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Bogota BRT
Bogotá TransMilenio 'BRT'
[Photo: Absolut Colombia]


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Busting "BRT" Mythology

Bogotá's TransMilenio "BRT":
Mythology About Traffic Impacts, Carbon Credits, and Costs

Light Rail Now Project Team • September 2009

This article is a continuation of our series Busting "BRT" Mythology – a discussion intended to examine claims of so-called "Bus Rapid Transit" by its proponents and to evaluate and contrast these claims with actual experience.

Bogotá, Colombia — Could – and should – this city's "bus rapid transit" ("BRT") system (called TransMilenio) be the preferred model for higher-performance transit in other Third World cities?

TransMilenio and its purported "advantages" over rail transit were the focus of a major New York Times article (10 July 2009) promoting "BRT". According to the article, to respond to the problem of exploding motor vehicle traffic and mounting exhaust emissions in "poor" cities, and thus to help combat "climate change" (global warming),

Bus rapid transit systems like Bogotá’s, called TransMilenio, might hold an answer. Now used for an average of 1.6 million trips each day, TransMilenio has allowed the city to remove 7,000 small private buses from its roads, reducing the use of bus fuel – and associated emissions – by more than 59 percent since it opened its first line in 2001, according to city officials.

In recognition of this feat, TransMilenio last year became the only large transportation project approved by the United Nations to generate and sell carbon credits. Developed countries that exceed their emissions limits under the Kyoto Protocol, or that simply want to burnish a “green” image, can buy credits from TransMilenio to balance their emissions budgets, bringing Bogotá an estimated $100 million to $300 million so far, analysts say.

Indeed, the city has provided a model of how international programs to combat climate change can help expanding cities – the number of cars in China alone could increase sevenfold by 2030, according to the International Energy Agency – pay for transit systems that would otherwise be unaffordable.

The article also praises Enrique Peñalosa, Bogotá's former mayor, "who took TransMilenio from a concept to its initial opening in 2001 and is now advising other cities. "Bogotá was huge and messy and poor, so people said, 'If Bogotá can do it, why can’t we?'" Peñalosa told the Times reporter.

While the article ostensibly focuses on promoting "BRT" for "developing" and "poor" cities – i.e., cities in Third World "developing" nations – the Times' Bogotá story appears to fit into a clear subtext, representing another front in a major nationwide campaign currently under way to promote "BRT" as a "cheap" alternative to rail transit in various American cities. Even in New York City – where, if anywhere, one would think, surface traffic flows almost literally cry out for the higher capacity and performance of both rail rapid transit and light rail transit (LRT) – a campaign has been under way by bus promoters to fixate such improvements solely on a "BRT" option in major corridors.

As Light Rail Now has warned in our article USA's Rail Transit Development Under Attack as "BRT" Promoters Rev Up Misinformation Campaign, in the face of growing national concern over Peak Oil (diminishing supplies of petroleum fuel), Global Warming, and America's deteriorating infrastructure, "a horde of highway and motor vehicle lobbyists and other Road Warriors, plus assorted shock troopers and ideologues" have launched "a new, even more ferocious and deceptive campaign to terminate, or at least attenuate, government programs to fund mass transit, particularly at the federal level – and especially rail transit – with a goal of re-allocating transit funds into expanded highway financing." And, as we also noted, "The campaign to promote 'BRT' fits comfortably into this basically anti-transit effort aimed at clobbering rail transit development."

As our article also points out, Bogotá's TransMilenio project has also figured prominently in this "BRT"-promotion blitz:

With the help of bus-industry outfits ..., various Third World "BRT" promoters have been sponsored on nationwide "lecture" (i.e., propaganda) tours with the objective of trying to sideline local rail transit plans by presenting fanciful tales of "BRT" in their home cities.

One of these is Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, who honchoed the installation of Bogotá's TransMilenio "BRT" system. Peñalosa not only has been sponsored on a "lecture" tour across the USA, but has benefited from puff-media attention ... enthusing about Bogotá's "shiny TransMilenio lines", installed "in less than a decade, by forgoing the expensive glamour of rail for the affordable flexibility of buses."

