Those spending time on the streets of Colombia’s capital in recent months will have noticed conspicuously empty blue buses bearing the SITP (Integrated Public Transport System) logo. More than a few residents and visitors have expressed confusion regarding the new system, but proponents ensure the multi-billion peso initiative represents a crucial step for modernizing Bogotá and improving the lives of citizens.
SITP, originally proposed by ousted mayor Samuel Moreno, began introducing the first new buses to Bogotá’s streets in June 2012. Routes continue to be added despite widespread public confusion regarding the new system, which operates using a special fare card and designated bus stops, unlike current busetas that stop wherever passengers need to board or get off and accept cash only.
“It’s a transcendental process for the city,” said Camilo Ospina, public relations representative for the private companies that comprise the SITP. “Getting away from chaos and organizing the system are very important steps.”
Indeed, few would describe the old system as anything less than chaotic. Largely unregulated buses, many in dire need of repairs or improvements to meet even basic safety and environmental standards, operate on hundreds if not thousands of routes with no designated stops. Making matters worse, drivers earn their salaries based on the number of paying customers they transport each day, leading to the so-called “war for cents,” a sort of competition amongst bus drivers to collect as many passengers as possible, often causing traffic problems or endangering other vehicles.
Ospina suggests that organizing public transportation could even help improve residents’ manners and awareness of the impact of behavior on those around them, not to mention making transit in general easier and safer. The new system will also likely reduce commute times, which currently average as much as three hours a day, drastically affecting quality of life.
While laudable, such goals still face considerable barriers, starting with the simple act of paying for a ride on SITP buses. Potential passengers without new Tullave (Your Key) cards will not be able to use the system. Unlike standard Transmilenio passes, which do not contain passenger information, Tullave cards can be registered and personalized and are available at three points along the Calle 10 and El Dorado Transmilenio routes. The new cards will eventually be the only pass needed to navigate the city, working with small buses, Transmilenio and proposed light and heavy metro systems.
However, boarding passes used in Transmilenio Phases I and II (the entirety of the system except for the Avenida El Dorado and Calle 10 routes) are produced by a separate company not affiliated with the SITP, meaning that Tullave cards are not currently accepted in the majority of Transmilenio stations. The two companies had not been able to reach an agreement to standardize the boarding passes due to issues of intellectual property and appropriate financial compensation, but a contract renegotiation on Wednesday between Transmilenio Phases I and II and SITP finalized the integration of the two systems and may speed the implementation of Tullave as the only necessary pass.
Once riders have obtained a card, cash can be added at more than 4,500 points marked with the Tullave logo around the city. Nonetheless, finding a refill point can be a challenge. Many locations remain unmarked and some storeowners frustrated by the lack of customers using the new machines have asked SITP to remove them from their businesses.
For those with a financial stake in the old bus system, run by several private companies, the transition has proven relatively smooth thus far. Despite a reduction of the total number of buses by more than 5,000, the city is desperately searching for new drivers and rushing to train current drivers to operate within the new system. Formalization of a notoriously unregulated job means that SITP drivers can only work eight-hour shifts and must receive holidays. Given that current bus drivers work shifts of as much as 16 hours with no holidays, the new system will require at least two employees for every one currently working. The city has enough employees to run the system at its current level of implementation, but remains far short of the total number of drivers needed by the end of the year.
Further complicating matters, the Secretary of Mobility has been charged with running training programs to integrate current drivers into the new system, but lacks the infrastructure to carry out the process. The Secretary offered to transfer responsibility to the SENA national apprenticeship program, but the process is currently bogged down in training teachers to train the drivers.
The change will undoubtedly improve the lives of current bus drivers choosing to switch to the new system, however, offering them a comparable salary for significantly fewer hours of work, not to mention access to social security benefits and health coverage. Similarly, SITP hopes to save millions of gallons of diesel fuel each year by reducing the total number of buses, a significant economic and environmental advantage for the capital and its residents.
Even with a reduction of thousands of buses, the city faces a parking crisis. Under the current system, bus drivers typically park their vehicles at or near their homes. As SITP buses are public property, the system’s organizers will need to find up to 2 million square meters of parking space to house the new fleet. With current real estate prices approaching $1 million pesos (about USD $550) per square meter in Bogotá, buying land is a pricey prospect, and sufficient space may simply not exist within city limits.
Even the issues of driver training, parking space and conflicts over payment systems pale in comparison to the simple fact that most residents remain unaware of new routes and designated bus stops, a problem Ospina attributes to communication failures among the various entities overseeing the implementation of the SITP.
“Each group needs to understand that the cost of communications campaigns designed to inform people are minimal,” argued Ospina. “The investment will pay for itself almost instantly, but everyone just passes responsibility to the next person and waits for someone else to handle it.”
Undoubtedly, much work remains to be done to explain to a confused and wary public how to get around town on the new buses, but the Transmilenio website offers fairly detailed maps of most of the SITP routes currently in use. And for those with time on their hands and an adventurous spirit, there is always trial and error, an option made somewhat more attractive by the fact that in-system bus transfers cost significantly less within a time period of up to 75 minutes.
Regarding the still mostly unoccupied SITP buses, Transmilenio director Sanclemente Alzate suggests that the process will be slow, but things are going according to plan. “We have more than a million bus passes in the hands of passengers and the number of riders using our system is growing by 20 percent every week,” noted Alzate.
One way or another, passengers will need to get used to the new system as old buses are already being retired and scrapped or retrofitted for use in the SITP. By July, half of the current buseta fleet will have been removed, forcing a significant portion of the population to use the new system or face increasingly crowded buses.
“The next step is retiring the old buses, and that’s where we’re going right now,” said Ospina. “The next few months are critical, and people will probably have to start using the new system in July, but it would be much better if they start now.”