Rapid Bus Lines Eased Bogotá’s Gridlock, but Struggles Remain
By MICHAEL KIMMELMAN
BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Over many decades — especially in developing parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America — millions of people fleeing war, natural disasters and poverty have settled into barrios, favelas and slums on the sprawling fringes of already strained cities. The newcomers, like other residents, need to move around to reach jobs and schools. And city streets and transit systems, not built to anticipate the masses of recent arrivals, have been overwhelmed by an avalanche of cars, trucks and privately operated minibuses.
Gridlock sounds like a relatively minor problem compared with the first-order crises that cities have to address, like lack of housing or clean water, but its ripple effects on employment, sleep, mental health, child care and education, among other issues, are profound.
Take Bogotá, for instance. In the 1940s and ’50s, about 600,000 people lived in Colombia’s capital, a mile and a half up in the Andes. During a moment of optimism, the city invited the famous Swiss architect Le Corbusier to design a master plan that envisioned a sprawling spiderweb of modern highways to replace the city’s trams and regional railroads. With American encouragement and money, Bogotá rid itself of its trains and went all in on cars and a spaghetti entanglement of new roads. Le Corbusier’s reconfiguration imagined comfortably accommodating an anticipated influx of as many as 1.5 million people by
the turn of the 21st century.
But the unanticipated happened. Refugees seeking to escape poverty and violence in the countryside during Colombia’s decades-long civil war flooded into the city. A vast patchwork of haphazard, chaotic streets and informal settlements of jury-rigged houses sprawled across the high plain and crawled up the mountain slopes. And people kept coming. Most recently, the new arrivals include waves of Venezuelan migrants. Today, the city has more than eight million people — 11 million if you include the immediate exurban population — and it covers a land area twice as large as New York City.
Bogotá’s experience was not so unusual, but no other city in the region — and few in the world, outside China — tried to tackle the transportation problem that resulted from these mass migrations as seriously as it did.
For a brief shining instant in the early 2000s, it even looked as if the city had solved the great mobility riddle. It hit on a dull but slyly effective strategy to move millions of commuters: rapid buses.
Called TransMilenio, Bogotá’s bus system took inspiration from the city of Curitiba, Brazil, which instituted one of the first successful rapid bus networks. Bogotá’s more extensive network of 12 bus lines covered 71 miles.
The new rapid buses weren’t as fast as a metro, but they were up and running in a fraction of the time and at a vastly lower cost. They took over lanes on existing boulevards, making limited stops and moving more quickly than the ragtag fleets of notoriously accident-prone microbuses they replaced, which were operated by countless uncoordinated companies. TransMilenio’s stations resembled those for trains. Passengers paid in advance, boarding through all doors, radically speeding up the boarding process.
Crucially, the bus network knitted formerly disconnected slums and other farflung, underserved districts of Bogotá with the city’s center. After only several months in operation, ridership had doubled.
“It was a miracle,” Dario Hidalgo, an early manager of TransMilenio, told me recently. “People couldn’t believe the difference.” Started in December of 2000, the new system became the signature achievement of a charismatic, self-confident technocrat, an economist-turned-mayor named Enrique Peñalosa. Soon, with Mr. Peñalosa’s advocacy and the system’s success, TransMilenio made Bogotá a worldwide model of progressive urban policy.
Development banks and philanthropies seeded transit projects in its image across the planet. Cities from Jakarta to Quito, Karachi to Mexico City all aspired to imitate Bogotá. What Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao did to set off a tsunami of museum projects and the High Line in New York did to repurpose derelict railway tracks, TransMilenio did for global transportation.
But that wasn’t the end of the story. Today Bogotá’s rapid bus system serves about two million riders a day. It is also among the city’s most embattled institutions.
The reasons are not mysterious. Not long after TransMilenio’s first flush of success, riders began to find themselves packed into sweltering sardine cans, which broke down and were poorly policed. Women reported being molested.
