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The Bogota Transmilenio bus system: problems and solutions

It’s rush-hour. I’m on a Transmilenio bus and it’s busy. People are standing elbow to elbow and as usual the driver is driving like a maniac over pot-holes and cracks in the road; the standing passengers are swung from side to side, trying to grab onto anything they can as they fight to keep their balance; the seated passengers hold on tightly to the seat in front of them to avoid sliding off the smooth plastic seats. About 10 meters from where he needs to stop, the driver slams on the brakes before opening the doors. Passengers squeeze through the mass of human sardines uttering “excuse me… EXCUSE ME!”  in desperation as they attempt to get off the bus; they hit the wall of passengers desperately pushing, shoving, barging their way onto the bus, and the disembarking passengers know that if they want to get off this vessel, they can’t afford a display of good manners – after only a few seconds the doors start to beep, indicating that the driver is about to close them. He doesn’t see that there are still five people with one foot on the platform and one on the bus, that one of those people is carrying a baby; he doesn’t see because he doesn’t check; and he doesn’t check because he doesn’t care. And the passengers know that he doesn’t care, just as he didn’t care about their safety as he slammed on the brakes while going 40mph. And why do drivers behave this way? Because there are no consequences for bad conduct. This explains the air of panic and chaos at every Transmilenio bus stop. If you waited for others to get off the bus before boarding (as is the etiquette on the London Tube), you’d risk not getting on the bus at all, because the driver won’t wait. Also, all the other people are barging onto the bus without waiting so… better follow the crowd.

There was apparently a time where travelling by Transmilenio was, not exactly a pleasure, but a far more agreeable experience than the mayhem which exists on the network today. There were stewards who would tell people to wait for others to get off the bus before boarding, and the drivers had to wait; for those people who jumped the gates, or ran across the main road and jumped on the platform to avoid paying their fare, there were consequences. Nowadays there’s little regulation; every day crowds of teenagers will run and jump from the main road onto the platform as a bus approaches for a free ride, and, apart from a few shakes of the head and disapproving glares from on-lookers, there are no consequences.

The problems as I see them stem from a number of issues:

1. Many bus drivers do not follow safety guidelines (perhaps they haven’t even received adequate training), and apparently there are no penalties for unprofessional conduct.

2. In my experience, people in Bogota are generally individualistic; they will almost always think of themselves before they think of others, and it’s the culture and circumstances that render this necessary; in a growing city of more than 8 million people where poverty and social inequality are rife, it’s a case of the survival of the fittest/richest/most beautiful etc; but in the case of public transport, the poor conduct from the bus drivers exacerbates this situation.

3. There are no consequences for people who flaunt the rules; the security people at the stations don’t do much, there are no posters threatening fines for people who don’t pay their bus fare, and there are never ticket inspectors on the buses to check that people have paid for their journey. So why would you bother paying? After all, the message from the authorities isn’t the moral responsibility that people have to society to pay their TransMilenio fare; it’s on the danger they’re putting themselves in by running across the road. Instead of displaying “TU VIDA VALE MÁS” (You’re life is worth more) on the front of the buses, how about something apter, such as “PAGAR = PROGRESO” (Paying = Progress).

4. There aren’t enough buses on the busiest routes during rush hour, suggesting ineffective planning on the part of the administration. It’s common to be waiting for a particular bus, and 10 buses will pass in quick succession before your bus arrives: five of them will be ‘In Transit’ (this is no exaggeration) and two buses will be packed full of passengers, and the other three will be nearly empty. People will often be waiting 15-20 minutes for a bus on a busy route during rush hour, and when it finally arrives, of course it’s packed; but unless you want to wait another 20 minutes, you have no choice but to hold your breath, keep your belongings close to you and somehow force yourself into a non-existent gap on the bus.

Now, I don’t think that these are difficult problems to solve. Let me just have a quick go:

1. Force bus drivers to undergo training and pass a driving and passenger safety test before they are allowed to start working as Transmilenio drivers. Ensure that there are clear and enforceable consequences for those who drive dangerously and put passenger safety at risk. Introduce a complaints procedure which passengers can follow if they have had a bad experience on a bus due to the driver’s conduct.

2. Re-introduce stewards who encourage good etiquette from passengers, and ensure that bus drivers wait until all passengers have disembarked and boarded the bus safely, before closing the doors.

3. Introduce fines for people who haven’t paid their fare, and spot-checks from ticket inspectors on buses to enforce these; in other words, make people aware that there WILL be consequences if they don’t pay.

4. Hire competent town planners, statisticians and administrators to re-organise the network and the number of buses on each route, to make sure that the public is better served by public transport, and that their needs are met. People might be more willing to pay for a decent service.

The local government has done so well with introduction of the TransMilenio network in place of a metro (which would take decades to build) and the SITP public buses as they phase out the horribly polluting and dangerous busetas (privately-owned buses). But if a system isn’t maintained and important aspects are neglected, it will deteriorate to such an extent that in the end, it will serve no-one well. A public transport system has a huge impact on quality of life. Many people struggle with other aspects in their lives, such as earning a living wage which will support a family; they don’t need the added stress of a sub-standard public transport system.

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