Pop quiz: name which city is home to the world’s premier bus rapid transit (BRT) system.

Did you guess Bogotá, Colombia? Would you have if it weren’t in the title of this post?

Five months ago, that pop quiz would have stumped me. During Professor Frederic Stout’s Rev-sponsored Urban Studies 167: The Automobile, the City, and the New Mobilities, Bogotá’s TransMilenio system caught my eye. I had to learn more.

With support from the Revs Program, I traveled in March to Bogotá to see the TransMilenio firsthand. There I met with a handful of stakeholders to gather research for a forthcoming report on the TransMilenio’s applicability to the San Francisco Muni system.

Passengers load a TransMilenio “feeder” bus at the El Dorado International Airport.

I first met with Angelica Castro, the former General Manager of TransMilenio. We chatted about her experiences while enjoying a traditional Colombian Sunday brunch and a tour of Bogotá’s Salt Cathedral.

“The TransMilenio was not a transport decision. It was an urban planning decision,” said Angelica. To her, the TransMilenio can be considered a success because the project brought Bogotá’s previously-unregulated transportation system into harmony with a handful of other new urban reforms. In planning the TransMilenio, they acknowledged the cultural use of the roadways and molded them into their vision for a new, walkable Bogotá. I could see this in how they handled lane separation: they separated the bus lanes with tall curbs, since painted lane markers are often ignored by automobile traffic.

Outside Bogotá’s Catedral de Sal de Zipaquirá with Angelica’s niece and nephew, Ana Maria and Jacobo.

I next visited with Carlos Acosta at the TransMilenio control center. There, hundreds of buses are managed in real time by a team of controllers, dispatchers, police officers, and other emergency service providers.

“The TransMilenio is a marriage of technology and humanity,” noted Carlos. In his mind, the metric for measuring the TransMilenio’s success is how well it serves the citizens of Bogotá. For example, the TransMilenio means that for one of Carlos’s co-workers, Jeisson, his commute takes 45 minutes instead of 2 to 3 hours. Carlos told me that one TransMilenio’s strengths is its flexibility. To take advantage of this, they collect both quantitative and qualitative data. The buses can be quantifiably tracked by exact speed and location, while the controllers rotate between stints in the control center and within bus stations to get a pulse on passengers’ experiences.

Carlos Acosta shows how controllers track and route buses.

Finally, I met with Carlosfelipe Pardo, Executive Director of Despacio, a nonprofit organization that conducts research to promote quality of life in all stages of the life cycle.

“The BRT is just a sum of components, not a one-size fits all solution with features A, B, and C,” Carlosfelipe mentioned. For him, it remains important to avoid becoming infatuated with the BRT brand and ignore its original goal: to meet the needs of a transportation system with passenger demand somewhere between traditional bus and metro system capacities. While the popularity of TransMilenio has caused some growing pains (e.g. overcrowding during rush hour), political will remains critical to the TransMilenio’s future success. Without strong willpower to catalyze change, large-scale improvements are nearly impossible.

A TransMilenio bus interior during non-peak hours.

Stay tuned for a follow-up post with the final report on what the San Francisco Muni can learn from Bogotá.

Update: Sharp's second post, including his final paper, can be found here.