The very popularity of the buses made them crowded and dangerous. They also suffered the whims of constantly shifting city administrations. After Mr. Peñalosa, a succession of mayors at first pushed TransMilenio along, and then increasingly neglected it. Buses aged and weren’t replaced. Those first 71 miles of bus lanes were supposed to grow into 241 miles, but the additional miles were never built.
As promises were broken, and service declined, one mayor became linked to a scheme to embezzle millions of dollars and was sentenced to 18 years in prison. The stolen money was supposed to go for TransMilenio and new roads.
Now, 20-odd years after TransMilenio was introduced, Bogotá is still bogged down in gridlock. Its latest solution is to build a metro, an idea debated here since the 1940s. The new metro, as it’s now conceived, would not replace the buses but would work in tandem with them. The outgoing mayor, Claudia López, recently started construction of the metro’s first line, an aboveground route that she hopes will eventually be followed by two more. At the end of October, Bogotanos elected her successor, Carlos Galan, who ran on his support for the metro.
I traveled to Bogotá a decade ago and was struck by the many signs of TransMilenio’s decline, even while the rest of the world was still touting its early success.
So I returned earlier this year to try to understand what had happened to this big idea that had inspired so many imitators.
Was this a story of failure in a city that had come to symbolize urban progress? Or something very different?
Getting Down the Mountain
On the mountainous outskirts of Bogotá sprawls a neighborhood called Ciudad Bolívar. Like many informal settlements, it arose with no plan, one cinder-block-and-corrugated-metal house at a time. Its population is now roughly the size of the city of Miami.
There I met a 60-year-old woman named Maria Victoria Vélez, who, a decade ago, was chased with her children from the countryside by warring armies, and sought refuge in Bogotá. She scraped together enough money to pay off local gangs for a plot of land on a precarious slope.
On the day we met, Ms. Vélez brewed a pot of coffee for her husband then led me from her house along a dirt path to a street corner up the mountain, where the air was black with smoke from sausage vendors and truck exhaust. At the corner, TransMilenio feeder buses picked up passengers before snaking down the hill toward the nearest rapid bus hub.
To make her living, Ms. Vélez sold trash bags from a rickety folding metal grocery cart. She stocked up on the bags in a neighborhood a couple of bus rides away, where they are cheaper to buy, before peddling them in more affluent parts of downtown — from home to there, several bus rides in all.
The trip first required getting down the mountain. We could have taken one of the shiny cable cars that now shuttle about 25,000 Ciudad Bolívar residents each day to the rapid bus hub at the bottom. But Ms. Vélez said she has vertigo after a tumble down the cliff outside her house, and the ride made her lightheaded.
Measured by per capita ridership, the cable car system — an initiative started by Mr. Peñalosa during a second term as mayor — was an extraordinary public investment in one of the city’s poorest districts. When I took it myself, I was struck by how well it ran as well as by the magical experience of floating over children playing soccer and older folks, not long after sunrise, learning to tango on a rooftop. The cars sail over a hillside of makeshift houses all painted pink, yellow and turquoise. On one ride down from the top of Ciudad Bolívar, I sat beside a college student who told me the cable car had cut nearly two hours off his daily commute.
But Ms. Vélez needed to take a bus. A few were free but too crowded to board. After half an hour or so, we finally squeezed into a regular bus — the 70cent fare cut meaningfully into Ms. Vélez’s daily budget, but time was precious. It was mobbed. Riders leaned on each other to keep their balance.
In all, we took five buses, two of them supposedly rapid ones on dedicated lanes, to fetch the trash bags and reach Chapinero, a well-to-do neighborhood near the city center. I glanced at my watch when we neared our final stop. Nearly three hours had elapsed since we had left Ms. Vélez’s house.
Asking a Lot From a Bus
Like Ms. Vélez, Claudia López, Bogotá’s outgoing mayor, spent years in Ciudad Bolívar. She moved there as a teenager, before TransMilenio came along. As a university student, she had to dart and jostle with other commuters, street vendors and a reckless assortment of diesel-spewing, come-whenever-they-felt-like-it microbuses that would charge the
crowded curbs to compete for, and sometimes run over, passengers.
“It was hell,” she says. “It’s a wonder more people didn’t get killed.”
