EU public transport could learn from Bogotá, road lobby suggests


This article is part of our special report Road transport: Who’s in the driving seat?.

SPECIAL REPORT / The road transport lobby is casting admiring glances at Bogotá’s rapid bus transit system as it looks to vastly increase the number of people using public transport in the EU by 2025.

The International Road Transport Union (IRU) wants to give bus and coach travel a leg up by making the doubling of public transport by 2025 an EU policy priority.

As well as creating fertile ground for bus and coach companies, the proposals contain wider benefits for society with more so-called “collective” transport, the road group says.

Encouraging motorists to use more public transport could reduce congestion in a continent choked by rising numbers of road users. The aim is to cut down on fuel consumption, therefore reducing CO2 emissions, and road accident rates.

The IRU claims that it foresees a place for train travel in its “multi-modal” transport vision but the road lobby makes it clear which direction it wants EU policymakers to take the ‘old world’s’ public transport systems – that of Bogotá, Colombia.

IRU spokespeople make specific reference to the merits of Bogotá’s rapid transit system, the ‘TransMilenio’, which is made up of 1,400 bright-red articulated buses travelling along 11 lines, carrying an estimated 1.4 to 1.7 million passengers per day.

The TransMilenio is seen by some as a model of urban public transport, being cheaper, easier to set up than rival rail projects such as that of Colombia’s second city, Medellin, and having congestion-cutting dedicated lanes.

Catching up

IRU collective transport expert Oleg Kamberski subscribes to that view, saying that the EU is “behind schedule in transport policies”, compared to projects such as that of Bogotá.

“There is a paradigm shift in collective transport to bus rapid transit systems. It is catching on,” Kamberski told EURACTIV. “It is cheaper and easier to implement than rail.”

The IRU's proposals attempt to make the case for a greater share of buses, as well as coaches and taxis, in the EU public transport mix. "It is in the public interest to place buses coaches and taxis … at the heart of policy making at EU, national and local levels. Setting a clear policy and business target to increase their use and modal share – indeed double it by 2025 – will facilitate the development of a pro-active public, financial, fiscal, legislative, market and operational environment", the recommendations read.

That the TransMilenio is a public-private partnership may further pique the interest of the road group, whose proposals refer specifically to that sort of funding, which would “enable progressively a legislative, fiscal, market and administrative framework … and to offer adequate public investment to allow collective road passenger transport to compete successfully with the private car.”

With "adequate public investment", the IRU hopes that public support for bus transit systems may prevent it from continuing to "cross-subsidise" rail travel through road taxes such as tolls and congestion charges.

The case for bus transit is also be growing across the Atlantic. The United States, often pilloried for its public transport systems, may be catching the Bogotá bug.

“Per dollar of transit investment, and under similar conditions, BRT can leverage more [development] investment than LRT [Light Rail Transit] or street cars,” the US and Africa director of the Institute for Transportation and Development policy said at a Metropolitan Planning Council Roundtable in Chicago this month.

The Cleveland Healthline, a bus transit system in Ohio's second largest city, has generated nearly $6 billion in urban development funding, or 114 for each dollar invested. Other city projects have yielded similar results.

But all is not rosy for urban bus travel. Few systems have achieved the status of Bogotá’s BRT, which still has had its problems. It may have been cheaper and easier to set up than rival city Medellin’s now-renowned metro system, but the rising congestion in the Bogotá BRT led to looting and riots this year that created hundreds of thousands of euros worth of damage and left many injured.

The bus rapid transit system has done little to curb Bogotá’s crippling traffic, with rush hour transits often taking over an hour. There are also question marks over the long term "livailibility" of BRT as the bus exhausts spew pollutants into the city air, contributing to smog. This contrasts with rail systems, which are powered by electricity from energy plants outside the metropolitan area.

Bus and rail

But there are suggestions that smog can be curbed using more advanced electric or hybrid buses, such as those recently launched by the city of London.

It is over to the transport lobbies to prove that an increase in public transport availability will get more people out of their cars and less CO2 in the air. For that to be the case it seems that both road and rail transits will be necessary.

A spokesperson for the The Community of European Railway and Infrastructure Companies (CER) said: "Urban transport – including urban bus – and rail are very complementary". 

The CER and IRU both claim that their modes of transport – urban rail and bus respectively – are less polluting. But they certainly agree on one thing: "Both urban bus and rail are more environmentally friendly than cars."

The European Commission's first policy proposals in the area of urban mobility date back to 1995 and 1998. They resulted in the launch of a series of initiatives based upon a "best practice" approach. 

Further to the mid-term review of the 2001 Transport White Paper 'European transport policy for 2010: time to decide', the European Commission adopted the Green Paper "Towards a new culture for urban mobility" on 25 September 2007. The document was aimed at launched a debate on the key issues of urban mobility: free-flowing and greener towns and cities, smarter urban mobility and urban transport which is accessible, safe and secure for all European citizens. Based upon the results of the consultation, the European Commission adopted the Action Plan on urban mobility on 30 September 2009.

As a follow-up to the 2011 Transport White Paper 'Roadmap to a Single European Transport Area', the European Commission intends to come up later in 2013 with an Urban Mobility Package.

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