The Bogotá Transformation: Vision and Political Will

Last week’s saga of MTA workers seizing bicycles locked to a subway stair railing in Brooklyn illustrated, yet again, just how far New York City has to go towards making bicycles an integral part of the city’s transportation system. As Larry Littlefield aptly commented, "The MTA doesn’t see bikes as an extension of the transit system. It’s a new concept here."

Indeed, it is a new concept for New York City. And if one has never seen a city where it’s done well, the idea of bicycles functioning as an extension of a transit system may be somewhat unimaginable.

I saw some great examples of a bike-oriented transit system just a few weeks ago during a trip to Bogotá, Colombia. I was there with StreetFilms’ Clarence Eckerson, Transportation Alternatives’ Karla Quintero and Project for Public Spaces’ Ethan Kent. The New York City Streets Renaissance team was taken around the city by Gil Peñalosa, Bogotá’s former Parks Commissioner and brother of former Mayor (and current mayoral candidate) Enrique Peñalosa and Eduardo Plata of the Fundación Por el País Que Queremos, otherwise known as The Foundation for the Country That We Care About.

(Update: Enrique lost the election to a far-left candidate promising an impossibly expensive subway system for Bogotá).

As a part of our tour, Gil took us to the Portal de las Américas, a major terminal of the TransMilenio bus system in the southwestern corner of the city. There, in the ground floor of the bus terminal, Gil showed us a bike parking facility unlike anything we have in New York and easily as nice as anything one might find in the most bike-friendly cities of Northern Europe.

img_1127-secure-bike-parking.jpg

With a ticket-taker, security guard and space for somewhere around 700 bikes it was, without question, the finest Cicloparqueadero any of us had ever seen (Granted, it was also the only Cicloparqueadero we’d ever seen).

bike_parking.jpg

New York City transportation advocates, I think, are accustomed to being told in contradictory fashion, that our various transportation agencies are either too focused on mega-projects to pay attention to something this small or too cash-strapped to do something this big. So, we immediately wanted to know how this project came about and how much it cost to build and run. Gil didn’t have the numbers at his fingertips, but as a part of the mayoral administration that conceived and launched TransMilenio, he was able to explain the thinking behind it.

"For every 25 people who ride bikes to the terminal," Gil said, "That is one less ‘feeder bus’ we need to run through the neighborhoods. You do the math and pretty quickly you see it makes financial sense to set aside some space and hire a security guard to help people to ride their bikes."

Most of the TransMilenio system consists of these double-long red buses running along a four-lane, dedicated rights-of-way down the middle of major avenues and highways.

With no private motor vehicle traffic in their way and various other technological and design advantages, TransMilenio buses mostly run fast and according to schedule. Crosstown travel times on one major north-south route on the eastern edge of town dropped from 3 hours to 55 minutes once TransMilenio was up and running, officials told us. With wide doors, elevated platforms and passengers paying fares before they board, I finally understood why some people refer to TransMilenio as "surface subway."

TransMilenio also runs smaller green "feeder" buses like the one below. The green buses wend their way through neighborhood streets, picking up passengers and delivering them to major stations and terminals. A ride on a feeder bus is free, which is part of the reason why officials are eager to encourage bicycling to the bus terminals and major stations by funding a secure bike parking facility.


On our way to the Cicloparqueadero at Portal de las Américas, Peñalosa took us on a bike tour of one of the poorer sections of the city. We traveled through a neighborhood of unpaved roads overhung by jerry-rigged electrical wiring and surrounded, in spots, by open sewers. We rode past block after block of half-built cinder block housing covered with corrugated aluminum roofing. This was the scene I saw to my right.

To my left, there were cows grazing in an open drainage ditch. We were not talking about a particularly wealthy part of town.

Yet, in front of me, running right down the middle of this very same neighborhood was one of the finest bicycle and pedestrian paths I’d ever seen. It was as nicely designed and — at 8am on a weekday — as heavily used as any facility one might find in Denmark, Holland or Germany.

