The cities of Colombia are becoming increasingly connected, thanks to new urban transport systems that are being built to meet demand from a rising number of daily commuters.
Economic and urban growth has made traffic difficult to manage, especially in the bigger cities, such as the capital, Bogotá, and Medellín. A city of 8m people, Bogotá is increasingly congested. A study by the Office of National Planning found that the average speed of transport in the city has fallen by 15% over the past seven years, and that buses and cars move at an average of 19.3 km per hour. People in Bogotá spend around 7m hours per year inside buses, compared to 4m hours for the rest of Colombia. The study also found that traffic jams cost 2% of GDP. Part of the problem has been the vast increase in the number of vehicles, which rose 100% between 2002 and 2014, according to the District Automotive Registry. In addition to over 68,000 taxis and buses, the capital’s roads cater to over 1.5m private vehicles.
Bogotá’s articulated bus system, Transmilenio, has been fundamental in improving public transport in the capital since it began operation in 2000. The rapid bus transit system commands regular and express buses through bus-only lanes across the city. The reception from commuters has been positive: the number of daily passengers in the system’s seven corridors has risen from 676,000 in 2002 to 2.4m in 2015.
Despite becoming an example to follow for many cities across the world wanting to implement similar systems, Bogotá’s bus system also faces challenges. Overcrowding at peak times and security concerns have become regular complaints by users. Moreover, a delayed expansion plan has hindered initial optimism about the system’s eventual reach. The original master plan had Transmilenio routes extending over 388 km by 2017, but as of March 2015 it stretched only 110 km. The initial plan involved the construction of another line in Boyaca Avenue, expected to add 35 km and 40 stations. This has long been delayed, preventing the system’s expansion into the west of Bogotá. However, the authorities are putting more emphasis on the need for this addition to the system.
Expanding the Transmilenio system along Boyaca Avenue is expected to cost COP3.2trn ($1.2bn). The initial section will stretch for 28.7 km and have 21 stations. The city’s transport authorities are also phasing out the smaller independent buses that roam the city by integrating a number of them into a unified bus system.
Enhancing security on Bogotá’s mass transit bus system has also become an issue, with thefts in public transport vehicles and stations a major problem. In May 2015 the Ministry of Defence announced that an additional 400 police officers would be made available to patrol buses and stations during rush hours. Of these, 330 will be uniformed, with the other 70 working undercover. This is in addition to the existing 950 security officers that already patrol Transmilenio.
A recurring promise of several of the capital’s mayors has been the establishment of a metro system to ease transport around the city. The process has seen a web of advancements and cancellations, mostly over costs, planning and design. After being announced for mid-2015 and later delayed for 2016, the project has seen a new reversal, as the Ministry of Finance suspended a structural financing analysis of the project in November 2015. The initial studies about how to finance the project had given hope that construction could start in 2017, especially after President Juan Manuel Santos had announced that the central government would help finance the project, budgeted at $6.9bn, with up to COP9.6trn ($3.5bn).
The suspension of the financial structuring does not cancel the project altogether. Both national and municipal authorities have expressed the intention to move forward. However, the move by the national government to suspend the financing does point to the fact that building a metro system in Bogotá might be too expensive at the moment, especially in the current context of low oil prices and a lower Colombian peso against the dollar.
Meanwhile, improvements are taking place on the country’s only existing metro line in Medellín. In July 2017 Empresa de Transporte Masivo del Valle de Aburrá (ETMVA), the entity in charge of the city’s metro, signed an $89m deal with Spanish manufacturer CAF to buy 20 three-car trains. The added capacity will allow the system to accommodate growing demand. Urban transport has greatly benefitted Medellín. After a difficult period in the 1980s and 1990s caused by drug-related violence, the city has renewed its image and raised security levels. Much of this has been made possible by better transport networks.
ETMVA now manages an urban transport network that allows commuters to move around the city more easily. Having started operations in 1995, the Medellín metro system is made up of two lines, running 35.5 km and servicing 27 stations. In August 2004 the system was improved with the addition of a cable-car system to serve the north-eastern hills, followed by a second in 2008 to link the city’s west. A third line was added in 2010, the Arvi cable-car, which is mainly aimed at transporting tourists in the city’s eastern areas.
Medellín’s cable-car lines in particular have been key in the city’s revival. By connecting the city centre with some of its poorest neighbourhoods, the transport system has allowed low-income groups in those areas to access new economic opportunities, through inexpensive and fast transport. Two additional cable-car systems are planned. The first, extending for 1056 metres, will have three stops and link the city’s new Tranvia tram system with the Comuna 8 neighbourhood, linking Miraflores, El Pinal and Trece de Noviembre. A second line, extending 1.4 km, will serve three stations in Oriente, Las Torres and Villa Sierra, and will open during the first half of 2016.
Medellín also added two articulated-bus lines in 2011 and 2013, which cover 28 stops across the city. Moreover, in October 2015 the city’s transport authorities began operation of the new 4. 3-km Ayacucho Tram line, which will link to the city’s two new cable-line systems as well as both lines of the etro system. The new tramway is anticipated to carry 85,000 passengers per day, and was built by a consortium composed of Alstom and BPI France. City transport authorities are hoping for ever-swifter integration of the transport offering.
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