However, while Transmilenio is indeed an impressive bus transit facility ..., what its promoters soft- pedal is the fact that, to achieve its vaunted passenger-moving capacity, the facility consists of no less than four (4) busway lanes dedicated to transit in the median of urban arterial roadways. Allocating that much surface roadway space exclusively to transit was undoubtedly helped by the extraordinary powers available to Colombia's comparatively authoritarian government. Furthermore, making it feasible to operate such a system with a labor-intensive armada of buses is surely helped by a strong ridership drawn from a heavily transit-dependent, low-income population – and dirt-poor Third World wage levels for the transit workforce probably don't hurt, either.

 TransMilenio Much of Bogotá's TransMilenio "BRT" system requires four-lane busways to handle passenger flows and provide stated capacity.
[Photo: Absolut Colombia]

Unfortunately, the Times' "BRT" story not only avoids addressing these issues, but also leaves out an array of other critical details about the TransMilenio "BRT" system as well as the United Nations-mandated "carbon credits" program.

For example, one might logically ask: Why haven't electric rail operations – especially light rail systems, such as tramways/streetcars – been applying for and receiving such credits? Surely it can be demonstrated that new LRT startups (including tramways throughout Europe and the USA) have reduced motor vehicle emissions in the corridors they serve?

See, for example:

Portland's light rail transit helps reduce per-capita greenhouse emissions, says study

Charlotte's New Lynx Light Rail: Ridership, Development, and Energy Benefits = Huge Success

Denver Data Show Light Rail's Real Impact on Mobility Congestion

Portland LRT Portland's electric LRT operation has helped reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the metro area – but, as an "advanced country" city, Portland gets no "carbon credits".
[Photo: Dave Dobbs]

Unfortunately, the first thing to understand in regard to this issue is that these kinds of transit successes in advanced countries like the USA are ineligible for consideration. The process of issuing Certificates of Emissions Reduction, or CERs, is overseen through a program called the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), and under its procedures, neither transit systems nor cities in advanced industrialized countries (such as those of the USA and Europe) can earn CERs (commonly called "carbon credits") for reducing their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Such countires, including the USA, are classified as "Annex 1 & 2" countries – i.e., advanced industrial nations. Only developing countries can earn the credits (CERs) and thus be in a position to sell them.

Thus, since only Third World countries can qualify for "carbon credits" (CERs), this restriction eliminates from eligibility any rail transit systems in advanced countries, even where studies have shown (or could be carried out to demonstrate) significant reductions in "baseline" motor vehicle traffic (and thus emissions) in specific corridors (remember, "baseline" – considered in the CDM's evaluation of a project – means the level that would exist in the absence of the transit service).

The CERs are clearly valuable, since they can be bought and sold, and are certainly helping Bogotá to finance its TransMilenio transit system.

Second, somewhat lost in the fluff and puffery over Bogotá's new "BRT" is the fact that TransMilenio qualified for its CERs not because of the implementation of a new "rapid transit" system, attracting large volumes of motorists out of their cars, but only because of its bus fleet replacement – the transit agency's consultants made a convincing case that, even considering the GHG emissions impacts of building the facility and replacing buses, they qualified to be certified for a net CO2 reduction in bus emissions. This implies that any Third World transit system that replaces its fleet of older, dirtier buses and performs some magic with performance calculations could similarly be granted CERs.

In view of this situation, Bogotá's bus fleet replacement may indeed have reduced GHG emissions to some extent, but one might also be forgiven for suspecting whether the issuance of CERs in cases like this isn't also a kind of major give-away-prize party for the motor bus industry – both within Colombia and abroad.

Third, the authorization of CERs says absolutely nothing about overall traffic impact and the other "advantages" (over rail transit) being claimed for TransMilenio; in fact, TransMilenio's own survey data (included in the report cited below) indicate that only 4.3% of TransMilenio passengers would otherwise travel by personal car – over 89% would use the old "dirty" buses. (See Dr. Jürg M. Grütter, Grütter Consulting, et al., Monitoring Report: — CDM Project 0672: BRT Bogotá, Colombia: TransMilenio Phase II-IV, 6 March 2007.)

