind of bus system they had before.

Gilbert highlights the ongoing battle with the
'traditional' bus industry as central to the dangers facing Transmilenio.

Winning over a portion of this chaotic industry has always been one of the most amazing things about the Bogota's BRT system's early successes. However, it now seems that this involved overly generous conditions for the operating companies. There are now increasing calls to 'democtratize' the ownership of the system.

The power of the 'traditional' bus industry outside the system also remains very strong, both as direct competition to Transmilenio and as a set of lobbies opposed to its further expansion. Gilbert alleges that the new Mayor and his political party have close links with this transport lobby.

This is a helpful but sobering addition to the literature on Transmilenio. It highlights that transforming public transport in Bogotá remains an unfinished task. It also reminds us that the visually-striking engineering on the streets is not even half the story.

Formal reference: Gilbert, Alan (2008) "Bus Rapid Transit: Is Transmilenio a Miracle Cure?", Transport Reviews, Volume 28, Issue 4 July 2008, pages 439 - 467

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