Gil explained that when Enrique was elected Mayor of Bogotá he scrapped plans to build a new network of elevated highways throughout the city. For just a fraction of the cost of the proposed highway system and in a much faster time frame, Peñalosa built TransMilenio and installed bicycle "arterials" down the middle of neighborhoods like the one above. Along these bikeways they built new schools, parks and connections to the rest of the city via TransMilenio.

How is it, we asked, that a city with about one-tenth the per capita income of New York was able to build one of sleekest, most efficient and high-tech surface transportation systems in the world? "It’s not about the money," Gil told us again and again. "It’s about the vision and it’s about political will. The politicians can always find the money."

Photos: Aaron Naparstek, September 17, 2007

  • Jonathan

    Looks great! When can we get started here in NYC?

  • ddartley

    No joke, really: I was thinking over the past few days that a job maybe worth creating would be some sort of bike parking security guard… Although it was not a fully thought-out system, such as a cicloparqueadero.

  • this is needed in NYC – ASAP!

  • Larry Littlefield

    Great photos, and good to see forward thinking in other parts of the world. Here, pandering to the desire for cheap oil, our Democratic politicians blame oil companies for gouging, while the Republicans blame environmental regulations.

    Other countries can skip right over us by going directly to cellphones and solar power as well, saving the massive investment required by the grid. Like travel by automobile, which is cheaper only if the “sunk” cost of already having a car is ignored, grid power and communication is only cheaper if you already have the grid.

    The example also shows what real BRT requires — a grade-separated ROW, or at least underpasses/overpasses at major intersections and signal priority elsewhere. The real applicability is in Queens, where local buses could used a separate LIE bus lane in each direction to run express from their local route to the subway in Long Island City.

    As for the bike location, think like one of those adjacent to the Kings Highway express station on the Brighton Line could do for the desirability of southweast Brooklyn neighborhoods beyond walking distance of the subway, such as Mill Basin, Marine Park and Gerritsen Beach.

  • cmu

    One of the less obvious advantages of a boarding platform is that it makes kneeling buses and wheelchair lifts – both inordinately expensive and breakdown-prone – unnecessary. Paris has these platforms with a ramp, in many places and it would be easy to do everywhere. But then, why use a simple means to an end when a complicated one is at hand?

  • Larry Littlefield

    Looking at the first Trans-Milleno picture, just imagine that was the center of the LIE. Instead of being four lanes with stations, the busway would be two lanes, but with entrance ramps from major bus routes. The local buses, finishing their run, would go down to the busway and never hit a light — ten minutes to LIC, ten minutues back at 50 mph. It could be the equivalent of 10 new subway lines.

    Note how at the top of the picture the busway goes up and two the left. Imagine that as a new limited-access busway flying over the Sunnyside Yards right to a terminal at Queens Plaza.

    With CBTC, more trains could be run on the Queens Boulevard line, adding capacity for the extra passengers. There is a turnout past the Roosevelt Avenue stop, supposed to have been the start of a new line in the IND second system, that could be built as an additional terminal for some of the trains. That would get around terminal capacity constraints.

  • To a lesser degree, the SF Bay Area has a system like this, with huge bike parking facilities (without a guard) and bike lockers at many train stations on BART and Caltrans, i.e. targeting people who probably live further from a train station than people in SF. The same system could be used very effectively in the outer boroughs, and charging a small amount for a bike locker could keep people from abusing it as permanent bike storage.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Looking at the first Trans-Milleno picture, just imagine that was the center of the LIE. Instead of being four lanes with stations, the busway would be two lanes, but with entrance ramps from major bus routes.

    Since we’re imagining, Larry, why not imagine that it’s four lanes? Two could go straight through the tunnel, and two could go to Queens Plaza.

    You and I have gone over this already, so I’ll just say this: does anyone have anything from the MTA about the feasibility of extending the V to 179th?

  • Larry Littlefield

    (does anyone have anything from the MTA about the feasibility of extending the V to 179th?)

    It’s just money — lots of it. The F takes 13 minutes to get from Forest Hills to 179th. The V runs every six minutes. That means you’d need somewhere north of four additional trains (40 cars) to be purchased, maintained, stored, and crewed when service is going run. And the question is, who would ride the V all the way from Forest Hills rather than switch to the express?

