Crowded metrobuses and bicycle races: How do people go to work in Bogota

By Lucy Gavrilenko

I was preparing myself for the journey to Colombia for about two months, and being in a rush, I found an interesting trend. The first thing my architectural co-workers and friends told me, finding out my destination, was that “Bogota is the urban paradise”, mainly, because Enrique Peñalosa (two times mayor of the city) performed his endeavours in the field of reformation of the Colombian capital so well.

This opinion was strong enough to make me refresh memories on lectures we had on the sophomore year about wonderful Latin-American bus rapid transit system. Try googling it and you’ll see an amazing picture – buses rushing along the road, people entering bus salons easily, crossing the city and following their plans with happy faces – I don’t even need to mention hundreds of kilometers of bicycle tracks. So it’s really hard to imagine a trick over this. However, when I’ve faced TransMilenio system in person, I experienced all the possible emotions – from love to hate.

To come up with a clear understanding of the situation, I invite you to call to mind some information on Enrique Peñalosa’s personality and his relation to the Bogota transport system.

Enrique Peñalosa – a big fan of the “new urbanism” school, specialist of management and twice mayor of Bogota (1998-2001 and 2015-2019) literally created the transport system for the city, which was overloaded with traffic; also, he reduced the number of cars for more than 40%. Another Enrique’s merit is the significant decreasing of the criminal cases, particularly through fine urban design and city planning.

Describing his style of management, I’d use the word “radical”. Not without a fight, Peñalosa restricted car parking all around pedestrian sidewalks and in the city center; he cleaned up the space for bicycle paths and struck the city space with lines of bus rapid transit system called “TransMilenio”, and even demolished the most criminal neighbourhoods of the city. Today he is a well-known guest speaker of international urban events, where he appears as a consultant sharing his experience in the field of urban development.

Now you may ask, where is the fly in the ointment? The thing is about southern Bogotins. They don’t like Enrique in an extreme way, despite all his honours. To find out why it is as it is, I spent a few weeks holding a wide poll among my students and co-workers – the real local southern Bogotins.

I’ve arrived to the Colombian capital, Bogota, on 22nd of January, 2020. The first thing that caught my attention was unbelievable diversity of the city spaces and public areas organization. Of course, the difference in neighbourhoods located next to each other in terms of wealth is visible at the same high level. On the one side of the street, you may see rich townhouses and on the other – small structures, similar to handmade crafts from the children’s workshops.

Social inequality obviously influenced the organization of pedestrian lines and roads. The two main tools of “Social-transport equalizing” for solving the problem of mobility of unsecured social groups are system of metrobuses “TransMilenio” and, nothing else, but ubiquitous bicycle lines.

Metrobuses

The transport system of Bogota is quite bifurcated. Its basis is the notorious fast bus network. To understand its tragedy you need to know that first, in Bogota lives around 9 million people, counting more than 1,5 of them as residents of the closest cities – Bosa and Soacha. The core of these cities is countless favelas on the south of the city. The density and poverty of the many people who live here is truly hard to imagine.

Also, it is hard to organize official census, mainly because of a high number of Venezuelan refugees and a lack of fine urban infrastructure: sometimes it is possible that a house isn’t provided with electricity , doesn’t have an official address or simply isn’t connected to an asphalted road and has clay-sand path instead. However, it is clear for each urbanist that if there is not enough local business in the district s the area will become a mono-functioning one, its residents have no choice but will find a job in the city center. Over there, there is at least a job, any job.

The case is about the sheer number of people. It’s not a hundred of thousands but much more than a million. Just imagine, how this mass of people wakes up every morning, goes to the bus station and pushes itself into comfortable amazing buses with air-conditioning to reach the city center. The same happens when people, predictably, want to go home every evening after work, from the north of the city to the south.

I bet, if you use TransMilenio on a weekday or the weekend midday, you’ll be a lucky one and fall in love with this transport immediately. Spacious salons, air conditioners, armed corps, empty stations with contactless tourniquets… Nothing can go wrong.

Let the story begin! Once I was lucky enough to take a travel from the downtown (around Calle 100-Carrera 19) to lovely Soacha, where I currently live (in the name of walkable way to the work place). Being sure, I can declare that I haven’t experienced such panic for a pretty long time, as I did facing the terrifying crowd at 6 p.m. in the bus. The journey to home usually takes about an hour, but this time it took exactly 2 hours 40 minutes. People are not building up the lines for entering the bus; to leave the bus to change the route is simply impossible (when I tried to do it, people from the station pulled my hand and literally took me out of the vehicle). The advice to carry your backpack in front of you doesn’t seem like a funny one as everything not carried in the belly or the groin area, isn’t under your control anymore in a hopeless crowd crush.