This does not exactly seem to make a resounding case for the "congestion-reducing" advantages of Bogotá's "BRT" – so doesn't that amount to a kind of "bait-and-switch" tactic by the Times reporter, conjuring the image of "a gluey tangle of cars" on the streets of Bogotá and similar cities, and implying that "BRT" systems like TransMilenio are effective in alleviating this congestion? ...When, in reality, all that's happened is a massive bus fleet replacement, with bus riders being shifted from older into newer buses, and private motor vehicle users more or less staying put?

Fourth, in terms of transit mode alternatives to "BRT", former mayor Peñalosa and other "BRT" promoters keep comparing TransMilenio with a subway. But it's a totally surface facility. So, wouldn't a comparison with surface rail – such as electric LRT, including Rapid Streetcar – be more plausible and appropriate?

In order to evaluate the relevance and feasibility of Bogotá's TransMilenio for other cities, and particularly for cities within the USA and other advanced countries, it's critical to understand, at least generally, the very special context within which TransMilenio functions. First, it's important to recognize the very low level of private car ownership, and the population's extraordinary dependency on public transport. As Wikipedia notes, the rate of private car ownership in Bogotá is less than 27% – in other words, slightly over one-fourth of the rate in the average American city. [Wikipedia, "Bogotá", 24 September 2009]

Thus, relates the Wikipedia article, "Buses remain the main means of mass transit." According to a report from Veolia Transportation (2009), approximately 80% of Bogotá’s residents depend on urban transit for their basic mobility.

In addition to a level of car ownership only a small fraction of that in the USA, reliance on public transit has also been promoted by vigorous official policies. For example:

• Every car is prohibited from the city's roadways twice a week, on the basis of license number, under the Pico y place municipal regulation...
• Sundays are designated "car free days", with all cars prohibited from operating...
• Parking has been severely restricted through the removal of thousands of parking spaces...
[Sources: Wikipedia, 2009/09/24; Andre Iffrig, Bogotá's Transit System, 2008/11/27]

Bogotá actually has two different bus-based urban transit systems: the "traditional" system and TransMilenio. The "traditional" system includes a variety of bus types providing several categories of service, operated by several companies on general-traffic streets and avenues: Bus (large buses), Buseta (medium size buses) and Colectivo (vans or minivans). [Wikipedia, 2009/09/24]

Approximately 18,000 buses provide service in this "traditional" system – a government-enforced reduction of about 10,000 from the fleet that operated in the pre-TransMilenio days.

In addition, the TransMilenio system itself consists of a network of many interconnected bus routes, including local routes (see map below). The "BRT" system is thus just a small portion of this comprehensive network.
[Map: TransMilenio]


TransMilenio’s infrastructure includes 84 km (about 52 miles) of exclusive busways on central lanes of major arterial roads, roads designated for feeder buses, 7 terminals, 7 intermediate "integration points", and 100 enclosed stations with pre-payment and level boarding onto the buses. Trunk lines are served by 1,071 articulated buses, while integrated feeder lines – 57 routes covering 477 km (about 296 miles) – are served by 430 conventional buses. Daily ridership is estimated at 1.3 to 1.6 million rider-trips. [Dario Hidalgo, "Why Is TransMilenio Still So Special?" City Fix website, 5 Aug. 2008; and Veolia Transportation (2009)]

Leaving aside the issue of TransMilenio's GHG emissions, one should reconsider (as discussed briefly above) that much of the TransMilenio "BRT" system requires four (4) busway lanes in grade-separated major arterials to provide capacity. Not only does that seem to represent a huge hit in terms of urban space for any city, but – in terms of relevance for the USA (and indeed for many countries worldwide, both advanced and developing) – where are the cities with wide urban arterials in which 4 major traffic lanes can simply be removed from general traffic and re-allocated to the transit system? Or just two lanes, for that matter?

As for investment cost – is TransMilenio really that much "cheaper" than LRT? The cost of the initial 38-km/24-mile TransMilenio system in 2001 was US $350 million (including both infrastructure and rolling stock); if one adjusts for inflation to 2009 US dollars, and also adjusts for labor/living cost differentials (given Colombia's significantly lower GDP per capita compared with the USA), the equivalent investment cost of a system in a similar US urban corridor could plausibly be estmated at about $1.8 billion – i.e., about $73 million per mile, or roughly 50% more than the typical cost of a 2-track electric LRT (or European-style rail tramway) system that could probably provide equivalent capacity with substantially lower GHG emissions and other environmental impacts. If fact, TransMilenio's equalized investment expense of about $73 million per mile is roughly the investment cost of a new high-end urban LRT system, such as Phoenix's new LRT Metro. One might justifiably ask: Where are the huge savings?