  • mfs

    I have taken the Transmilenio and it’s very nice looking and comfortable and something Bogatanos should be proud of, but as rapid transit goes, it’s very slow and doesn’t yet go where people really need to travel (hence the feeder buses). No one really lives just off the main route on the northern side of town. For NY’ers imagine the density of development in Queens around the LIE where it intersects with Queens Blvd.

  • Larry Littlefield

    (doesn’t yet go where people really need to travel (hence the feeder buses).

    Thus my idea of having the “feeder buses” get on the route and go. Instead of having people go down the ramp, as in the picture, full buses go down the ramp instead.

    On the other end, people need to get to a variety of destinations on a variety of lines in the CBD, not just one street a bus would happen to run on. But Queens/Queensboro offers a choice of the N/R, the V, the E, and the 7 on the BMT Broadway, 6th Avenue, 8th Avenue and Flushing Lines.

    Many places would be accessible with just one change, from the local bus to whichever subway works best. Two changes gets you everywhere, and in-CBD changes provide very frequent service, since many lines at a station go to the same destination and you can take anyone.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    And the question is, who would ride the V all the way from Forest Hills rather than switch to the express?

    The V train that leaves Continental at 6:46 gets to Rockefeller Center at 7:16. The F that leaves a minute earlier gets to Rockefeller Center at 7:08, saving a whopping eight minutes. If the F is right across the platform and uncrowded, sure, who wouldn’t switch? But if there’s no F in sight and it’s a time when they’re always crowded anyway, I think a lot of people would stay on to their destination.

    For NY’ers imagine the density of development in Queens around the LIE where it intersects with Queens Blvd.

    I’m not sure what comparison you’re thinking of, MFS. Lefrak City, with over 15,000 residents, is a few blocks away, and there are several other highrises nearby.

  • Bogota Politics

    Enrique Peñalosa, the TransMilenio pioneer and favorite of NYC transportation reformers, lost in his bid for re-election to Samuel Moreno, candidate for the leftist Democratic Pole Alternative Party, 44 percent to 28 percent.

    The Miami Herald reports that the 47-year-old Moreno’s key campaign promise was the construction of a metro in the capital.

    http://www.miamiherald.com/942/story/287953.html

  • anonymous

    One thing that everyone seems to be forgetting about “Bus Rapid Transit” is that it requires a whole lot buses. They take up a whole lot of space (the aforementioned four lane ROW) and every bus needs a driver. Now, in Colombia, labor is cheap, and capital is expensive, so it’s way more cost effective to pay all the bus drivers rather than build a tunnel, buy tracks, and so on. But given that the MTA’s biggest operating cost is paying all their employees, it doesn’t seem like such a great idea to be building a system that requires 5 times more people to run. I suggest that what NYC needs is proper rapid transit, rather than our current subway system, which can at best be called “mass transit”.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    I agree, Anonymous. Larry’s estimate of four trains to extend the V to 179th Street would only require four conductors and four train operators per shift (plus a few additional support staff), which would be significantly less than the number of bus drivers required to transport as many people. The trains would be expensive to buy and maintain, but not as expensive as a new dedicated bus right-of-way.

    I still want to see dedicated ROWs on the LIE and Grand Central feeding the V at the 165th Street bus terminal, and eventually extending to the Midtown Tunnel, but extending the V is much more doable in the short term.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Another factor is that when the Save the G coalition asked for the G to serve Queens Boulevard 24/7, the MTA response was that it would be too difficult to turn trains from three different lines at Continental.

    I’d have to get the opinion of a dispatcher on this, but my guess is that it would be much easier to have one line continue on and turn two, as opposed to turning all three. If that’s too difficult logistically, then how about extending the R to Jamaica Center or 179th? Sending two trains on and turning one should be easier than the situation at Bowling Green.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    There is a turnout past the Roosevelt Avenue stop, supposed to have been the start of a new line in the IND second system, that could be built as an additional terminal for some of the trains.

    One more thing, which I couldn’t resist: this proposed line, the Winfield Spur, and its connections with the Myrtle/Central Avenue line and the Utica Avenue line, would have allowed Congressman Weiner to get from Metropolitan Avenue and Fresh Pond Road to Middle Village in a more reasonable amount of time than the bus would take today.

