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Fronteras Desk In Colombia: Transmilenio Rapid Bus Technology Studied By US Urban Planners

A clear bus lane beside traffic in downtown Bogotá. On the upper right, a mural of Colombian writer and Nobel Laureate Gabriel García Márquez who died in 2014. (Lorne Matalon)

This story was produced by Marfa Public Radio and Fronteras: The Changing America Desk. Fronteras is a consortium of NPR member stations in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California focused on the US-Mexico border. 

BOGOTA, Colombia -- Cities in the southwest such as Albuquerqueand Houston are pinning the future of mass transit on a system known as Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT. San Diegoand Los Angeles already have BRT while in Phoenix, passage of Arizona Proposition 104includes money for a technology called BRT Lite.

BRT replicates light rail and underground subways — with dedicated lanes and rail-like stations — at far less cost. And that is why BRT is a technology that US urban planners are studying at a time of stressed public budgets. And the system that is often cited by mass transit advocates is theBRT in Bogotá, Colombia, one of South America’s major cities.

In any public policy discussion, such as where to deploy tax dollars, the story begins with money. Studies compiled by the US federal government suggest ballpark numbers that appear to favor BRT over a technology called Light Rail and traditional underground metros, or subways.

A mile of subway can cost $250 million to build. Light rail can cost from $20-50 million per mile. With BRT the conversation starts at $7-15 million per mile. There are variables such as the cost of real estate needed to create dedicated lanes that BRT buses travel through, the cost of labor and regulatory fees.

“I like BRT because it’s fast," said a passenger, Carlos Arturo. In Bogotá, BRT s called the Transmilenio, a play on words that refers to the millennium year of 2000 when it opened. The system moves close to two and half million people a day, more than many metros. Bright red buses are articulated, meaning two sections with an accordion-like middle for turns. They run in dedicated lanes. Stand on a bridge at rush hour and you see clear bus lanes parallel a snake of traffic. BRT feels like a subway. But it’s all above ground.

I rode the BRT in Bogotá with Dario Hildalgo. He was the deputy general manager of the system when it opened. Today’s he’s the Bogotá-based researcher with the non-profit World Resources Institute's Ross Center for Sustainable Cities in Washington DC.

“The cities that really work for people are the cities that are designed for people to move around, not the cities designed around the car,” he said as we rode past the car and truck traffic that Bogotános deal with daily.

In Bogotá, BRT is part of a greater Bogotá, BRT is part of a greater consideration of what makes a city work. There are also 270 miles of bicycle lanes here. Hidalgo says Transmilenio helps make a city work by physically starting at society’s edge.

“The original design is for the terminals to be in lower income areas,” he said,” to give people there more mobility.”

To a person, passengers said their quality of life had been improved, in some cases radically, by the arrival of Transmilenio, though all mentioned the growing pains the system is wrestling with.

“The level of service is not the standard that the people deserve,” said Hidalgo. “It can get very, very busy in peak hours.”

Passengers interviewed for this story had variations on the same theme—-great system, but often a smothering blanket of people, crowded platforms and a battle mentality at rush hour to get on and off. And passenger Valeria Montoya said it’s sometimes rough for women.

“I push back to defend myself,” she said in Spanish, referring to groping, a common complaint.

Another passenger Nuvia Rodríguez said she has he own strategy for avoiding what she said is claustrophobic feeling at peak hours. "When I can, I just wait for another, less crowded bus," she said.

Transmilenio's new CEO Alexandra Rojas  took the reins January 1, 2016. Rojas wants more buses to relieve overcrowding. But she says any deficiencies are trumped by a system that matches a city’s need, which is why US urban planners are looking at BRT.

“I’m not into cars but if I was, I mean we all would love to have a Porsche. And it’s beautiful and it could be really, really, really nice to solve your transportation needs, she explained.

"(But) if I have to move 150 people, to use that example, I would probably not use a Porsche. Public policy is always about implementing decisions with very limited resources.”

BRT plans in Albuquerque and Houston, a form of BRT planned for Phoenix, BRT in San Diego and Los Angeles are all a nod to that notion that you get from here to there more cheaply.

“BRT has become this very important contender,” said Carlos Felipe Pardo. I met him in his modest office at the non-profit research group in Colombia called Despacio, or "slowly."

“The BRT normally is something that is good for anything from 10 thousand until 40 thousand passengers per hour per direction,” he told me.

Above that, and Pardo says a metro might be suitable. Below that, he says the choice is Light Rail or BRT.

“Light rail is competing in demand and capacity with the BRT, but the BRT is really much cheaper.”

Urban sustainability researcher Dario Hidalgo said representatives of numerous mass transit agencies, academics and urban planners from many countries have been focused on both the promise and the challenge of BRT.

“Many cities in the US are considering BRT as an option to Light Rail or other forms of mass rapid transit,” he said. “But there is always a big debate because the people who love trains will always love trains.”

The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) in New York monitors BRT worldwide and scores various iterations of BRT technology, from Gold Standard BRT to BRT in name only. From ITDP's website:

"The BRT Standard is an evaluation tool for world-class bus rapid transit (BRT) based on international best practices. It is also the centerpiece of a global effort by leaders in bus rapid transit design to establish a common definition of BRT and ensure that BRT systems more uniformly deliver world-class passenger experiences, significant economic benefits, and positive environmental impacts."

ITDP says another tangent of the BRT debate is America’s car culture. Dedicated bus lanes imply taking lanes away from cars. The political will to do that in some instances isn’t there.