Ms. López worked in Mr. Peñalosa’s first administration, when TransMilenio was just getting off the ground. The buses made her journey immeasurably better, she recalls. “It was one of the proud achievements of Bogotá,” she recalled. “But we asked too much of it.”
Mr. Peñalosa returned to City Hall to serve his second term as mayor from 2016 to 2019, during which time he started to shore up TransMilenio’s by then failing finances, procured cleaner buses to replace the city’s polluting, broken-down fleet, won federal aid for new routes and built the cable car in Ciudad Bolívar. Air quality around buses and stations improved by nearly 80 percent.
After years of public frustration, however, not even Mr. Peñalosa could resist all the public and political momentum behind a train. As mayor, he secured money from the federal government to help pay for construction, and then signed contracts with Chinese companies to engineer the first route.
Elected in 2019 to succeed Mr. Peñalosa, Ms. López pressed environmental and women’s health issues, in addition to making mobility a top priority. Her vision for the city mixes bikes, more cable cars, more rapid buses, green streets and the metro, an initiative whose complications occupied much of her time. The new metro line will serve a million passengers a day, she estimates, cutting some commute times in half.
When we met, she recalled her own youth as a “Claudia model 1990,” as she put it, a college student who rode a reckless microbus to school from Ciudad Bolívar. She was succeeded by a “Claudia model 2001,” who was “amazed by TransMilenio” when it was new.
If the first metro line is completed on schedule, a model 2028 Claudia will ride the route, “thrilled at its convenience and speed,” she said. Fingers crossed, a model 2035 Claudia will board a proposed third line to visit her mother’s house back in Ciudad Bolívar.
“What happiness!” Ms. López told me. But you don’t have to have read Gabriel García Márquez to imagine why Colombians are fatalists. There’s a popular meme that regularly surfaces on Colombian social media showing a banner headline from the front page of El Tiempo, the national newspaper: “Bogotá Will Have a Metro in Three Years.”
The headline is from 1987.
Infrastructure Out of Fashion
What happened to TransMilenio is, in part, the familiar churn of politics. The rapid bus system was an egalitarian-minded initiative devised to reach underserved populations, but it also became synonymous with Mr. Peñalosa, a center-right technocrat from the city’s social elite. When leftists won City Hall, they declined to follow the lead of a political opponent. They promoted the metro as their alternative. They found unlikely allies in many wealthy residents who hated the buses for hogging dedicated lanes and Mr. Peñalosa for cracking down on private cars.
“Every TransMilenio bus became a rolling wanted poster of me,” is how Mr. Peñalosa puts it. We met for lunch one day in a restaurant near his home in a leafy, well-to-to neighborhood. A tall man with a booming voice and helmet of gray hair, he projects the demeanor of a proud, cornered general.
“You see the people here?” he said to me at one point, sweeping his hand over the tables of diners in cashmere sweaters, nibbling carpaccio. “They would never be caught dead riding TransMilenio. Now they’re on board for building a subway — even though I assure you that 99.9 percent of them have no intention of ever using it.”
Even beyond Bogotá, the political climate has started to turn against rapid buses. As Walter B. Hook, a leading transit expert, points out, the academic left now casts TransMilenio’s displacement of the old, unsafe microbuses as a globalist, corporate takeover of a formerly “populist” system. The argument, Mr. Hook says, echoes the call for privatizing public transportation that right-wing libertarians have long made.
The outcome of losing both the academic left and the right, adds Mr. Hook, is that “technocrats,” as he described himself and others arguing for the practical virtues of rapid buses, now “have no clear political constituency.”
Put differently, as in the United States, experts and technocrats have fallen out of fashion. Big infrastructure projects, it turns out, are no less susceptible to trends than shoes or music.
“For a while it was fashionable to build a B.R.T. system,” Mr. Hook says, using transportation shorthand for bus rapid transit. While director of the nonprofit Institute for Transportation and Development Policy from 1993 to 2014, he witnessed up close what happened in Bogotá and in many cities that followed its lead.
