Sunday, July 17, 2011

Bogotá's Dilemma: Subway or more Bus Rapid Transit?

Bogotá's Transmilenio vs. Medellin's Metro. Which is the better route?
Bogotá has become world famous for its express bus system, called Transmilenio. But city officials have long aspired to having a subway - in part because of Bogotanos' ambitions to be like cities of rich nations. Bogotá's current Mayor Samuel Moreno won the mayorality in 2007 to a great degree by promising to build a subway system. Ironically, Moreno has continued expanding the existing Transmilenio system and is now suspended from office and may be headed to prison for alleged corruption in that project. His subway plans are still just on paper.

Having a subway certainly could give Bogotá the sheen of modernity, and it would move many thousands of people quickly above or below the city's traffic congestion.

But would a subway be worth it? Before revving up the bulldozers, Bogotá officials should look at the experience of their rival city, Medellin.

Medellin's metro: an expensive trophy?
Planning for Medellin's shiny, modern Metro system began in 1979, and the first train ran in 1995. Since then, they've completed three lines, totaling 32 kms, plus two gondola lines, called Metrocable, and have a ridership of roughly 400,000 people per day. The system has cost $2.2 billion dollars.

In contrast, Transmilenio's planning began in 1997 and the first line opened three years later, in 2000. Barely a decade later, TM has 84 kms of routes and 114 stations and a ridership of 1.4 million people per day, at a cost of several billion dollars - I haven't found an exact number. I read that the total cost of the TM system would have paid for a single 30 km rail line. TM construction has also included public space improvements along the routes.

A rapid bus system also takes space away from private cars - a disadvantage to some, but a positive aspect for those of us who've seen how cars strangle cities. When there's more room on the road, more people take out their cars to fill it. And anybody who's visited Caracas, Venezuela; Santiago, Chile; or Mexico City has seen that subway systems do not eliminate traffic congestion.

Its subway hasn't solved Medellin's traffic jams.
Yes, Medellin's trains and gondolas make the city appear sleek and modern, in contrast to Bogotá's rumbling buses. But TM has put transit lines on the ground much faster at lower cost, and moves many more people. Today, in addition to continuing to expand the rail system, Medellin is also building a trolley line and an express bus system.

System maps tell the story: Transmilenio, left, after a dozen years, and Medellin's subway system, right, after 30 years. 
TM certainly has its problems (some of them infuriatingly easy to solve). And subways have big advantages, including capacity, speed, lack of air pollution and their impact on a city's image. But when it comes to getting a system on the ground quickly and economically and moving lots of people, bus rapid transit wins hands down. 

Perhaps once Bogotá's got a well-developed express bus network and the city's population has grown to big for the system on certain corridors, it should consider a subway. But, for the foreseeable future, more TM expansion looks like the best choice.

Related post: Five Mysteries about Transmilenio.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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