Friday, February 28, 2014

The First Signs of Bogotá's Subway

You've probably seen tents like these, on Carrera 10, around town. They're obtaining core samples to study the soil's characteristics to see how best to dig the tunnels for Bogotá's planned subway.

According to projections, tunnel digging will start in late 2015 and the first trains will roll in 2020.

But does anybody really believe that? TransMilenio construction has experienced delay after delay, mismanagement and corruption scandals. Why should we expect subway construction to be any different - except on a much larger scale? And that's without considering the possibility of an economic slide which could leave the project unfinished.

Bogotá's metro is also being marketed with false promises. The government website Metro of Bogotá makes several predictions:

With a subway there'll be fewer cars on the street. - Have these people, I wonder, ever visited Santiago, Chile, Mexico City, or Caracas, Venezuela? All those cities have metros - and also horrendous traffic congestion. It's well documented that each time a car is removed from the street it only provides incentive for another car to use that space. And, remember that the number of private cars in Bogotá is exploding. If a subway reduces traffic congestion, it will only be for a short time.

With a subway, Bogotá will have cleaner air - Well, perhaps - if they finally remove those ancient buses from the streets. A subway will certainly reduce demand for buses along some corridors. But the space freed up will be grabbed by more private cars and trucks - which will pollute the air. And, if the influx of cheap, highly polluting Chinese and Korean vehicles continues, Bogotá's air may continue getting dirtier.

The drilling work leaves annoying and
slightly dangerous afterthoughts
like these protruding metal bars.
With a subway, Bogotá will be a denser city - That's probably true, since developments such as retail, offices and housing tends to concentrate along transit corridors, which is good. But the question here is not whether a subway will be nice to have, which nobody disputes, but whether it's the best option for the city. There are other ways to densify the city, without the need for a hugely expensive mega-construction project that will tear up central Bogotá for a decade. (But it's also worth observing that, by moving people underground, a subway can suck life from the street.)
The planned subway line. 

With a subway, Bogotá will have more income - Again, probably true. But the cost for that income is immense. The question Bogotá needs to ask is not whether a subway will be useful, but whether its cost could be better invested in light rail, more TransMilenio expansion, or even schools, parks and hospitals.

That said, here's one big thing in favor of a subway line. According to this website a subway can carry more
than ten times as many people per hour as can a bus rapid transit line.

But I don't think that Bogotá's subway decision is being made based on logistics as much as on status. Bogotá wants to be a Big Important City, and Big Important Cities have subways. Therefore, Bogotá must have a subway.

So, hold on for the ride. Between now and the day, sometime in the 2020s, when the first train cruises underneath Bogotá, expect huge holes in the ground and - even huger delays and scandals.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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