Take a look at Bogotá's fleet of old, chaotic, smoke belching buses, usually jerking along in fits and stops, and you'll be hard pressed to believe that buses are the solution to this city's transport.
But it's true: Most Bogotanos can't afford private cars, and if they could, the city would turn into one huge traffic jam. A subway line or two won't be operating for another decade at least. And, in any case, even cities with great subways, like New York, Mexico City, Santiago and London, still depend on buses.
But Bogotá's buses are so old, highly-polluting and inefficient that they've earned the nickname 'rolling chimneys.' On top of that, there are thousands too many of them. And, City Hall recently made the situation worse by eliminating the Pico y Placa restriction on buses. Yes, the city has purchased and junked close to 1,000 old buses over the past year - but according to its own statistics the excess is close to 4,000. And that number will only increase as the two new TransMilenio lines slowly go into service.
Those old buses continue to plague the city because of the bus companies' huge economic and political influence. It's exaggerating little to say that they elect and overthrow mayors. And what other explanation but undue influence can there be for the way many buses so shamelessly flout pollution laws and mechanical standards, such as by driving at night without headlights?
Bogotá desperately needs fewer and newer, more efficient buses, as well as a rationally-designed route system.
That's what the long-awaited Integrated Public Transit System, or SITP, is supposed to bring - but it will take strong-willed city officials to make it happen.
As long as buses generate profits, their owners earn more for each additional machine they crowd onto Bogotá's streets - no matter that traffic slows to a crawl. Perhaps by paying bus owners for kilometer traveled, as the SITP is supposed to do, that dynamic will change - but that's a ways off, if it comes at all. A proposed congestion charge would be another huge step forward, but imposing such an unpopular policy would require huge political determination.
Converting Bogotá's buses from a plague on the city into an asset is perhaps the greatest challenge facing Mayor Gustavo Petro's administration. Unfortunately, his recent decision to exclude buses from the Pico y Placa rule makes one wonder whether he's got what it takes to stand up to their mafia.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours