How Latin America kicks our ass on transit

On a recent trip to Bogota, Colombia, I eyed the public transportation system with envy.

Bogota’s TransMilenio is a bus rapid transit (BRT) system, and it’s operated for over a decade. Specialized articulated vehicles with a capacity of 160 passengers coast along on dedicated lanes, zooming past Bogota’s notorious traffic. Passengers board the buses from raised platforms in the middle of major roads. Twelve lines with 131 stations, covering over 70 miles, crisscross the city. It’s the world’s largest bus rapid transit system, serving Colombia’s capital, a metropolitan area with 9.8 million residents.

One morning during my December visit, I made a circle from the north part of the city, boarding the TransMilenio at Carrera 100 on the green B-line going south. That continued down to the territory of the purple A-line all the way to the downtown historic La Candelaria zone. It was a holiday, and though it was supposed to be a light traffic day, the buses dashed past gridlocked traffic.

Mexico City, with 20 million residents, followed Bogota in 2005, launching five Metrobús lines with 150 stations extending 65 miles across the city. In addition to their bus rapid transit system, Mexico City’s 12-line above- and below-ground metro system stretches 140.7 miles, blowing Miami’s 25-mile Metrorail system and the 4.4-mile elevated Metromover out of the water. Plus, both Bogota and Mexico City have extensive bike share programs and restrict private cars on certain days or peak hours to lessen traffic and pollution.

Of course, those systems didn’t appear out of nowhere. Bogota and Mexico City’s BRT systems were directly inspired by the express bus system in Curitiba, Brazil.

For Miami as well, emulating the numerous on-street express bus systems in Latin America could serve as a starting point for solving the transportation needs of Miami-Dade’s 2.6 million residents. We have a growing urban core and a rising population, along with some of the worst overall congestion in the country — traffic most buses have no way of avoiding. Meanwhile, in Bogota, with a BRT system running on lanes closed off to other cars, TransMilenio riders told The New York Times their commutes have been cut by more than half versus driving, while reducing the amount of bus fuel used and the greenhouse gasses generated by 50%.

The yearning of Miami resident feel for transformative transit solutions was palpable at a recent talk at The Idea Center by Gabe Klein, author of Start-Up City. A note slipped inside the books handed out at the event read, “We hope [this] inspires you to help get things done in Miami.”

According to Klein, more than ever, cities are charged with carrying out national-level policies and are expected to be at the forefront of our response to climate change, housing inequality, job creation, and public health. Klein acknowledged seemingly insurmountable frustrations are everywhere. But he argued meaningful changes can be made in spite of these realities. “You have to try the places that are the hardest,” Klein said while showing slides of roads complete with dedicated, protected bike and bus lanes and ample crosswalks, sights that usually elude Miami.

Buses in Miami-Dade almost all face the same traffic delays as passenger cars.
Buses in Miami-Dade almost all face the same traffic delays as passenger cars.

He spoke hard truths about Miami. “Running a bus every 45 minutes for someone with an hourly job is not equitable,” he said.

However, according to Miami-Dade Transit Public Information Officer Karla Damian, the county is making progress. “Miami-Dade Transit (MDT) already has a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line  — the South Miami-Dade Busway — which is similar to the one found in Colombia, Mexico, and Brazil,” she responded in a written statement. “Express buses run along the exclusive bus lanes of the Busway, approximately 20 miles long, transporting passengers between Dadeland South Metrorail station and SW 344 St. in Florida City.”

Miami’s single dedicated Busway, which was launched all the way back in 1997, is in the process of implementing several improvements, like building enclosed passenger shelters, adding new bike racks, and allowing multi-door boarding. Altogether, improvements are expected to cost $100 million and take five years. Yet, it is only a single line that doesn’t come anywhere near the urban core. Damian did not mention the possibility of expanding BRT to new areas of Miami-Dade anytime soon in her response.

As Commissioner Xavier Suarez recently wrote, “To understand what is happening in Miami-Dade County mass transportation, one needs to understand what is really the substantive consensus among those in a position to actually effectuate reform.”

Bus tracking map from Miamidade.gov. (Courtesy of Miami-Dade County)
Bus tracking map from Miamidade.gov. (Courtesy of Miami-Dade County)

According to Suarez, a coalition of local leaders from the county and local cities agree that much needs to be done, from expanding the Metrorail to finally launching the long-delayed Baylink. However, he does not consider an expansive BRT system a long term goal, describing it as “a temporary solution.”

Temporary or otherwise, Mitch Bierman, who chairs the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce’s Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, told Miami Today that recent technology upgrades to offer real-time bus and rail tracking data to both the public and a county operations center are a significant step toward progress. “What I’d like to see happen is us coming closer to providing bus rapid transit dedicated lanes,” Bierman said. “The buses could move with the speed of a rail system, much faster than traffic, which is extremely important in attracting riders to transit. People who have a choice are not going to use transit unless it’s faster than their own car.”