Colombia fights pollution and congestion by increasing emission-free public transportation


Colombian cities are currently home to close to 80% of the country’s population, with the number expected to reach 83.4% in 2035, according to the National Administrative Department of Statistics. Despite efforts to develop efficient public transport solutions, rising urbanisation rates and increasing demand have outstripped supply, contributing to congestion and air pollution. City authorities have traditionally attempted to deal with these issues through a combination of investment in public transport and schemes to disincentivise the use of private vehicles. These strategies include “Peak and Plate” regulations, which restrict the movement of vehicles with certain licence plates from entering specific districts at set times; improved cycling infrastructure; and the provision of incentives to encourage drivers to use cleaner fuels.

However, with traffic jams costing the country an estimated 2% of GDP each year and a number of major cities routinely experiencing pollution levels above World Health Organisation limits, improving urban mobility remains a pressing issue. Faced with these challenges, cities have increasingly turned to digitalisation and electric vehicles (EVs), alongside more traditional transit options, such as metro systems.

Car City

Bogotá’s bus rapid transit system, the TransMilenio, was widely hailed as a success story in the years that followed its launch in 2000, inspiring similar projects across the region. The bus network contributed to a substantial reduction in traffic accidents, commuter times and urban pollution. Since 2011, however, the system has become overcrowded, with investment failing to keep pace with rising demand. Efforts to develop new infrastructure have encountered long delays, and the condition of the fleet has deteriorated. Nevertheless, despite these issues the service remains profitable. “The TransMilenio system itself consistently generates a surplus,” Camilo Gonzalez, infrastructure lead for multinational professional services firm EY, told OBG. “However, Bogotá’s overall public transport network is in deficit. This is because other concessions have not performed as well over the years, meaning that the TransMilenio and the city government bare the cost.”

Given insufficient urban transport options, the use of private vehicles has risen in all major cities in the country, according to urban monitoring organisation Red de Ciudades Cómo Vamos. This has led to progressively worsening congestion across Colombia, with the situation becoming particularly acute in Bogotá, Medellín, Cali and Barranquilla. Indeed, Bogotá was ranked third in terms of the negative impact of congestion out of 200 cities from 38 countries in the “2018 Global Traffic Scorecard”, published by global data analytics firm INRIX. In the same index, the city ranked first in terms of the level of congestion, with the average resident spending 272 hours a year in traffic.

Efforts are, however, under way to try to expand Bogotá’s public transport offering. In late 2018 TransMilenio announced that concessions had been granted to introduce 1441 new buses to the network. This expanded fleet is set to increase capacity by 140,000 passengers. In order to contribute to the reduction of air pollution in the city, 51% of the new buses will be fuelled by natural gas, with the remainder running on diesel with a Euro V standard exhaust filter. The project also includes investment in associated infrastructure to expand existing stations and develop new ones.

Bogotá metro

The rise in problems associated with congestion and pollution in the capital has also revived long-dormant plans to develop a mass transit network. In 2017 the government approved funding for the Bogotá metro system, and in April 2019 six consortia were selected to participate in the project.

The first line will span 24 km from Portal Americas to Autopista Norte, with construction expected to begin in 2020. It will include 16 stations, ten of which will be connected to the TransMilenio, and a maintenance workshop. The line will carry 23 trains and have capacity for 1800 passengers. In November 2018 the European Investment Bank agreed to provide $480m of credit to help finance the project. Furthermore, in the same month the government announced that it would provide financing for additional infrastructure to integrate the new metro system with the TransMilenio, as well as the cable car and cycle path network.

Digital Drive

City authorities are at the same time seeking to leverage new technologies and smart city solutions to increase the efficiency of their public transport systems. Beginning in 2010 Medellín saw a significant reduction in accidents and improved connectivity through the implementation of an intelligent mobility management system.

“The success of Medellín’s urban mobility strategy lies in the implementation of new technologies and the digitalisation of oversight and security,” Hugo Zuluaga, CEO of Medellín-based urban transport consultancy firm Quipux, told OBG. “This has substantially mitigated the risks associated with an informal, unstructured transport system, while simultaneously improving the image of traffic authorities, increasing revenue, and reducing emissions and travel times.”

In August 2018 Bogotá began to implement a smart traffic light system to optimise the movement of vehicles and ease congestion. The system uses sensors to coordinate the traffic light system based on changing demand and is being implemented by the Movilidad Futura 2050 consortium, made up of domestic firm Sutec Sucursal Colombia and global technology giant Siemens. Under the scheme, 19,082 new lights are expected to be fitted by 2020.

These efforts appear to be generating some positive results, with Medellín and Bogotá both improving their respective rankings in terms of mobility and transportation in the IESE Business School’s “City in Motion Index 2019”. Between 2018 and 2019 Bogotá climbed three places and Medellín jumped 14 places. Nevertheless, both cities still measured poorly overall, with Bogotá and Medellín ranked 148 and 107 out of 174 cities, respectively. “In order to reach the same levels as countries in Europe and North America, Colombia needs to move towards the complete digitalisation of transport procedures,” Zuluaga told OBG.

Green Vehicles

Colombia has also implemented a number of policies aimed at increasing the use of EVs and hybrid vehicles for both public transport and private use. The country’s 2012 Low Emission Development Strategy prioritised the electrification of public transport and the increase of efficiency. Under the 2016 fiscal reforms, hybrid vehicles, EVs and charging stations were made exempt from Customs tariffs, and either exempted or given preferential rates on value-added tax and consumption tax.

In June 2018 the National Planning Department launched a new policy roadmap for the development of the segment, aiming to have 600,000 EVs on the country’s roads by 2030. The programme also calls for the replacement of all public buses with electric models and aims for 45% of the population to use public transport. However, the cost associated with the purchase of EVs is higher than that of conventional vehicles, and existing infrastructure for recharging EVs remains underdeveloped, posing a hurdle to the wider adoption of this technology. Promisingly, the sale of hybrid vehicles and EVs increased by 375% in 2018, with 932 new units coming into use, according to the National Association of Sustainable Mobility.

While the sale of environmentally friendly models remains a small share of the total market for private vehicles in Colombia, uptake among public transport authorities has been considerably higher, notably in Medellín. Since the launch of the city’s first metro line in 1995 Medellín has consistently prioritised the expansion of sustainable, low-emission public transport technology, with the development of five electric cable cars and an electric tram system. In late 2018 the city had 13 EV charging stations and two electric buses in operation. In January 2019 municipal authorities signed an agreement with Chinese EV and battery manufacturer BYD to become the city’s main supplier of this technology. Under the scheme, the company is set to deploy 64 new electric buses, with a capacity of 80 passengers each, by mid-2019. That March Medellín saw the arrival of the first electric taxi service, with the vehicles supplied by BYD. The city is aiming to have a total of 200 such units in operation by the end of 2019, before expanding the electric taxi fleet to 1500 units over the coming years. The city of Cali also launched its own electric bus pilot scheme in March 2019, with 26 units. According to local media, the city plans to increase this figure to 125 by the end of 2019.

Bogotá was expected to join other major cities in Colombia in the adoption of zero-emission vehicles during the latest tender for the expansion of its TransMilenio fleet. However, the bus service – which operates under a public-private partnership – opted for less polluting but still carbon-emitting natural gas and diesel models. With the next tender not expected until 2023, the implementation of an electric transport system in the capital is set to take somewhat longer.

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The Report: Colombia 2019

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