Last month, I had the opportunity to visit Bogotá. As late as a year ago, I had never expected to visit Colombia, as it was not on my radar as an interesting – or safe – place to enjoy some time away. But a family wedding brought me here, and many of my preconceptions went out the window. The people are friendly, the countryside beautiful, and the security much improved. (It was especially nice to be so far south at a time when even the US south was suffering from a lingering cold snap.)
Bogotá, the nation’s capital and largest city (with a population of about 8 million), is also one of the world’s highest cities, with an elevation of 2600 metres. The city is spread out on a north-south axis, As Bogotá has grown, so has its transportation headaches. Like most Latin American cities (even including those with heavy-rail metro systems), the principal mode of public transit are private minibuses, which travel along all the major roads with the route posted on the windshield, merely a long list of neighbourhoods and landmarks the unscheduled service stops at.
Huge fleets of minibuses, stopping anywhere they are flagged down, aren’t exactly the most efficient mode of transport, though it can be convenient (and cheap) for passengers. Combine those buses (of varying age, upkeep and tailpipe emissions), with trucks, motorbikes, private cars and other street traffic, in a city surrounded by mountains, and you have a recipe for a smoggy, congested, mess. So the city, under the leadership of bold, clever (and sometimes near-dictatorial) city officials began to address it with a three-pronged attack: buses, bikes, and bans.
During the last decade, Bogotá took the lead of Curitba, Brasil, and began rolling out an advanced bus rapid transit system, called TransMilenio. TransMilenio solidified the Latin American tradition of high-concept BRT systems (which has been replicated in Mexico City to augment its already expansive Metro system) with a complex web of routes operating in exclusive lanes and serving fare-paid platforms in simple, modular, stations.
TransMilenio proved to be more complex than I expected. There are dozens of routes (even though there are perhaps only three major corridors). Each route number starts with a letter which corresponds to one of eight zones in which the bus terminates, while the one or two digit number corresponds with the service pattern (every day, weekday peak only, express, line-haul, short-turn service, etc.). The stations, while minimalist and modular, can be large, with up to three different fare booths, and a RFID-card entry system. The buses, with off-side, high-platform doors load at the stations, lining up with sliding glass platform doors. Despite all the stairs to cross the Autopistas and arterial roads (though streetside entrances are not uncommon), ramps and even elevators make the system 100% accessible.
A one-line subway is now beginning construction (a subway was proposed for decades, though Colombia’s second city, Medellin, has a two-line metro), but will not replicate the existing TransMilenio services. Indeed, TransMilenio has purchased bi-articulated buses for a new route nearing completion that will serve El Dorado Airport via a key east-west corridor.
The second piece in Bogotá’s arsenal is the promotion of cycling. Despite being in the mountains, Bogotá itself is relatively flat with a year-round moderate temperature. Along many arterial roads are designated cycling routes demarcated from the rest of the sidewalk. Many of Bogotá’s roads are quite wide, which help to allow for multiple uses. And in addition, every Sunday, a network of streets are blockaded for Cyclovia, though like the National Capital Commission’s closure of the Ottawa parkways on Sundays, this seems more like a promotional tool, and a benefit for recreational cyclists rather than commuters. Though as I saw, it was very popular none-the-less.
Finally, in order to promote transit, cycling (and to a lesser extent, motorcycling), the city government has imposes two mandatory car-free days a year, one of which was Thursday, February 11, the first day I was in the city. Buses, taxis, and motorbikes are permitted, but privately owned automobiles were barred from entering the city or driving on the streets if already present.
In addition, private automobiles are also restricted from driving into the city on alternate days based upon their license plate number. Wealthier individuals get around this either by owning two cars (with different plates), or taking out the motorbike instead. The result, therefore, is not perfect (and perhaps an advantage of congestion charges as an alternative), but it does represent a serious step towards curbing auto traffic.
The first picture below show the morning traffic on Thursday, February 11; the second picture shows the same intersection (though facing the other way) on Friday, February 19.
Finally, one of the more curious aspects of Bogotá’s streetscape that I found is pictured below. They appear to be an intentional preservation of disused streetcar tracks at one of the main intersections in the downtown core, and just metres from the entrance to a TransMilenio station. Normally, the presence of disused tracks are a sign of neglect or poor road maintenance (paved-over tracks will often reappear years later, such as those on Bay at Bloor). I thought this, a reminder of the narrow-gauge trams that were abandoned in the early 1950s, and now driven over by TransMilenio buses, was a nice touch.