Streams

Lessons of Urban Transit from Bogota

Thursday, May 21, 2009

New York City's transit system faces two almost-certain realities. Its ridership will swell, and it will continue to struggle financially. But planners are hoping to bring a new type of transit to the city, Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT.

More than an express route, BRT is designed to act like an above-ground light rail system, but at a fraction of the cost. Reporter Steven Dudley begins a WNYC series on BRT with a report from Bogota, Colombia, which has emerged as an unexpected model for BRT systems around the globe.

REPORTER: About ten years ago, Bogota’s main artery, known as the Caracas, was filled from side to side with a hodgepodge of yellow, blue, green, white and red buses of all sizes and shapes. The shops were covered in a layer of soot, and the street sat beneath a grayish haze, as the buses coughed out diesel-laced smoke in their futile effort to navigate the constant traffic jam.

SANCHEZ: Esto era una troncal...

REPORTER: Oscar Sanchez has a picture frame shop on 60th Street with Caracas.

SANCHEZ: Los arbolitos hasta se danaban.

REPORTER: This was so full of smoke, he says, even the trees couldn’t survive. What’s more, he adds, we used to call this the “neckbreaking path” because of all the crime.

SANCHEZ: El desnucadero de la Caracas. Lo robaban a usted.

REPORTER: Then Bogota elected Enrique Penalosa, whose obsession with rebuilding urban landscapes had already led him to the small Brazilian city of Curitiba. In Curitiba, buses work like a subway with dedicated lanes and long, caged platforms that process payments and serve as de facto stations. Penalosa did the math: it was up to five times cheaper to build the bus system and would service the 75 percent of the people that didn’t have a car. Then, he says, he fought off the naysayers.

PENALOSA: Road space is the most valuable space a city has. Its more important than diamonds. And one of the most important ideological and political decisions is how to distribute such road space between pedestrians, bicycles, public transport and cars. I would say the way this is distributed says a lot about the democracy.

REPORTER: Within a year, the new system was up and running. Sleek red buses cruised up and down the avenue. The smog dissipated. Business picked up. Penalosa’s own popularity soared, and political controversy has largely subsided, along with commute times. These days, Sanchez prefers to leave his car at the office when he has to pick up supplies in the city center.

SANCHEZ: Anteriormente cuando uno ir al centro...

REPORTER: To get downtown before, he says, it used to take me 45 minutes to an hour. Now I get there in 15 to 20.

SANCHEZ: Estoy alla en 15 minutos.

REPORTER: The change along the Caracas made Bogota the envy of planners and politicians around the globe. From Jarkarta to Cape Town, cities are trying their own BRTs.

It was also the beginning of a city-wide renaissance. Bogota coupled its BRT with 180 miles of bicycle lanes, over a 1000 new parks and plazas, several new housing projects, and refurbished schools. At the Tintal Library, on the western edge of Bogota, users crowd the information desk.

The library sits near one of the city’s main bus lines on what was once a garbage dump. Now, Andres Lara, who works for the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, an independent think tank promoting mass transit systems like the Transmilenio, says the library services hundreds of users a day in this, one of the poorest sections of the city.

LARA: Transmilenio is not only a solution in terms of urban transportation. It is an integrated policy in terms of urban renovation, urban revitalization and urban public space recovery.

REPORTER: But in the ten years of servicing Bogota, a city of 7 million people, the Transmilenio has also manifested a BRT’s limitations. The Transmilenio has elminated hundreds of buses like the ones that once clogged the Caracas, lowering CO2 emissions and opening up the city's lanes. But that's forced many people to depend on its overcrowded feeder system and main stations, and made rush hour often like a rugby match.

REPORTER: This bus service is terrible, says Omar Rodriguez, an office messenger on his way to work. You feel like a hamburger squeezed into a bun.

RODRIGUEZ: Como una hamburgesa apretado…

REPORTER: As he speaks, the bus doors open and dozens squish each other to get on.

The city administrates the service, but contracts out the buses and bus lines. The contracts stretch for years, and there are bureaucratic hurdles each time the system needs a tweak or two. Jorge Matiz is a former professor of urban development at the National University in Bogota.

MATIZ: A pesar de la impronta...

REPORTER: In spite of the permanent imprint they’d like to make with Transmilenio, he says, the whole city cannot operate in the same way. We have to reestablish which type of corridors require which type of public transportation, he adds, and not wed ourselves to one single system.

Implementing a BRT in New York City may require a similar flexibility. Despite a bailout from Albany, the MTA is facing shortfalls, and the population has an already established rhythm to its commute.

But Jaime Fernando Paez, the general manager of the Transmilenio system in Bogota, believes New Yorkers will quickly take to a BRT.

PAEZ: Creo que lo mas importante...

REPORTER: The important thing, he says, is that the New York City government needs to sell the system for what it is: a quicker, but not necessarily a more comfortable, means of transport.

Still, Penalosa, who has lived in New York, says its important to understand that the BRT is not just a glorified bus service.

PENALOSA: Nobody who takes Transmilenio says they’re going to take the bus. It’s as if it were a flying saucer or something, it’s a completely different perception. So the color is important, the name is important. To have very beautiful sidewalks. Improve the whole environment around the system so that you raise the social status of using the bus.

REPORTER: The former Bogota mayor adds that if New York is committed to this project, it could do something that could help cities throughout the United States: make buses sexy again. For WNYC, I’m Steven Dudley in Bogota, Colombia.

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