Bogota bus bingo: “Penny wars” meet 21st century

Is your city’s bus system really outrageous?  For perspective, you might want to compare what goes on in your area with what happens on the streets of Bogotá, Colombia.

A penny earned is a penny earned – so goes the old model of public transportation in Bogotá.  A motley crew of private buses ply the streets of Bogotá daily in search of passengers.  Passengers simply hail a bus as they would a taxi.  To exit a bus, you simply ring a bell at the rear door.  A bus will stop anywhere, often twice or three times on the same city block.  The driver will take your cash fare and make change with one hand, while moving the bus back into traffic with the other.  Bus drivers get paid by the number of passengers they carry, so the more passengers carried per day the better the deal for the bus driver. This leads to something called the Penny War, where one bus will race past another to screech to a halt simply to grab the next available passenger.  A fare is a fare, and one more passenger is one more penny in the driver’s pocket at the end of the day.  These buses carry millions of fares a day, so the pennies add up.

In terms of convenience of access for passengers, the system can’t be beat.  You can walk out of your office and hail a bus right there and then.  The driver loves you when you are on the sidewalk.  But once on the bus, you are on your own.  As a passenger, you will need to hold onto your often tiny seat (if you have one) to avoid being displaced into the air as the penny rules, and bus drivers swerve, speed, and jerk their buses to sudden stops at any given moment to pick up a new passenger.

For every bus that stops on a dime, traffic behind the bus must also stop.  More often than not, the buses, taxis, and cars behind will try to pull out to the next lane thus creating a symphony of honking horns from the drivers who are forced to adjust to the incoming traffic.  This can happen block after block after city block.  Many of these city buses, minivans, and vans, in service today are decades old, in poor repair, and spew exhaust fumes into the air with immunity.

However, change is afoot.  This change began just over a decade ago when the city fathers had the good sense to copy an articulated bus transportation system from the city of Curitiba in Brazil.  Bogotá’s Transmilenio is a mass urban transportation rapid transit system that went into service in 2000.  Its buses are uniform in color, and have exclusive designated bus lanes.  The system operates along the center of the Autopista Norte (the North Freeway), for example, where bus stations are accessed via elevated pedestrian walkways.  Generally speedy and almost always crowded, the Transmilenio operates as an above ground subway system.  “Love the speed, hate the crowds”, pretty much sums up the relationship many Bogotanos have with the Transmilenio.

The Transmilenio is a combination of public and private enterprise.  Public money pays for the development of roads and stations, while private companies run the buses.  The city gets a small portion of the profits to help maintain the system, which has been in a constant state of expansion.  Avenida Dorada has been upended for the last couple of years as the line to the airport is built.  The latest plan envisions a Transmileno line along the center of one of Bogotá’s busiest arteries, Carrera 7.  At the end of each Transmileno line, there is a Portal, a large terminal station, from where feeder buses transport passengers at no additional charge to surrounding neighborhoods.  Numbers are hard to pin down, but the Transmilenio today appears to carry close to 2,000,000 passengers a day.

In 2009, a decree was signed into law to radically transform the ‘penny’ buses, and thus the streets, of Bogotá.  The Integrated System of Public Transport (SITP) is designed to alter the city landscape.  13 new entities are being created to run the new system of street buses.  Older buses on the city’s streets are to be replaced by new.  The end of the Penny War is in sight.  The incentive to run red lights to catch the next prospective fare is being removed.  Bus drivers will be paid a fixed salary with benefits, and will no longer be dependent on the number of passengers on their buses to put food on the table.  Bus drivers will no longer have to fumble for change with their right hand while driving with their left.  A smart card is planned and cash will no longer be accepted.  The number of buses on the streets is also being reduced to eliminate redundancy.  Sleek bus stops are already being built across the city.  Supposedly, buses will stop only at designated bus stops.  Passengers should no longer enjoy the special privilege of being let off their bus in the outside traffic lane and having to scurry through moving taxis, cars, and buses, to reach the safety of the sidewalk.

Public transportation in this large metropolis is in a state of flux.  Great changes are in the air.  With the bus system, some of these changes should be evident before this year is out.  The Penny War should be over and done!  But old habits die hard.  Earlier this year, the city launched an advertising campaign along busy Carrera 7 to encourage buses to stop only at the newly built bus stops.  However, so far buses continue to stop where they will, and passengers continue to hail buses where they will.  We just have to believe that once salaried, the bus drivers will be able to put aside their decades old habits of treating the streets of Bogotá as their own personal racetrack and that passengers, once aware that their comfort and safety have been given center stage, will be willing to walk to the nearest bus stop before boarding their bus.