Management & Operations

FTA's South American trip finds BRT mania

Posted on September 13, 2006 by Cliff Henke

As cities in Latin America continue to develop and expand, they are increasingly looking at smaller scale public transport investments as a means to cope with growing traffic congestion while preserving their historic city centers. There is no better illustration of these concerns than a recent international conference in Cuenca, Ecuador, jointly sponsored by that city’s government and the FTA’s international program.

The conference was attended by FTA and U.S. transit agency officials, executives from U.S. companies and public transport managers from many Andean cities. Presentations ranged from vehicle trends and strategies to security and safety considerations to other infrastructure aspects of bus rapd transit (BRT), such as design for greater accessibility and traffic priority.

Latin American cities are mainly looking at BRT, and also light rail in some cases, to help ease congestion. Cuenca is planning a BRT line that would give buses priority in traffic while rationalizing the system of buses currently owned and operated by many private companies — a typical situation in South America. Cities look to the example of TransMilenio in Bogota, Colombia, which merged many small, uncoordinated bus operations into a rational system of fewer, larger companies that carry 1.4 million weekday passengers in an efficient, state-of-the-art network. The network includes a modern operations control center with automatic vehicle location, smart card fare collection and platform screen doors in all trunk routes of the network. Cuenca has just issued a tender for design of its system, which would be funded by the Inter-American Development Bank and World Bank loans.

Quito already boasts the Trolebus and Escovia BRT lines, which combined carry nearly half a million daily passengers. Trolebus is as it sounds, a dedicated line comprising two grade-separated traffic lanes plied by 113 electric trolleybuses and fed by 98 feeder buses on 15 routes. Even though this line carries more than 250,000 daily passengers, it is near its capacity. The system already operates one- to two-minute headways at peak and three-minute intervals off-peak. Officials from Quito are interested in a $400 million light rail conversion of this line, which would also extend to a new international airport being planned for the city.

Nearby, Colombia’s economy is much more robust than Ecuador’s. Like Brazil and Argentina, Colombian cities have much more domestic transportation technical expertise than in Ecuador, particularly on BRT. As mentioned, Bogota’s TransMilenio is considered one of the best examples of BRT on the planet and is in the third phase of the system’s development.

TransMilenio carries more than 20% of the city’s public transport users, and the third phase is designed to expand this share even further. Meanwhile, the Medellin Metro is one of the best-run heavy rail systems anywhere, actually turning a healthy profit and helping to cross-subsidize small network investments elsewhere in the city. It has two cable car-based feeder systems that serve the city’s low-income foothills, helping to spur development in these neighborhoods. In fact, the BRT project in Medellin was initially proposed by the metro staff. Five other cities have recently announced BRT projects designed to build on the success of TransMilenio in the nation’s capital.

Beyond BRT expansions, all Colombian cities are looking to do multimodal travel demand studies and intend to coordinate zoning, traffic regulation (in Bogota, to include local bus and taxi services), pedestrian and cycling facilities, and other public works with public transport developments. For the future, Medellin and Bogota are both interested in advanced propulsion such as diesel-electric hybrid and CNG for both their BRT and traditional bus systems.

Like Ecuador, the large-scale projects rely primarily on multinational development lending institutions and smaller projects on their own government funds.

Unlike Ecuador, however, Colombia’s political and economic situation is more certain, and Ecuador’s presidency will change hands in early 2007; it is unclear where either candidate stands on these public transport projects. Moreover, U.S.-Ecuadorian trade, one of the nation’s most important economic engines, may very well decrease following the expiration of the current bilateral free trade agreement, with no plans to renew either it or the multilateral Free Trade Agreement over which Colombia and other South American nations are negotiating. Accordingly, it is not clear how well Ecuador’s economy will be able to finance planned transport projects.

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