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Bus Rapid Transit: Bogotá

Want to learn more about Bus Rapid Transit? Watch this video and let Streetsblog editor Aaron Naparstek show you how BRT works in Bogotá, Colombia. Take a gander and you'll see an efficient, modern and -- relatively speaking -- inexpensive way of moving 1.3 million people per day.

In Bogotá, where the BRT system goes by the much more sexy name, TransMilenio, you'll travel almost three times the speed of the typical New York City bus. The average TransMilenio vehicle travels at 17.4 mph. In New York City, buses poke along at 6.2 mph. Some TransMilenio routes average nearly 25 mph!

For quite a few years now, New York City's Department of Transportation and the MTA have been studying and studying and, sigh... studying the possibility of implementing BRT routes on selected corridors. And if Mayor Bloomberg's congestion pricing plan passes, a significant portion of the promised $354 million in federal funds will go towards launching new BRT lines.

Hopefully, New York City's BRT system will offer many of the excellent features that we saw in Bogotá; features like physically-separated bus lanes, pre-boarding fare payment, wide doors that open at boarding level and a control room nerve center that monitors and manages the entire system. These features give Bogotá a bus system that really works. Take a look.

[bus braking]
Aaron Naparstek: [0:10] At the end of September, I went down to Bogota, Colombia with Clarence Eckerson from Streetfilms, Karla Quintero from Transportation Alternatives, and actually even Ken from Project for Public Spaces was along for the ride as well. We were taken around by Guillermo Gil Penalosa, who is the brother of the former mayor, Enrique Penalosa. [0:32] And he gave us a great tour. We saw all of these incredible urban design innovations that the city of Bogota has been working on for the past dozen years or so. And it was really impressive. We got to take a look at that city's bus rapid transit system, which is called TransMilenio.

[0:51] About 10 years ago, when Enrique Penalosa became mayor, there was a plan on the table to build a network of elevated highways all throughout the city of Bogota. It was incredibly expensive, and multibillion dollar project.

[1:07] And Penalosa and his administration looked at this project and said, this isn't going to do anything actually to solve our traffic congestion problem. It's going to create huge negative environmental impacts on the city as a whole.

[1:21] So Penalosa decided to scrap that project, and instead for a fraction of the cost, replace it with what, I think, still today is the world's most advanced bus rapid transit system.

Aaron Naparstek: [1:34] Tell us what is TransMilenio?
Edgar Sandoval: [1:37] TransMilenio is our bus rapid transit and economical model, specially developed to operate in Bogota in the main corridors. The objective is to give a segregate lane, exclusively for big buses, in order so that people can move very quickly, but with 10 times less the cost of the traditional mass transit systems in the world.
Aaron Naparstek: [1:59] Some people call it surface subway. And you could kind of see why, its buses are on rubber wheels, just like you see buses in New York. But what you see they've done is, in the middle of these busy multilane avenues, almost highways, they've taken away a couple lanes in the middle and they've built these stations. [2:19] And next to the stations, you'll see usually two lanes of buses running on either side. You have a lane for local bus traffic and for buses to pull into the station and you have another lane for the express buses.

[2:32] The buses pull right up to the platform so that the floor of the bus is level with the floor of the station. So it's really easy for wheelchairs, and older people and people pushing stroller to get on and off the buses.

[2:47] I got to interview the CEO of the TransMilenio system, and she's someone who is there from the very beginning of the system and kind of worked her way up.

Angelica Castro: [2:55] Before TransMilenio, in 1998, one trip of 30 kilometers can be done in two hours, two hours and 15 minutes. That same trip you can do it today in 55 minutes.
Aaron Naparstek: [3:13] And how many people are you moving everyday?
Angelica Castro: [3:15] Around 1.3 million people per day. I think nobody believed in Bogota that we could change the way to transport our people. Because since 1947, we started doing and doing some studies, 50 years trying to do some things about it, but nobody said we are going to do it.
Aaron Naparstek: [3:40] They took us on a tour of the TransMilenio control room, it was almost like air traffic control, and in fact that's how they compared it. Six different companies actually own and operate the buses themselves.
Aaron Naparstek: [3:52] How many buses are you guys controlling in here at rush hour? Man 5: [3:55] In a peak hour, like 1,000.
Aaron Naparstek: [3:59] You've got sense of an average speed? Man 5: [4:01] 28 kilometers per hour in an average. But we have lines of nearly 40.
Aaron Naparstek: [4:09] Wow. [4:10] The central hub that we visited dispatches the buses and follows them around the city in real time, they can communicate with drivers individually. And you see the photo of the bus driver pop up on the controller's computer screen when he's getting ready to talk to that guy. They can see if buses are starting to bunch or stack up together.

[4:33] In most of the TransMilenio system are these double long red buses, but traveling around through city neighborhoods, you see these much smaller green buses, and those are called feeder buses. And what the feeder buses do is they travel through neighborhood streets and pick up people and take them to the bigger bus stations.

[4:56] One of the interesting things about the green feeder buses is that they're free. You don't pay for your TransMilenio ride until you get to the bigger bus station. That's one of the things that really speeds up the loading and the unloading, like the subway in New York. You're paying for the bus and the station, rather than having to pay the driver and wait for everyone else to pay the driver.

[5:16] One of the most impressive intermodal transportation features that we saw while we were in Bogota was this bike parking facility inside of a bus station.

Aaron Naparstek: [5:28] The TransMilenio system is a very important integration between transportation means. We have today, three terminals and one station with bike parking facilities. In this case, we are in the Americas Terminal. This parking facility has a 750 capacity. It's very safe; it's a good feeder system for the TransMilenio and it's for free. Man 6: [speaking Spanish] [5:48]

Man 7: [speaking Spanish] [6:06]

Aaron Naparstek: [6:20] They believe that for every 20 people they can get to bike to the bus station, that's one less of these green feeder buses that they need to operate. And that saves the transit system a lot of money. [6:33] So for Bogota, bicycles are really, critical part of the mass transit system. One of the things that's striking about TransMilenio is all times of day, it was just packed. I mean, almost if there is a criticism of the system, that had to be it.

[6:49] But it was really mind blowing. I mean, the fact that as an American, I mean don't know much about Colombia, I think of it as a developing nation or a Third World country. This bus system is so much more advanced and high tech than anything I've ever seen in the US.

[7:05] How has TransMilenio Changed the city?

Angelica Castro: [7:08] Before, we couldn't dream to be talking with you, saying we are going in New York to change something and we want to see you, Bogota. The name of our nation now is in the world and for good things, and TransMilenio is one of the best things that we've had in the last 10 years.


Clarence Eckerson, Jr. has been making fantastical transportation media in NYC since the late 1990s. He's never had a driver's license and never will.

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