“Because of Bogotá, places that shouldn’t have built a B.R.T. built one,” he says. “Other cities built one in the wrong place, or built bad systems, or built OK ones, but the quality couldn’t be maintained. Then the fashion died out and political will evaporated. Philanthropies moved on. The heavy-rail metros have big lobbies behind them — German, French, Chinese and Japanese. People started looking for new solutions.”
Improving a Flawed System
New solutions are, in a sense, what I was looking for myself when I returned to Bogotá, having seen the rapid buses in decline. Much had changed in the interim. The buses were still crowded, and there were still problems with crime and breakdowns and widespread frustration. But Mr. Peñalosa had built the cable car. While not in his political party, Ms. López shared a desire to link poor districts to jobs and schools and had carried forward the vision of more cable cars, bike and bus lanes, laying the groundwork for the metro.
This time I saw the messy, grinding reality of politicians grappling with a flawed system, each other and bureaucracy — yielding incremental progress.
Bogotá still has gridlock because its road system is a puzzle, but by any sensible measure the rapid buses have been a remarkable success, considering how quickly the network came into existence and how many people it continues to serve. It is, like so many public systems around the world, from global air travel to the New York City subway, troubled, infuriating and indispensable.
“The absurd idea that TransMilenio is a failure is pushed by wealthy car owners in Bogotá inconvenienced by the buses,” is how Philipp Rode, executive director of the LSE Cities initiative at the London School of Economics, puts it. In just over two decades, he points out, Bogotá has gone from a dystopia of private cars and microbuses to a metropolis crisscrossed by nearly 400 miles of bike lanes, the most extensive network in Latin America, with more daily riders than Copenhagen and Amsterdam combined.
Bike trips now account for 17 percent of daily commutes in the city, up from fewer than one percent in 1996. Residents have come to embrace the Sunday bans on private cars in the city center. Even TransMilenio has been rising in local satisfaction polls as cleaner buses have arrived along with the promise of new routes and a metro. Ultimately, Ms. López envisions an interdependent transportation network of bikes, cars, buses, greenways and the metro linking up with a new regional rail system that would use the pathways of tracks abandoned when Bogotá ditched trains for cars roughly three-quarters of a century ago.
What’s old will be new again. Bogotá’s experience reflects a basic truth about infrastructure: that executing meaningful change requires working on a time scale longer than politics — and public patience — typically allows. But this is a moment of urgency. More than half of all people on the planet now live in urban areas, and with climate change accelerating global migration, by the middle of the century, this number will be closer to two-thirds, according to World Bank estimates.
Nearly all that urban growth — 96 percent of it, warns the International Committee of the Red Cross — will be in slums on the expanding edges of fragile cities. Places like Ciudad Bolívar. So the clock is ticking on the mobility riddle.
In Chapinero, I watched Ms. Vélez as she trundled from restaurant to beauty parlor to sneaker store, forbearing the impatient, pitying looks of shopkeepers and passers-by, thanking everyone and always offering a prayer, whether they bought her bags or declined. After a few hours, she decided to call it quits.
It had been an exceptionally good day, she told me. She netted $7.
TransMilenio and the feeder bus back up the hill allowed Ms. Vélez to return home in time to prepare a late dinner for her husband. The trash bags had earned her less than $1 an hour.
But without the buses, she said, she wouldn’t have been able to buy food.
On that bus down the mountain, while people pressed into each other for support, a passenger played reggaeton on a boombox. A few riders sang along. The whole system was clearly strained to capacity, but, jammed in among the workers and students, I scribbled a word in my notebook before helping Ms. Vélez lift her grocery cart full of trash bags down to the sidewalk.
This article is from Headway, an initiative from The New York Times exploring the world’s challenges through the lens of progress. Headway looks for promising solutions, notable experiments and lessons from what has been tried. The Headway initiative is funded through grants from the Ford Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF), with Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors serving as a fiscal sponsor. The Woodcock Foundation is a funder of Headway’s public square. Funders have no control over the selection, focus of stories or the editing process and do not review stories before publication. The Times retains full editorial control of the Headway initiative.
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