  • Larry Littlefield

    (Now, in Colombia, labor is cheap, and capital is expensive, so it’s way more cost effective to pay all the bus drivers rather than build a tunnel, buy tracks, and so on. But given that the MTA’s biggest operating cost is paying all their employees, it doesn’t seem like such a great idea to be building a system that requires 5 times more people to run.)

    I’m afraid in NY labor AND capital are expensive. If we get the upper half of the SAS, East Side Access, the Flushing Extension, MetroNorth to Penn, and the new Jersey Tunnel before we reach the point where very last dollar goes to senior citizens (in about 10 years), we will have done well.

    We are not Columbia, with very few seniors, all those young people, and a low cost of the labor that is used to produce infrastructure capital (ie. construciton workers). It’s our last chance, now if the MTA debts run up in the past 15 years have not already taken it away.

    That’s why bicycles are making sense to me — no labor OR capital, just a reallocation of space.

    In addition, you need high density to fill a train. Will the density of Queens rise to the level of Manhattan? Then maybe the IND second system would make sense — if we could afford it. But most areas of Queens away from the subway are not sense enough to support a rapid transit line, and residents of those areas like it that way, which is why they fought the new line that would have connected to 63rd Street after the MTA was formed.

    So it’s a bicycle or a bus. All I’m suggesting is that rather than have the bus drop someone off at a subway further out in Queens, where a long subway ride would probably be followed by a change of trains, that the bus route be extended by a 10 minute busway ride to Long Island City, where a choice of subway lines could allow a ride to a destination without an additional switch.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    But most areas of Queens away from the subway are not sense enough to support a rapid transit line, and residents of those areas like it that way, which is why they fought the new line that would have connected to 63rd Street after the MTA was formed.

    Yes, and that’s why they’re fighting congestion pricing: if they had to pay the full costs of that sprawly way of life, they’d be a lot poorer. It’s not sustainable, and eventually it will have to be replaced by something that is.

    All I’m suggesting is that rather than have the bus drop someone off at a subway further out in Queens, where a long subway ride would probably be followed by a change of trains, that the bus route be extended by a 10 minute busway ride to Long Island City, where a choice of subway lines could allow a ride to a destination without an additional switch.

    I guess I’m skeptical about whether such a ride would really be only ten more minutes. Google Maps says it takes 16 minutes to get from 164th and the LIE to Queens Plaza; can anyone confirm that? What kind of traffic does that assume?

    If you extend the R instead of the V train to 179th Street, that covers two Manhattan lines; the only lines that you can get at Queens Plaza but not at 169th would be the Eighth Avenue (E) and the 7 (Grand Central). Plus you’re much more likely to get a seat if you get on at the beginning of the line than at Queens Plaza.

    I just want to point out that these are relatively minor issues. The big point that we all agree on here is that people who live in Eastern Queens need reasonable alternatives to driving. I would be happy to see a busway installed on the LIE, and I’d bet that Larry would be happy to see the subway lines extended.

  • gecko

    Enrique and Gil Penalosa are truly inspirational and have shown how it can be done in Bogota and they are not even using advanced cycle technology that could be made highly practical and accessible on a much larger scale and meet developed world expectations and needs, like recumbent hybrid human-electric vehicles with real seats that require transportation environments that are completely safe from cars and trucks such as those provided by cycle track and rail.

    The developing world uses bicycles because it has no other choice since it does not have the resources. One-half billion cyclists have helped build modern China. In many ways we are starting to get like the impoverished developing world because we waste huge amounts and things have gotten so expensive, complicated, and difficult; it seems pretty clear we really do not have the money for conventional infrastructure any more; as well as the natural environment to destroy.

    It is difficult to understand how anything else will work except highly efficient, accessible, and practical human-scale transportation.

    Ultimately, human-scale transportation is a direct extension of human self-propulsion making it many times more cost-effective, practical, widely distributed, and on-demand than any other mode.

  • gecko

    Can you imagine asking people to sit on conventional bicycle seats in trains, cars, and buses?

