How not to upgrade a public bus system: Bogotá, Colombia

bogota bus_700x300pxBogotá, Colombia, has been celebrated and emulated worldwide these past 10 years for its innovative Transmilenio system of articulated buses. Reports regularly appear in print that cities far afield, including New York City, are interested in replicating Bogotá’s Transmilenio system. Here at home the system has done well in imposing order on a chaotic urban environment. Transmilenio buses run along designated lanes separated from daily traffic, and generally offer speedy, if at times very crowded, massive ubran public transportation.

All has been well and good for over 10 years. New Transmilenio lines have been successfully added to the system, most recently arriving almost, but not quite, to Bogotá’s airport. The system works efficiently, daily and consistently. Not quite a subway, not a streetcar exactly, not simply a bus, the Transmilineo initiative in Bogotá is a great urban compromise in transportation, an attempt to offer a speedier and lower cost alternative to a 20 or 50 year investment in subway construction. The citizenry of Bogotá, a city of no small size, has given the Transmilenio system a major thumbs up. The system is used by millions daily.

We were doing good.

We are accustomed in the United States somehow to believing that, anywhere other than here, radical changes in urban planning are happening daily, and that those changes are more citizen-friendly, more well thought-out and more successfully implemented than those here at home. Urban planners elsewhere are so much more adept in planning than we are in the US – so goes the thinking. Somehow, in the general mindset, we think that we are behind, less capable of initatiating change for the better than those anywhere other than here. These innovative changes, we believe may be happening in Spain, or in Canada or just possibly in an emergent economy such as Colombia.

Well maybe. Perhaps not. Do we lack perspective?

Back to Bogotá, to where we were doing so well. Here in Bogotá, Colombia, we have decided that we need to unify our non-Transmilenio bus system, our chaotic, broadly diverse, urban, antiquated, daily- polluting patchwork of buses into our very successful Transmilenio network. This sounds very good. Why not marry success to further success. Let’s have an integrated public transportation system unified under the already established Transmilenio brand.

What a great idea!

We could call this integration something unifying, something like Transmilenio Bus, for example. But no, no, no. no. Too simple. No.

Let’s complicate things. Hey, what the hell, let’s change the whole endeavor to something hard to pronounce like SITP. No, not the whole system, just the new bus part. SITP has such a ring to it! Try saying SITP fast three times in a row, in Spanish or in English. But wait. Why don’t we add the word Urbano to that!  Why not? Let’s call this new associated Transmilenio bus system the SITP Urbano. Okay, we’re good. We have come up with a name that is really hard to pronounce and without reference to what we were looking for, the already established Transmilenio brand. But what the hell, we have a new bus system, the SITP Urbano.

Let’s build the buses, give them their SITP (I am never sure if it is SITP or SIPT) logos, add their unifying blue color, and give them a sophisticated new electonic access system, and get them onto the streets of the city as fast as we can. But wait, shouldn’t we have a public education plan in place first, tell people what we are doing, build up to an official launching?  Nah. Shouldn’t we have vending machines that issue the new sophisticated bus passes at designated bus stops?  Nah. Where will people purchase these passes needed for bus entry? People will figure it out on their own. They really don’t need us to tell them what we are doing. Our citizens are very smart!

Guess what. We have had SITP Urbano buses roaming the streets of Bogotá for over a year now and almost nobody knows how to access these buses. We add new routes regularly, monthly it seems. We now have quite a lot of blue SITP buses plying our streets, adding to our urban congestion, traveling their routes generally empty of passengers.

It does not help matters that the designers of the system forgot to provide an easily identifiable means of recognizing where these buses are going, an electronic destination or bus number easily visible at night, for example. No, a non-descript placard, impossible to read, propped up on the interior bus windshield proports to tell you, if you have hawk vision, where the bus in question might be going.

But never mind where the bus is going, how do you pay to get on one of these buses. No, you cannot use cash as you can on the buses being replaced. Nope, you cannot use a Transmilenio electronic card, used throughtout the Transmilenio system. And so?

I have tried more than once to figure out how to get on one of these buses. One of these empty buses passes right by the intersection adjacent to my building. Coming home, it would work out great if I could use it. It turns out I have to apply for a boarding pass on line.   You have to have a fixed address and telephone number to apply. And you have the option of supplying your blood type, sex, occupation, and place of work. Apparently, the system wants to know my life in great detail before issuing me a pass. If you are a casual tourist or visitor to the city, you are going to be out of luck!  You want to go from here to there, sorry, no can do unless you have a couple of weeks available to apply for a transit pass. Funny, this system doesn’t ring a bell in any other major metropolitan center. Up to now, I have been able to get on a bus in London or New York without being vetted first.

So, I can apply for a pass on line. Can they mail or deliver that pass to me electronically?  No. To pick up my boarding pass once approved, I will need to go as far as the airport or to a few very specific out of the way other Transmilenio stations. This of course is not a Transmilenio pass. It will not allow me to board a Transmmilenio bus, simply the convenience of retrieving my pass at one of their stations. This pass is issued by a completely different company from the one that issues the pass that I need to get on a Tranmilenio bus. The Tranmileno authorities are up-beat, saying that a million passengers have already gotten their SITP transit passes. Well, perhaps those first million passengers went through the arduous process of getting a bus pass just for the fun of it, because one thing is for sure they are not riding these buses daily.

Is your head spinning yet?  I decided, as apparently have millions of other Bogotanos, that it was not worth the effort to figure out how to get on one of these new SITP Urbano buses. Nobody seems to have thought it worthwhile to offer a transitional way to board a bus already operating on the streets of the city, proferring cash say, or a widely available Transmilenio bus pass. Nope. Better to have these new SITP Urbano buses ride the streets of the city empty, taunting, like some kind of mirage ghost bus line of the future, than to encourage the citizenry to board!

“Bogotá Humana,” the Human City, is the motto of the present administration in the city of Bogotá, the same administration responsible for crowding the streets with a spanking new urban transporation system of SITP Urbano buses, unavailable to what appears to be about 99% of the citizenry.

Come on guys. There must be a better way to do this!