(The same question could be raised with respect to "rail-like" "BRT" installations in advanced countries, such as Australia. See our analysis Brisbane Reality Check: The high cost of "cheap" busways)

artic bus One should also note that TransMilenio's management are now deploying special double and triple-articulated buses with doors on the lefthand side to load at the island platforms of the busway. However, their feasibility for most common bus transit deployments is, at best, dubious.
[Photo: De Papaya]

First, the capital cost of such "mega-buses" is considerably higher than that of common transit buses, yet they still have a only 12-15 year economic life. Furthermore, for most cities, such buses would introduce logistical complications, particularly in terms of boarding passengers on city streets (special boarding stations are required by TransMilenio). Other special logistical requirements include: safety with respect to other street traffic; turning radius issues; looping arrangements to turn buses around at route termini; storage and maintenance requirements; and the deterioration of running-way pavement as a result of frequent use by these large, heavily loaded buses. (It's also unlikely that such buses would qualify as "street-legal" in the USA and many other major countries.)

What this all amounts to is that with a TransMilenio-type "BRT" you're paying roughly the same cost per mile as for a "high-end" LRT system, but for a system that requires an operator in every vehicle, has slower overall operation (mainly because of slower acceleration), uses vehicles with about one-third the life-cycle and with the usual interior space constraints and acceleration limitations of buses, emits pollution from each vehicle, and continues to depend on burning petroleum fuel. Urban and transit agency decisionmakers and planners should be asking themselves: Is that what our cities really need?

It's important to note that there are certain situations when, in comparison with LRT, a "BRT" system such as TransMilenio may indeed have some advantages. For example:

• The system can frequently be introduced in stages...

• Often, existing bus storage and maintenance facilities can be used – albeit with some expansion – thus avoiding the need to acquire real estate and build totally new facilities "from scratch"...

• Buses of different sizes and configurations can share busways and reserved lanes...

• For accessing passengers, buses can use city streets without the need for rails and other "guideway" infrastructure...

However, planners and transit system developers would be well-advised to assess these attributes together with the drawbacks and complications of "BRT" (topics typically avoided by "BRT" promoters) – particularly in comparison with the pros and cons of plausible rail alternatives such as LRT – as summarized above.

Phoenix LRT Actual cost of TransMilenio "BRT" (adjusted for labor/living cost differentials and inflation) is roughly equivalent to that of recent US "high-end" LRT systems, such as Phoenix's new Valley Metro – shown here at the 3rd & Mill station in the suburb of Tempe.
[Photo: Peter Ehrlich]

One final thought: The program of issuing CERs, for all its good intentions, nevertheless bears an unfortunate resemblance to what in other contexts is often called "blood money" (i.e., money paid out by a perpetrator to a victim for a crime, offense or avoidable accident, often involving injury or death). Thus, advanced (Annex 1/2) country patrons can continue to pollute with CO2 emissions, but earn themselves some "green" reprieve by financing (supposedly) CO2-reducing projects in selected developing countries.

This suggests that such an industrialized nation generating significant CO2 emissions – such as, say, the USA – could continue to expand a highly polluting, highway-centric transportation system (perhaps with small dollops for public transport), and then fulfill Kyoto Treaty obligations (designed to reduce Global Warming) by paying Third World countries like Colombia, with dirt-cheap wages, to implement inferior transit schemes – or, as in the specific case of Bogotá – to carry out a kind of Third World transit "Cash for Clunkers" program by replacing their older bus fleets with new buses (which is basically what TransMilenio did to earn its CERs). It's hard to avoid perceiving this as a kind of Daily Double for the road and motor vehicle lobbies – highways get built in the USA (or other advanced countries), and the global motor bus industry gets a huge infusion of new bus orders.

Is anybody paying attention?

Light Rail Now! website
Updated 2009/09/27

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