    That’s the current vision of human-powered and human-scaled transportation. No wonder it is not taken seriously.

    Recumbent bicycles and tricycles can probably be configured as such to even have stripped down versions of Aeron chairs (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aeron_chair). Recumbents are also much more aerodynamically efficient where air resistance is the major energy sink in human-scaled vehicles.

    One example of very inspiring recumbent tricycles (but, without electric power assist) can be found at: http://www.windcheetah.co.uk/

  • Larry Littlefield

    (I would be happy to see a busway installed on the LIE, and I’d bet that Larry would be happy to see the subway lines extended.)

    Maybe, but “opportunity cost” is always an issue. Whenever you get something, there is something else that you didn’t get, now or later. Hence my growing interest in modes like bikes and carpools, because the public opportunity cost is very low.

  • gecko

    The MTA spent something like $32 billion to upgrade the subways over a number of years. Granted, they are the best they have every been, but a lot still has to be done, this way of providing transportation seems more like a money pit that a sensible way to go.

    The new buses now are probably over a one-half million dollars, which would buy a lot of recumbent hybrid human-electric vehicles with a fraction of the upkeep, much more efficient, and most likely a lot more fun to use.

  • anonymous

    Gecko: The subway has a daily ridership somewhere around 5 or 6 million. The river crossings in particular are major bottlenecks where having a very high capacity mode of transportation (subway) helps a great deal. Can you imagine 500,000 human powered vehicles crossing the East River in 2 hours? It would be a major traffic jam, except with HPVs instead of cars. Which is still a traffic jam. Oh and the reason the MTA had to spend that much money to upgrade the subways is because of an earlier decision to spend almost no money at all on subways. If you divide $32 billion over 50 years, it doesn’t seem that unreasonable anymore.

  • Davis

    Anon… Hundreds of thousands of human-powered “vehicles” crossing the East River Bridges?! Preposterous?

    Nope. That’d just be a return to the way the bridges worked 100 years ago when their capacity was about triple what it is today.

    See page 4:

    http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/preservation/spie1.pdf

  • gecko

    Anonymous, One-half billion cyclists help build the economic juggernaut that China is today. It’s real easy to get the densities that subways provide.

    In fact subways transport in packets better known as “cattle cars” with a huge amount of overhead. Human-power transit can stream like ants which is a lot more efficient and humane.

  • gecko

    After that big bridge collapse, the estimate was over a trillion dollars to bring US bridges up to par alone. This does include the urgent need to adapt to and mitigate the transportation cause of climate change. Obviously, a lot of money is required which the US can probably scrape together, but is highly unlikely to allocate.

    Human-scale transport and transit makes good economic sense besides many other things.

    Pouring any more funds than absolutely necessary into legacy transportation does not.

  • gecko

    Ants are pretty smart. Just ask E.O. Wilson.

  • gecko

    A lot of people still made it to work during the last transit strike and under their own power even though the city was not really equipped for them to travel that way which speaks to the tremendous resiliency of human-powered transport and transit.

  • blackburn

    a consultant who worked on that transit system in Bogata and in one in Curitiba, Brazil has been active in trying to adopt similar transit systems throughout the US. he constantly has lectures and presentations… http://www.missiongrouponline.com/

  • Your pictures are amazing!!! Throughout Latin America we are now referring to Bogota as a “model”. Penaloza provided a reachable alternative to our increasingly car oriented urban planning.

    I’ve placed a link to your story in Ciudad Posible, a blog about ideas for a city in northern Mexico. Hopefully you wont mind!

    http://www.ciudadposible.blogspot.com

  • Zvi

    One point which you did not note: where does this ‘political will’ come from? Surprisingly, the simple fact that politicians in Colombia (and much of South America) cannot run for consecutive terms in the same office focuses their attention on the long-term and leaving behind a good legacy. When politicians are always worried about being reelected, they have little incentive to make investment decisions which will only have significant pay-offs beyond their own ‘political horizon’.

    I do not think that North American politicians necessarily lack the political will to do good things, but they are not getting the right incentives!

  • gecko

    excuses are easy. commonsense solutions are even easier.

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