Abigail Keene-Babcock

Bogot?s Transmilenio: Transformation of a City ? la BoP?

Transmilenio feeder busIf you’ve been to Bogot? in the last seven years, you’ve probably noticed a city that is distinctly different from the metropolises of many other Latin American countries. It’s cleaner, more efficient and easier to navigate. Not only that, many of the city’s public spaces exist alongside, not in spite of, vehicle transit networks.

This is no accident. Bogot?’s hugely successful Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system, the Transmilenio, has been the centerpiece of the city’s urban regeneration. (Sidenote: I spent much of July/August 2006 traveling to Bogot? and other cities in Latin America, conducting independent research on urban transportation reform).The Transmilenio system now attracts visits by city planners, engineers, development institutions, and politicians from the world over, all of whom come to learn about innovations in urban transportation. As many cities’ privately operated, informal systems become increasingly inefficient, unsafe, and environmentally disastrous, Bogot? has been inundated with city planners looking for new answers.

It’s not surprising, then, that Bogot?’s BRT system was featured heavily in the annual “Transforming Transportation” Conference, hosted by WRI’s EMBARQ program in Washington, DC last week. I had a great opportunity to listen in as experts from Bogot? gave updates on Transmilenio and discussed the continuing challenges that the system faces as it enters its eighth year of operation.

While participating in the conference, though, I was struck by the lack of discussion of Transmilenio as a BoP system. In fact, in all the discussion about Bogot?’s successes and challenges, Transmilenio is rarely analyzed specifically in terms of its focus on and relevance to the BoP. According to Dario Hidalgo, a BRT and urban mobility expert who was deeply involved with the development of Bogot?’s BRT system and who is now a member of the EMBARQ team, Transmilenio was intended to be a BoP solution from its inception.

For Enrique Pe?alosa, the mayor of Bogot? who drove the initial planning and implementation of Transmilenio, making high quality transportation accessible to Bogot?’s low-income population was central to the project. By attacking the public transportation crisis, characterized by “penny wars,” gaps in service, unequal pricing, high levels of pollution, and serious traffic congestion, the new BRT system aimed to reduce inequality. This included not only disparities in the quality of transportation services, but also long-term economic and educational inequities perpetuated by a lack of mobility and access between high and low-income areas of the city. [WRI has an interesting feature piece available that also describes the breadth and vision of Pe?alosa’s urban reform efforts].

BRT StationFor those who are unfamiliar with Bogot?’s BRT, the system works something like an above-ground metro, except that it’s more flexible and can be expanded or changed at a fraction of the cost required for a traditional metro. The Transmileno has main “trunk” routes that are integrated with each other. It uses red high-capacity buses that are centrally-controlled and run in segregated lanes alongside private vehicle routes. The trunk lines also offer express and “super-express” services to the most heavily traveled points. The Transmilenio’s stations are also modeled on a modern metro system, with Smartcards, turnstile systems and raised platforms that allow for rapid boarding and off-loading. [For more details, check out Arturo Ardillo’s case study, and visit the Transmilenio website to see what it looks like and how it has grown].

Most important for the BoP, however, are the “feeder” routes, served by the same model of high-capacity buses, except painted green to differentiate with the main trunk routes. These cover the high-density, low-income neighborhoods on the periphery of the city and bring passengers to the trunk “portal” stations. One fare is charged for any travel one-way on a trunk line. Use of the feeder buses is free.

The question is, did Bogot?’s Transmilenio really turn out to be a BoP model?

The first way to answer this is to look at the actual “clients” who use the service. According to updates presented at the conference this week, 88% of Transmilenio’s riders are “low-income” and belong to the first three socioeconomic “strata,” or levels, as classified by the Colombian government. Although a direct comparison of this figure with BoP data for Colombia in our Next 4 Billion report is difficult, it is safe to say that if 57% of all Colombians fall into the BoP category, and 68% of all Colombians fall into the government’s first three socioeconomic brackets, there’s huge overlap. Clearly, of the million or more customers that Transmilenio serves each day, a majority of them are from the BoP.

Looking at other aspects of Transmilenio’s planning and development, more details emerge that reflect trends we’ve seen in other BoP models. From the beginning, flexibility and constant re-working based on experimentation and consumer reactions has been worked into the planning and implementation processes. Use of advanced but relatively low-cost technologies and infrastructure has made this level of adaptability possible.

As one of the experts from Bogot? noted at the conference, an understanding not only of income levels and price points but also of how customers interact with the system and how they feel about using it has been and will continue to be a key to success. Consumer education (which has become increasingly complex as Transmilenio has entered Phase II and III of its expansion) has become an important part of the business model. At times, highly visible and approachable Transmilenio personnel have been positioned right on station platforms to actively seek out uncertain riders and help them get to and from their desired destinations. Now, there are even programs that send people into schools to teach kids how to use the system

In terms of its financials, Transmilenio uses the trunk line fares to subsidize the free feeder bus systems that almost exclusively serve low-income communities and even slum areas. As a result, Transmilenio charges a flat rate for any distance traveled and the poor are not penalized for living in more marginalized areas. In this sense, Transmilenio mirrors other BoP business plans that succeed in serving a broader swath of customers by using user fees paid in one area to support the operation of services in another, thus drawing more users into the system overall.

Yet many challenges still face Transmilenio and these reveal that even models that act to include the BoP may still not provide access to all. There is serious concern that the lowest income segments of the market are still priced out of the system, evidenced by an alarmingly high average of 7 km walked per day in Bogot?. Trouble spots in the system are also concentrated in the feeder routes, which initially received much less attention in planning and implementation than was given to the main trunk lines. The feeder system is far less efficient and slower, due to narrower and poorer-quality roads in suburban settlements. Congestion in these areas is also an issue, since feeder routes do not have segregated lanes and the Transmilenio buses compete with all other vehicles. An almost complete lack of funding for improvement and maintenance of the feeder routes has been a major problem, given that there are now over 500km of feeder routes, compared with 84km of trunk lines.

Bogot?’s Transmilenio has certainly improved the quality of life for the majority of the city’s citizens, rich and poor, proving that a focus on the BoP’s needs and their potential to be included in markets for high-quality services can have transformative effects for entire populations. While Bogot?’s model may require greater intervention and support from the government in order to improve the feeder routes and offer a subsidization plan for those still left out of the system, it stands as an impressive example of how collaboration between a variety of public and private actors has produced a self-sustaining solution.