Sunday, July 17, 2011

Bogotá's Dilemma: Subway or more Bus Rapid Transit?

Bogotá's Transmilenio vs. Medellin's Metro. Which is the better route?
Bogotá has become world famous for its express bus system, called Transmilenio. But city officials have long aspired to having a subway - in part because of Bogotanos' ambitions to be like cities of rich nations. Bogotá's current Mayor Samuel Moreno won the mayorality in 2007 to a great degree by promising to build a subway system. Ironically, Moreno has continued expanding the existing Transmilenio system and is now suspended from office and may be headed to prison for alleged corruption in that project. His subway plans are still just on paper.

Having a subway certainly could give Bogotá the sheen of modernity, and it would move many thousands of people quickly above or below the city's traffic congestion.

But would a subway be worth it? Before revving up the bulldozers, Bogotá officials should look at the experience of their rival city, Medellin.

Medellin's metro: an expensive trophy?
Planning for Medellin's shiny, modern Metro system began in 1979, and the first train ran in 1995. Since then, they've completed three lines, totaling 32 kms, plus two gondola lines, called Metrocable, and have a ridership of roughly 400,000 people per day. The system has cost $2.2 billion dollars.

In contrast, Transmilenio's planning began in 1997 and the first line opened three years later, in 2000. Barely a decade later, TM has 84 kms of routes and 114 stations and a ridership of 1.4 million people per day, at a cost of several billion dollars - I haven't found an exact number. I read that the total cost of the TM system would have paid for a single 30 km rail line. TM construction has also included public space improvements along the routes.

A rapid bus system also takes space away from private cars - a disadvantage to some, but a positive aspect for those of us who've seen how cars strangle cities. When there's more room on the road, more people take out their cars to fill it. And anybody who's visited Caracas, Venezuela; Santiago, Chile; or Mexico City has seen that subway systems do not eliminate traffic congestion.

Its subway hasn't solved Medellin's traffic jams.
Yes, Medellin's trains and gondolas make the city appear sleek and modern, in contrast to Bogotá's rumbling buses. But TM has put transit lines on the ground much faster at lower cost, and moves many more people. Today, in addition to continuing to expand the rail system, Medellin is also building a trolley line and an express bus system.

System maps tell the story: Transmilenio, left, after a dozen years, and Medellin's subway system, right, after 30 years. 
TM certainly has its problems (some of them infuriatingly easy to solve). And subways have big advantages, including capacity, speed, lack of air pollution and their impact on a city's image. But when it comes to getting a system on the ground quickly and economically and moving lots of people, bus rapid transit wins hands down. 

Perhaps once Bogotá's got a well-developed express bus network and the city's population has grown to big for the system on certain corridors, it should consider a subway. But, for the foreseeable future, more TM expansion looks like the best choice.

Related post: Five Mysteries about Transmilenio.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours


Brendon said...

But isn't TM overcapacity on many routes? Would, albeit expensively, a subway help mitigate traffic on the busiest routes. Perhaps the solution is multiple, *integrated*, systems. Just as Medellin is planning and many other "world-class" cities have implemented.

Miguel said...

Yes, TM is overcapacity on various routes at various times. (Which does demonstrate its popularity). Of course, a subway line along those same routes would be great. My point isn't that subways are bad, but that the city can get much more mobility for its buck by continuing the TM system expansion.


Hutch in Brazil said...

While transilenio is certainly over capacity on certain routes a metro wouldn't solve that problem. The real issue is that portals don't connect requiring riders to take circuitous routes thus over loading the system. Metros around the world are over capacity and are looking towards buses to solve this issue. Transmilenio has ridership of over 40,000 per hour along certain routes and that number could be lower with better administration and more feeder routes and another trunk route for a significantly lower price. Walk underneath or around the Medellin metro and you won't see development unlike the transmilenio which boasts pleasant vibrant spaces around many stations.

Miguel said...

The fact that TM is over capacity on some routes is also a good sign, that people want to use it.

A metro line could certainly reduce TM congestion - but it would cost far more than creating equal capacity with more TM lines.

One possible advantage of a subway, however, is that subways appear to encourage densification in urban development, while for BRT the evidence I've seen is mixed.

Esben said...

Implementing a new mean of transport is in my opinion completely insane. TM is great for Bogotá, as I finally got to experience myself over the summer, and in a chaotic city as it is, the feeder system makes it highly scalable.
When some Bogotanos told me that they cannot reach their work with TM because even the feeder route is far away, a subway is not going to be any closer to get to.

Instead of going through the costly hassle of digging in the mountain rock, they should instead focus some effort (Which I heard is underway?!) to implement all the Buseta/Colectivo routes into the TM system. Thus creating a city-wide integrated system. That would certainly also help to create some uniformity with ticketing for instance.

Hire the same drivers to drive the same routes in unified, clean busses. That way, you would also have the beautification effect that a subway would supposedly inflict on a neighborhood like, say, San Mateo, which the 6-wheel Pride doesn't even reach yet.

Would do you think about that?

Miguel said...

Yes, the city plans to integrate the Transmilenio, traditional buses and planned Metro into a single system, the SITP. The concept is good, and let's hope that they implement it better than Santiago, Chile did. And that they use the opportunity to trash those dirty, rolling-wreck buses.

However, the SITP's implementation date keeps getting pushed back, and Enrique Peñalosa, probably the next mayor, says the contract gives too much away to the bus companies and will require passengers to change buses too many times.

Esben said...

Definitely a great thing. I didn't know it was called the SITP. I found their website, but do you have more information about the debate going on around it?
I don't speak much Spanish, but enough to learn from articles I think.

Public transportation is a hard one to crack, because it really balances on the edge between liberal and social principles.. it's normally said that private enterprises have the necessary incentives to deliver better service. But on the other hand, it's also a great point to note that they only go where the money is.

One big company or entity (such as the municipality) could have the power to go through with major environmental and badly needed design-cohesion improvements that could give the whole city a huge leap forward.

Public transportation should be part of the solution, and set an example for all the cars.

Miguel said...

A search of the newspaper El Tiempo's archives should turn up articles about the SITP.

Enrique Peñalosa has argued that the contract is a giveaway to the bus companies. They staged a bus strike demanding - and getting - a bigger slice of the fares to be collected.