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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.”

  • Juan Rulfo

    Please stop promoting Bogota’s transit system. It’s so awful that they have spent years trying to figure out how to replace it with a metro, and the only reason it keeps expanding is because of the millions it generates for corrupt politicians in the city. Every single former mayor in the city has some kind of stake in the construction of new terminals. Also, it is quite obvious to say that riding the system on a holiday comes no where near the reality that people have to face on normal days. These buses are stopped by the same traffic lights as regular traffic, so speeding past three cars to get to a light makes no difference. Besides this, the bus lanes take space from passenger car lanes, making traffic much worse in the places that it’s implemented. Also, the system in Bogota is ridiculously expensive and has made all public transit skyrocket. I could go on for hours on what’s wrong in the system. Before promoting this, please ask someone from Bogota if they would approve. Trust me, I’ll bet anything their answer is strongly against it. It’s quite clear that all Miami can gain in knowledge from South America is for corruption and violence, which I don’t think we need any more of.

  • Juan Rulfo

    Please stop promoting Bogota’s transit system. It’s so awful that they have spent years trying to figure out how to replace it with a metro, and the only reason it keeps expanding is because of the millions it generates for corrupt politicians in the city. Every single former mayor in the city has some kind of stake in the construction of new terminals. Also, it is quite obvious to say that riding the system on a holiday comes no where near the reality that people have to face on normal days. These buses are stopped by the same traffic lights as regular traffic, so speeding past three cars to get to a light makes no difference. Besides this, the bus lanes take space from passenger car lanes, making traffic much worse in the places that it’s implemented. Also, the system in Bogota is ridiculously expensive and has made all public transit skyrocket. I could go on for hours on what’s wrong in the system. Before promoting this, please ask someone from Bogota if they would approve. Trust me, I’ll bet anything their answer is strongly against it. It’s quite clear that all Miami can gain in knowledge from South America is for corruption and violence, which I don’t think we need any more of.

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  • @eyesonmyworld

    I lived in the D.F. for many years and loved their Metro-bus system. It really operated just like an above ground subway. The dedicated lanes made all the difference. Also, you paid before you got on the bus, so the must stopped, we hopped on, and it went on its way. Loved it. We have many wide avenues here in Miami that could easily and quickly be transformed into the same sorts of BRT lanes that Mexico uses.

  • @eyesonmyworld

    I lived in the D.F. for many years and loved their Metro-bus system. It really operated just like an above ground subway. The dedicated lanes made all the difference. Also, you paid before you got on the bus, so the must stopped, we hopped on, and it went on its way. Loved it. We have many wide avenues here in Miami that could easily and quickly be transformed into the same sorts of BRT lanes that Mexico uses.

  • adamold

    It is worth noting that Transmillenio and the original BRT in Curitiba were parts of a larger campaigns aimed at bringing the poor out of poverty, providing mobility to all, and IMPORTANTLY, replacing the automobile as the central component in city building.

    Because of this, many miles of auto traffic lanes were converted to bus only lanes and pedestrian malls. It was not gradual incrementalism. The mayors who instituted these reforms were visionary and had great fortitude to stand up to the motorist associations. Will Miami-Dade have anyone who can pull it off? It should be the biggest question of the 2016 election.

    • A transformative transit platform sure seems like it would be appealing to many Miami-Dade voters, @adamold:disqus. But the websites of both 2016 Miami-Dade mayoral candidates are lacking transit platforms altogether… There’s still time to advocate for the solutions you think will help Miami-Dade the most.

  • adamold

    It is worth noting that Transmillenio and the original BRT in Curitiba were parts of a larger campaigns aimed at bringing the poor out of poverty, providing mobility to all, and IMPORTANTLY, replacing the automobile as the central component in city building.

    Because of this, many miles of auto traffic lanes were converted to bus only lanes and pedestrian malls. It was not gradual incrementalism. The mayors who instituted these reforms were visionary and had great fortitude to stand up to the motorist associations. Will Miami-Dade have anyone who can pull it off? It should be the biggest question of the 2016 election.

    • A transformative transit platform sure seems like it would be appealing to many Miami-Dade voters, @adamold:disqus. But the websites of both 2016 Miami-Dade mayoral candidates are lacking transit platforms altogether… There’s still time to advocate for the solutions you think will help Miami-Dade the most.

      • adamold

        Transit will be one of the biggest issues in this upcoming Mayoral election. Regalado has attacked Gimenez on transit issues again and again, but hasn’t put many concrete ideas out there. Suarez has been proactive on the issue, but is he running?

      • adamold

        Transit will be one of the biggest issues in this upcoming Mayoral election. Regalado has attacked Gimenez on transit issues again and again, but hasn’t put many concrete ideas out there. Suarez has been proactive on the issue, but is he running?

  • corinne

    A bus transportation is not the best option in Miami, subway will be more adequate or even a tramway …

  • corinne

    A bus transportation is not the best option in Miami, subway will be more adequate or even a tramway …

    • There’s definitely a lot of options to consider! Though an underground subway won’t work for the same reason South Florida doesn’t have basements — the aquifer is right below us. But Mexico city is interesting to consider, as it has an extensive metro above and below that integrates with its bus system. Maybe there’s a place to expand the Metrorail and Metromover alongside other transit options?

    • There’s definitely a lot of options to consider! Though an underground subway won’t work for the same reason South Florida doesn’t have basements — the aquifer is right below us. But Mexico city is interesting to consider, as it has an extensive metro above and below that integrates with its bus system. Maybe there’s a place to expand the Metrorail and Metromover alongside other transit options?