All Aboard the Upper-Class Bus
Heading to downtown Bogotá, Colombia, Enrique Peñalosa steps out of his office and onto a red express bus that whizzes him down the Caracas Avenue Line. Nothing remarkable, except Peñalosa is in the upper middle class of a city that once shared the stereotypes of municipal buses ("loser cruiser") with the United States. "Buses were meant for the poor and the elderly, for people who had no choice," he says.
Now people with means are climbing aboard, including Peñalosa, who was mayor when Bogotá started building its shiny TransMilenio lines. The city of 7 million remade its transit system in less than a decade, by forgoing the expensive glamour of rail for the affordable flexibility of buses.
Foreign concepts. Bogotá is among several Latin American cities to adopt these radically new bus systems. "People are realizing that buses can do more than they once thought," says Georges Darido of the National Bus Rapid Transit Institute, which recently sent a U.S. delegation to South America. "Surface subways" were first hatched in the 1970s in the Brazilian city of Curitiba. The city mimicked the efficiency of rail with dedicated lanes, stations with fare booths, raised loading platforms, and large buses with wide doorways. The concepts are foreign in more than accent, says Lurae Stuart of the American Public Transportation Association. For one, private companies run the buses, she says, "and they actually make a profit."
A few U.S. experiments have blossomed, usually when there was no choice. Los Angeles opened its Orange Line after state lawmakers barred a surface train, and nobody had the money for another subway. The bus line cost far less, but critics say it will cost more than the subway in the long run because trains can move more people with fewer operators. Edson Tennyson, a former Pennsylvania transit official, dismisses the new interest in buses as lobbying by oil and automotive interests. "We aren't a Third World country," he says. "We have the capital to build trains."
So the class argument extends across borders. Peñalosa says it can be overcome with good engineering and marketing: "You have to make the buses different; you have to make them sexy." It's hard to top Latinos for layering sensuality into the mundane.
This story appears in the March 26, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.