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Why Are People Rioting Over Bogota's Public Transit System?

Why Are People Rioting Over Bogota's Public Transit System?
Reuters

Earlier this month, protests over service on Bogota's bus-rapid transit system, the TransMilenio, quickly escalated into riots in Colombia's capital city.

The event required some 1,200 law officials to contain and led to dozens of arrests, a handful of injuries, and the destruction of five bus stations, according to news reports. (Images of the conflict, here.) The protests reportedly began as demonstrations against the TransMilenio's crowded buses and high fares, and the city's general lack of public transportation options.

The immediate response to the news was surprise that one of the world's most celebrated transit systems could spark such widespread anger. The system, which began operation in late 2000, covers more than 50 miles with nearly 1,300 buses that travel along nine lines, carrying at least 1.4 million passengers a day, according to a recent report [PDF] (other estimates put the figure above 1.7 million). Its origins date back to Mayor Enrique Peñalosa's decision to encourage sustainable mass transport over urban highways.

The TransMilenio system is so universally praised by city and transit planners that it's hard to know where to begin describing its achievements. Since its inception, travel times are down 32 percent in some corridors, traffic fatalities are 89 percent lower, and carbon emissions have fallen by as much as 300,000 tons a year. The system is highly integrated with the city's expansive bike network. The TransMilenio's impact goes beyond the transportation realm: residential properties in the system's footprint now have a premium value of 6 to 17 percent, according to a study from 2007 [PDF].

The fact is, despite this successful record, social dissatisfaction with TransMilenio is nothing new. Public approval of the system began to drop in 2004, with people complaining about crowding and fares. In March of that year passengers protested poor service that resulted largely from ongoing repairs to three of the busways [PDF, p. 18]. In April 2008 passengers again went on strike over the system's service, this time citing overcrowded buses, low frequencies, and a lack of alternatives [PDF, p. 25-26]. Traffic models from this time suggested that without steps to increase the city's public transportation coverage, congestion would reach a standstill by - you guessed it - 2012 [PDF, p. 17].

The complaints hold real validity, according to a comprehensive review of the TransMilenio system published by Alex Hutchinson at The City Fix last summer. At rush hour, stations are so packed that people can't get off the bus, let alone on it. The crowding encourages some travelers to return to their cars, which only increases congestion in the city. Meanwhile the fare, at $1, is considered high for a city whose low-income users earn daily salaries only three times that, on average.

The problem is a complicated one, writes Hutchinson, but it boils down to several core sources. The first is the city's decades-long, unrequited obsession with building a metro system that would cost much more than bus-rapid transit and cover far less of the city. Another is a lack of government subsidies that hampers the system's ability to expand and address its problems. Last, but certainly not least, the expansions that are being made by the system aren't being made quickly enough:

The original TransMilenio plans for 2011 anticipated 170 kilometers of lanes. Instead, Bogota is currently coping with 84 kilometers of completed lanes, with an additional 20 kilometers under construction. While Phase I of the system was implemented seemingly overnight in two years, phases II and III have been delayed, taking 5 years and 7 years to start, respectively. The 20 kilometers of Phase III currently under construction are already 1.5 years behind schedule, with an estimated completion date of 2012, aggravating Bogotanos whose city is mired in public works projects.

The public frustration with TransMilenio has caused concern from other cities that see the system as a model for their own transportation networks. While Bogota's current situation no doubt offers important lessons for transportation planners, it would be wrong to throw out the bus with the bath water, so to speak. What the protests show, if nothing else, is that the work of even a very good public transportation system is never done.

In the above photo, a woman takes cover behind riot police during the demonstration against TransMilenio's poor service. Photo credit: Fredy Builes/Reuters

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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