By Tom Peyton and Ethan Kent
Bogota’s Transmilenio Bus Rapid Transit System (BRT) has been receiving a lot of attention recently. PPS was actually touring Transmilenio headquarters (while there to speak at a conference) the morning the New York Times featured the system on its front page. Bogotá has a history of implementing innovative public projects throughout the city including its Ciclovia program, hundreds of great new parks and widened sidewalks and pedestrian-only streets. These improvements, many initiated during the same three years as Transmilenio by then Mayor Enrique Penalosa and his brother Guillermo (Gil), have created a more civil and vibrant city.
While the positive aspects of Transmilenio as a model are significant and easily transferable, our many trips to Bogotá (and several other cities in Latin America where BRT has been implemented) have also shown that there is still great opportunity for BRT to shape development, create public destinations, spur economic vitality and support social activity. The areas along the Transmilenio lines, and particularly around the stations, are not yet meeting their full potential to help create and connect places where people want to be.
Transmilenio’s manifold benefits need to be stated, as it has fundamentally changed how the residents of Bogotá are capable of moving around the city. By dedicating multiple lanes exclusively to buses along major thoroughfares throughout the city, the integrated system has created an attractive public transportation option that has drawn in new riders and drastically decreased travel time for existing users. In some cases, commutes that used to take 2 to 3 hours now take 40 minutes. The impact of Transmilenio on Bogotanos’ quality of life is fundamental. Since its opening in 2001, the system has made a transformative contribution to energy efficiency and the environment. As mentioned in the New York Times piece, Transmilenio has helped reduce the amount of bus fuel used in the city by 59% over the period it has been operating.
Generalized benefits of Bus Rapid Transit include:
• lower construction cost, as much as only 1/5th of light rail and 1/20th the cost of subways;
• ease of incremental implementation;
• faster loading and travel times that allow more frequent service and higher speeds than regular bus service;
• the option to leave the guideway thereby offering scheduling and routing flexibility;
• capacity advantages over regular buses and street cars;
• compatibility with intraregional service, acting as a potential bridge between local service and regional service.
Along with BRT’s ability to achieve these efficiencies in mobility, BRT can do more for riders and the communities that BRT systems serve and intersect. The spaces that the public uses to get on and off Transmilenio buses could become vibrant places with small additions of amenities and programming. Waiting platforms, overpass walkways and areas where passengers get picked up by cars are focused on system efficiency rather than human comfort, social interaction or flourishing commerce. There is great potential for these numerous points throughout Transmilenio to become community and retail hubs that further reduce the need for car trips and make the city significantly more compatible with walking and other modes of transit.
A testament to Bogota’s resourceful use of public space and the latent demand for their use, Ciclovia succeeds every Sunday in creating active and engaging public spaces. Ciclovias have been a part of life in Bogota since the 70s but the event took its current form in the mid-90s. Every Sunday and all holidays, 70 miles of roads usually dominated by automobile traffic are closed to cars from 7am to 2pm. The streets are flooded with cyclists and pedestrians moving freely about the city. Along the route of Ciclovia there are various activity destinations including free exercise classes and vendors selling food and drinks.
Similar to how city decision-makers have added visionary programming to already existing large-scale urban infrastructure with Ciclovia, there is the potential to improve the vast public spaces of Transmilenio. Transmilenio stops and their surrounding areas are more than simply areas for moving. They are social focal points where residents from all over the city come in contact with one another and share a common experience.
PPS has utilized Placemaking strategies to work on train stations and bus stops around the world but has not yet had the opportunity to work on BRT systems. In applying Placemaking to BRT systems, questions might include:
• Can platforms become more comfortable for waiting?
• Can retail opportunities on the platforms, along walkways and at entry plazas make the system safer and more engaging while bringing in new revenue sources and serving the needs of riders?
• Can station and roadway design help create boulevards that reduce the impact of traffic and improve pedestrain accessibility (as accomplished with non pre-boarding versions of BRT in Paris, France and Eugene, OR)?
One relevant project we worked on was in Santiago, Chile, where a series of empty and unfriendly plazas around a busy transit station were transformed into one of the best new public squares in Latin America. Marcello Corbo (who was also in Bogota on PPS’ recent visit) and Rodrigo Jullian, co-founders of Urban Development, worked with the city and local stakeholders to invest significantly in these public spaces while also achieving significant returns from the implementation of adjacent retail. As Corbo observed in Bogota, many of the Transmilenio stops could benefit from a similar transformation.
What other strategies can help turn BRT stops into places for community engagement? How can BRT be leveraged to shape growth, create places and tame streets while still creating the efficiency and mobility gains it is known for?