Let’s get back to the network. The city is divided into some zones according to the cardinal points. Each route has its number and letter. For example, when the bus leaves my station “San Mateo” in the south of the city towards city center, its destination is marked as “Portal Norte” (means “North gate”) and its name is B44 (as it goes to the B zone with stops of the 44 route). The same bus, on its way back, is called G44 (because its last station is located in the G city area) and its destination is “Portal Sur” (“South gate”). Also, there are zones with other letters and they are used for routes naming in the pairs with numbers. Moreover, there are only numbered routes, but they cover, mainly, the city center.

The city government, while setting the network in 2000, was planning to solve the mobility and accessibility problems. However, today, one-way ticket costs 2400 COP (+- 0.6 USD) and even though the changes at the platforms are free, it is still expensive for people from the South. The system itself is overloaded so there is a heavy traffic jam even on special separated lines.By the way, the lines for metrobuses are practically separated with beams and other physical elements so not a single car can drive in from the regular road. Even if it happens, the car driver will regret it, as the penalties are terribly huge, as far as I know.

The problem of transport overloading is still unsolved. At the same moment the former major calls illegal favelas construction in the south of the city the root of the evil, which doesn’t let the metrobuses system to grow. At the TED Talk Conference, he was performing his favourite topic of urban development through the Bogota example. Conclusions he made broke my heart with no chance to resist. He said that the problem of TransMilenio system is Soacha. Ok, there wouldn’t be a single problem, but currently I live exactly in Soacha, at the very last station – San Mateo.

People who live here are probably one of the most optimistic and purposeful out of all I’ve ever met. For example, I met a guy, who wakes up every day at 4 am, then goes to catch the bus and spends there 2 hours in the crowd to reach the Med School and after three hours in the crowd on the way back, he arrives to his home around 9 pm. I don’t think that people from the one of the most dangerous, criminal and economically unsecured part of the city are the main transport system problem. After all, they are one of the most important engines of the economy of the city they live in.

From my side-local perspective, the problem is hidden in the stagnation of the network. Bogota South is experiencing dynamic growth due to migrants, refugees and natural increasing of the population (in many families there are 4-6 children). Undoubtedly, the people from residential area need to work and earn money to support their families, but the concept of residential area doesn’t contain many work possibilities in general. Anyway, the South TransMilenio branch ends up in the first third of Soacha, almost at its entrance. By the way, I want to remind you, that more than one million people live here. So, in the end they don’t have any other choice, but a necessity to go to the city, simply because there are not enough services and organizations in Soacha and Bosa. Summing this up, the very last thing, I can be sure about is that the people’s wish to live a better life is not a real problem of Bogota transport system.

Bicycle infrastructure

This point is much easier to discuss. The bike lines are everywhere, in all the districts, without segregation to poor and rich ones. Excluding favelas, obviously (mainly because there aren’t any roads at all). In northern neighbourhoods there are lines separated by paint and physical barriers; in the southern neighbourhoods (for example, in my Cuidad Verde or Portal del Nogal) they are marked only with regular pained road signs.

The bike here is more likely to be a regular way of transportation than a way of healthy time spending or hobby. Also, it is clear, that you need to reach your work place somehow, when without a possibility to buy a car and reminding that we still don’t want to break ribs, ours and others’, in metrobuses. Thanks to the bike lines system and ramps that help to cross the highways and small ramps that are located all around crossroads, the mobility of using a bike becomes truly fast and almost comfortable.

For the purpose of biking culture popularization, “Ciclovia” was established as a regular event. In the frames of “Ciclovia”, all the main roads around the city are closed for cars and become huge bike tracks. All the enthusiasts of biking can feel safe from the car and bus drivers.

On 16th of February in Bogota, The annual bike race took place. For this, the main central prospects were closed, similar to the case of “Ciclovia”. Is it necessary to say that all these events are not only increasing the level of citizens’ loyalty to the city administration, but also influencing the social climate of the city in a good way?

Well, there are two main transport structures, in the face of TransMilenio and bike lines, that help not just to connect different landscapes, but to realize people’s right to mobility and access to other districts (to be realistic, I’d say, with a different level of success). They appear as a ubiquitous symbol of effective city administration, which representatives were brave enough to rebuilt typical overloaded highways. However, it is a pity to see that the pace of these systems development is much lower or almost causing transport collapse.

Original of the article was published on the Prostranstvo.media, in Russian

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