The (real) price of affordable sustainability, a tale from crowded Colombian buses

Bogota is regarded by international institutions – particularly the World Bank – as a pioneer in the development of green, low-cost, urban transportation networks, thanks to its innovative Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system. However, rising transport prices regularly encourage street protests, with many Bogotanese demanding the construction of a rail network to properly meet the transportation needs of the capital. Despite this, persistent disillusionment with the BRT is not due to the mode of transport itself but is instead rooted in the neoliberal ideology behind the seemingly sustainable project.

A BRT named Desire

December 18th 2000 probably figures as the most important day of Enrique Peñalosa’s career. It was on this day that Bogota’s emblematic mayor realised a long term policy goal by inaugurating one of the first BRT systems in the world, the TransMilenio. To mark the occasion, he even kept his promise to shave his beard, which had characterized his public image for years. Along with him, Bogota radically changed its face. The Colombian capital, home to more than 20% of the national population, believed the BRT network would stem its infernal and highly polluting road traffic. This very innovative solution allows buses to travel in corridors isolated from regular traffic, thereby providing reliable, fast and green commuting to more than 2.4 million daily riders. These long red buses, comfortable and fast, are a central component of Bogota’s new environmental self-image. 

Benefits of the BRT quickly materialised. As the World Bank reported, by 2009 the use of the Transmilenio resulted in an average time saving of 32 percent (20 minutes) per trip when compared with the older, traditional bus system. The TransMilenio has also contributed to the abatement of more than 0.25 metric tons of CO2 emissions a year. The program has also decreased accident rates by 80%.

The “win-win-win” package

The World Bank champions Bogota as a flagship project of the BRT green mobility revolution within the wider Global South. From Dar Es Salaam to Manila, more than 160 such systems have appeared in the largest metropolitan areas of Africa, Asia and Latin America in just 17 years. Indeed, urban growth rates in the Global South are booming. In Colombia, more than 82% of the population live in cities. Megacities are sites of exacerbated social tensions and environmental challenges, but are also focal points of sustainable aspirations and opportunities. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), air pollution has been responsible for a 14% increase in mortality rates over the last 20 years. Megacities must urgently find miracle solutions in light of their environmental impact, despite highly insufficient financial resources. In this context, the World Bank does not hesitate to present its BRT system as a “win-win” package. Faster and less expensive to build than a Metro system, it has the potential to cover the needs of millions of commuters, thus meeting sustainable development targets without threatening the fragile balance of municipal budgets.

An unnamed third winner

However, an unnamed third winner seems to be forgotten in the promotion of a “win-win” package: The World Bank itself and associated private interests. Indeed, the World Bank’s offer to support these projects financially and provide technical expertise is conditional on leaving private companies operating the system under the neoliberal principle of cost-recovery. TransMilenio is a public-private partnership (PPP), in which the public sector is responsible for the investment to develop infrastructure, while the private sector operates the system. It is responsible for the fleet renewal and makes its profit through ticket selling. Bogota City Hall financed the construction of the TransMilenio with six successive World Bank loans totaling US$450.4 million. Bilateral donors and NGO brokers, the Volvo Foundation for example, were also involved in the financing structure.


Hope and Disillusion

Today, however, Enrique Peñalosa seems to have changed his mind. He now advocates for a subway line which, despite its exorbitant cost, arouses the approval of 61% of disappointed Bogotanese, for whom the TransMilenio did not keep its promises. Since 2006, Bogota has been regularly paralyzed by protests against the red buses, which puts the World Bank in an embarrassing situation. 

The TransMilenio’s private financing structure has prevented the network from adapting to the city’s overall demand. Since all revenue comes from fares, without any public subsidy, the operators – mainly foreign-owned companies – aim for maximum profit. They have no incentive to serve the side roads, or to increase the number of buses for the comfort of passengers. As a result, the system has witnessed overcrowding during rush hours and a restricted number of services running during off-peak times. Buses are concentrated on the main routes, which limits accessibility for marginalized or isolated populations. They usually have to pay for ‘traditional’ buses before reaching TransMilenio ‘troncales’ (main roads). 

More importantly, fares have continuously increased, rising from 800 COP$ (0.24$) in 2000 to 2300 COP$ (0.68$) this year. According to El País, that’s about $50 a month, which is a considerable amount considering that Colombia’s minimum monthly wage stands at around $318. Unaffordable prices and concentration on the ‘troncales’ primarily affect the most vulnerable, namely women, teenagers and the elderly, who are particularly under-represented among passengers. Although teenagers represent 21% of the population, only 5% of BRT users fall within this age bracket. It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that ten years after the grand inauguration of the TransMilenio, 75% of public transportation trips are still made on traditional buses.

When Money doesn’t Buy Time

The World Bank therefore seems to have failed in its role as an ambassador of green neoliberalism in Bogota through its BRT system. Bogota’s City Hall finds itself in considerable debt with the World Bank, bearing the costs of a system it cannot control, nor orientate towards the common good. Rising prices are therefore not being followed by improvements to the TransMilenio itself. investment is failing to keep pace with growing demand. Meanwhile, the system consistently generates a surplus for private operators.

The proposed Public-Private Partnership (PPP) system would see the imposition of a “New Policy Agenda” under the guise of a green “win-win package.”  As things currently stand, tax-payer revenue maintains an improved transport system in Bogota, but accessibility is limited to those who can afford it. This has further fragmented transport options within the city and contributed to the lack of a unified, sustainable approach in addressing major congestion and air pollution. Given the consistent warnings of poor air quality in Bogota throughout the Winter, the ability of neoliberal Structural Adjustment Programs to address environmental conundrums should be reassessed. 

Image courtesy of Roads & Kingdoms

In order to properly manage the implementation of innovative environmental policies, it is imperative to start rethinking the underlying ideological priorities of our quest. Debunking the neoliberal narrative, we quickly realize that individual, private interests are diametrically opposed to a vision of sustainable mobility as an inherent right of citizens. Bogota’s Metro proposal would cost US$20 million per kilometer, a worrying prospect given that the city only collects US$400 million a year through property taxes. The proposed subway route is unlikely to enhance the mobility of isolated populations: it follows ‘La Septima’ road, targeting business centers and wealthy central neighborhoods. To find a lasting solution to the conundrum of environmentally sustainable transport, Bogota should recalibrate its policy-making process: this will mean choosing between the profit-motive or the liveability of city-space. 

Franklin Lobry

Franklin is a Final year European Studies student in a dual degree between SciencesPo and University College London, writing as a contributor for Sensus. His particular interests of study and research include Sustainable development and Urbanism in the Global South.


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