30 years of transport in Latin America: 15 years back, 15 years ahead

Source: The CityFix, by Darío Hidalgo

Curitiba, Brazil: advancing a tradition of leadership in advanced bus systems. Photo by Robert Blackie.
Curitiba, Brazil: advancing a tradition of leadership in advanced bus systems. Photo by Robert Blackie.

Fifteen years ago, Latin America passed a tipping point on the road to becoming a global leader in advanced bus systems, proving that municipalities can inspire meaningful change through a combination of leadership, institutional support, and funding. Today, Latin America has fifty cities with advanced bus systems – bus rapid transit (BRT) and bus corridors – moving close to sixteen million passengers every day (BRT Global Database). Most of the advances happened in the last fifteen years, inspired by the remarkable experiences of the cities of Curitiba, Brazil; Quito, Ecuador, Bogotá, Colombia; and México City. Several barriers have been overcome in the process, but there is still a long road ahead. Latin American cities need to adequately address key institutional and financial barriers to continue advancing integrated public transport systems and providing examples for the rest of the world in the next 15 years and beyond. Cities need to reinforce their efforts in two key areas: the first being quality and associated subsidies for operation, and the second being systems integration. These ideas were shared during a presentation by EMBARQ at the World Bank, on February 27, 2013. The presentation was part of the Sustainable Development Network (SDN) Week 2013, in which the World Bank brings together its staff from all over the world to advance knowledge and enhance dialogue with country members and external partners. EMBARQ’s presentation illustrated the example of Bogotá and how it has influenced other cities and countries in the region. It also highlighted some outstanding issues in the process of expanding bus systems into city-wide integrated public transport networks. In the session, experiences in transport institutional reforms in Romania and India were also presented.

Leadership of Latin America in bus systems: the experience of Bogotá and its influence

Fifteen years ago, the city of Bogotá, Colombia, changed its priorities from moving cars to moving people through the creation of investments and institutions for non-motorized and public transport. Bogotá created pedestrian spaces and bikeways, started controlling the use of cars by placing administrative restrictions and increased fuel taxes, and implemented a bus rapid transit (BRT) system inspired from Curitiba, Brazil. Today, after 15 years of implementation, Bogotá has been able to keep the share of public transport above 70% of total trips, increased non-motorized transport from 8% to 13%, and reduced private car use from 18% to 15% — all while personal income continued to increase. One key outcome of this initiative has been the reduction of traffic fatalities from 1,200 to 500 a year.

Since the reforms in Bogotá, 117 cities around the world have adopted advanced bus systems; a large number of them directly finding inspiration in Bogotá. This inspiration resulted in advanced systems in many cities in Mexico (León, Mexico City, Guadalajara, Guayaquil), but also in Lima, Peru; in Lagos, Nigeria; in Cape Town, South Africa; in Ahmedabad, India; and in Guanghzou, China to name a few. Latin America is championed advanced bus systems in Colombia, Mexico, Ecuador, Perú, Argentina, Chile, Venezuela, Panamá, Guatemala, and experiencing a strong growth in Brazil in the wake of the 2014 FIFA World Cup and 2016 Rio Summer Olympics.

Although the reform is “work in progress,” it has shown interesting results: in 2012 we saw the introduction of BRT in the historic district of Mexico City, with Metrobus Line 4; the introduction of the first BRT corridor, Transoeste, in Rio de Janeiro; and the expansion of the TransMilenio BRT in Bogotá. These and other systems have achieved large gains in travel time, safety and reliability, as well as reductions in energy consumption and emissions, and improvement to the urban landscape.

Despite the advances in Latin America, there have been common issues. The two key areas for improvement are the quality of service, and the integration into full-scale integrated transport systems.

Raise the appeal of bus systems by improving quality of service and funding

Better quality of service is important to keep these systems attractive to the public, and offer them as a real alternative to cars and motorcycles. To provide this quality of service, bus operators have been required to pay for new buses, and pay for advanced systems for fare collection and control systems outside of their base revenues from the sale of tickets, or “fare” revenue. This difficult financial planning has resulted in very high occupancy levels, more passengers charged resulting in higher revenues to pay for the investments. Latin American systems were planned for 160 passengers in articulated buses, which mean more than 6 standing passengers per square meter. This is not acceptable for everyday commuters, and several systems have witnessed declining user acceptance levels because of the lack of quality of operations.

Latin America can look to European cities such as Stockholm, Sweden; Amsterdam, The Netherlands; and Copenhagen, Denmark as models for attention to quality, as well as to Singapore and Shanghai in China where the capture of value from land development and vehicle property fiscal tools finance operations beyond revenues from fare collection. This approach of additional sources of funding is needed in Latin America to increase the level of comfort and the overall number of passengers using public transport.

Looking toward city-wide integrated public transport

The second area of improvement for Latin American advanced systems is in the integration with other modes of transports. As advanced bus corridors developed, they also lacked the connections with other public transport services. Some initiatives for citywide public transport integration are ongoing. Santiago, Chile, implemented a citywide reform in a process that ultimately proved painful. Nevertheless, five years later the city has solved most of the issues, after deciding to subsidize operations permanently and renegotiating the contracts with private providers of bus services, to better align incentives and introduce improved controls. Transantiago has undergone full integration with a high quality metro and impressive reductions in air pollution, and greenhouse gases emissions. Traffic accidents involving all sorts of buses have declined in half over the past five years, from more than 6,000 to less than 3,000 according to national statistics (CONASET).

The example of citywide public transport integration in Santiago is being now attempted in Cali, Medellin, and Bogotá, in Colombia and has been announced in México, Lima, and Quito. Assuring the delivery of a service of quality throughout the user experience of the transport system is the key to these efforts. Most Brazilian cities have already advanced integration, as a result of a strong private sector and solid government institutions, and are expected to continue advancing integration during the next years.

The global model for advanced integration remains in Europe, in places like Madrid, Spain (Consorcio de Transportes de Madrid), London, England (Transport for London) and Paris, France (STIF). Operations of metro, trams, suburban trains, BRT, and local and regional buses are managed under consolidated institutions, which plan and fund operations and investments in public transport networks in an integrated way.

The next 15 years: peer-to-peer learning and knowledge exchange

International stakeholders like the multi-development banks and international NGOs are instrumental in the process of technical and operational assistance to bring public transport improvements to more cities in Latin America. These stakeholders need to continue their support and increase knowledge sharing to build on the strong base of experience from the past fifteen years. One of the most important ways to build capacity is through peer-to-peer collaboration.

With peer-to-peer collaboration and initiative in public reform, Latin America has an unparalleled opportunity in the next 15 years to remain a leader in the development of advanced public transport systems and build upon its historic success.

For more information, please see my presentation on Public Transport Reform in Latin America.

The author encourages feedback, comments, and questions from readers.

Benoit Colin and Elise Zevitz also contributed to this piece.