A typical station in Bogota's Transmilenio system. Image by Oscar Amaya licensed under Creative Commons.

Bogota’s TransMilenio Bus Rapid Transit system, which opened in 2000, is one of the largest and most heavily used in the world. In fact, the United States government even looked at how to mimic it. Creating a high-quality BRT system here is possible— it’d just require quite a bit of political will.

A couple key characteristics of BRT systems in general are that the buses come frequently and they usually get to use travel lanes only for buses. A well-designed BRT system can accomplish a lot of what rail can in terms of moving lots of passengers quickly, but at a cost that doesn’t include tunneling, electrification, and other pricey capital expenses.

Most Americans are fairly unfamiliar with BRT, as only a few substantial systems exist in the US. A couple examples include Los Angeles’s Silver and Orange Lines, Boston’s Silver Line, and Cleveland’s Health Line. But with new services like Virginia’s Metroway and Montgomery County’s proposed BRT system, BRT has become a hot topic around here.

Let’s look at Bogota

I got a chance to use the TransMilenio in August. The system is one of the world’s best. What can we learn from it?

Transmilenio's stations are long to accommodate multiple buses. Image by mariordo59 licensed under Creative Commons.

Different from in the US, BRT systems are quite common throughout many Latin American cities; they’ve been growing in popularity since the opening of the first BRT in Curitiba, Brazil in 1972.

Bogota tried unsuccessfully several times in the 20th century to construct a heavy rail transit system (like Metrorail), but the costs for building the system were too high. In 1997, the administration of Mayor Enrique Peñalosa opted to build a BRT system based off of models in Curitiba and Sao Paolo.

Peñalosa’s Administration envisioned that for the same cost of building a small Metrorail-like system, they could build a comprehensive bus network. Improvements on the Curitiba model allowed TransMilenio to increase its capacity to a level similar to a metro-like system.

In Bogota, the BRT lines usually run in the center of major freeways, segregated from other road traffic. This looks somewhat like an American high-occupancy vehicle lane, such as those on I-395 in Virginia.

Today, the greater TransMilenio system provides transportation for 69% of the population of Bogota, demonstrating its success. This amounts to 2.4 million riders daily, dwarfing most American rail transit systems. Unlike transit systems in the United States, TransMilenio is so successful that it actually makes money on its operations.

The eje ambiental or environmental axis, which is reserved exclusively for Transmilenio buses in the center of Bogota. Image by Alejandro Forero Cuervo licensed under Creative Commons.

Can this kind of BRT success happen in the US?

Could the United States implement a similar system? In 2006, the US Department of Transportation looked at the TransMilenio as a model for BRT, and found a number of problems in applying the system to North American cities.

Several factors make Bogota an unusually great candidate for BRT, such as its high population density and low car ownership. But it’s not like US cities can’t have that as well. The bigger issue with implementing BRT in the United States is political will.

TransMilenio’s website specifically mentions that, “The only way of guaranteeing the rapid movement of the 69% [of the population] that use public transit is providing them with exclusive lanes.” This means that without dedicated lanes for buses, efficient transit for BRT on this scale is impossible. GGWash editor Dan Malouff notes that American cities are not currently willing to dedicate this much street space for buses.

Interior of a typical Transmilenio station. Image by mariordo59 licensed under Creative Commons.

The USDOT report also notes that American BRT systems have lower capacity and higher headways, because their stations are not adequate to accommodate the sort of traffic that Bogota sees. This is partially due to something that Dan calls "BRT creep" – to cut costs, American planners often will eliminate features that make BRT systems more efficient, leaving them far inferior to their Latin American counterparts. He also notes that this reduces the attractiveness of BRT versus light rail in the United States.

BRT is a great innovation, but it’s not perfect

It’s worth noting that TransMilenio is not perfect. Following a spectacular launch, TransMilenio's capacity has not kept up with rider demand. Also, in my experience, finding a seat was virtually impossible during most of the many trips I took on the system. Much like our own Metrorail, complaints like “Why doesn’t TransMilenio work?” have been common grumblings around Bogota during recent years.

Also, similar to Metrorail here, TransMilenio has become a major part of the city’s transportation network, so heavy road congestion and lack of alternatives keep everyday commuters riding the overstressed transit network.

Finally, the location of Bogota's busways (in big highways) precludes integrating them with the urban fabric, which is very different from a system like the Metroway. Bogota's buses have more speed and capacity since there aren't many stop lights or cross streets, but those come at the cost of having a giant highway run through the city. Doing that through a place like central DC would require bulldozing the neighborhood; if a highway-like street already exists, it could be repurposed, but if there's not already a highway then it's not generally practical.

In other Latin American cities, such as Mexico City, Guadalajara, and Medellin, BRT systems are being built around existing rail transit, forming just one component of larger networks. Bogota is once again considering even adding a subway line to accompany TransMilenio.

In the same way, perhaps the DC area’s fledgling BRT systems can help serve corridors where rail is not economical.

The USDOT report was skeptical that American cities could replicate BRT with the same scale and capacity as what Bogota has, but it was still optimistic about other BRT use in the US. BRT systems are unlikely to be any silver bullet for cities with transit woes, but they are a useful tool.

Where do you see BRT fitting into our region’s transportation network?

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Stephen Hudson resides in Southwest DC — the fourth quadrant he has lived in. He works for a government relations firm and has previous experience with transportation policy at a trade association. His professional interests include transportation and infrastructure, foreign languages, and comparative international politics. The views expressed are his own.