CWA: Three things I learned from a World Bank transportation expert

CWA is the Conference on World Affairs at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Now in it's 63rd year, the conference brings together scientists, politicians, activists, journalists, artists, and more for a week of fascinating conversations. It's free, and open to the public. Think of CWA as the democratic version of TEDtalks. I'm at the conference all this week and will be posting and tweeting about some of the interesting things that I learn.


On Tuesday, I spoke on a panel about sustainable transportation. I'm currently writing a book about the future of energy ... but it's about the future of energy in the United States. So, out of whole panel, I learned the most new information from Arturo Ardila-Gomez, an urban transportation specialist with the World Bank, who focuses on public transportation initiatives in Central and South America. I was able to take some hasty notes from the speakers' table, and have three particularly fascinating facts from him to share.

• Colombia is one of the first countries in the world to have a mass transit system organized and financed at the national level. Six Colombian cities have met the criteria for development, which is primarily paid for out of the national-level tax pool. These systems primarily focus on bus rapid transit—a system that uses dedicated bus lanes and other efficiency measures to get the benefits of metro train lines and subways, without the higher cost.

• Free public transit doesn't seem to actually increase ridership, or decrease car use, very much. In fact, the best way to get the most car owners onto mass transit—which, in the case of Colombia, means getting wealthier people onto mass transit—is to promote higher priced, "premium" transit services. The only problem: Those projects can go awry if wealthy college students start using the premium transit. When that happens, car owners started to think, "Oh, this isn't for me," and went back to driving.

• Public transportation projects in Central and South America are often severely hampered by what Ardila-Gomez calls "Not On My Road Space"—the four-wheeled answer to NIMBYism. In fact, single-issue political parties, based solely around preventing restricted bus lanes from impinging on car space, have won elections. But there are ways around NOMRS. Remember, NIMBY can be counteracted if all the stakeholders feel like they're being included in the planning process. Same thing here. In Leon, Mexico, for instance, planners succeeded in designating an entire 6-block stretch of a narrow, historic street bus-rapid-transit only. They did it, Ardila-Gomez says, by consulting extensively with car owners and users, as well as with the people who wanted better bus service.

Image: Highway traffic in Bogotá, Colombia. The empty lanes are designated bus rapid transit routes. Some rights reserved by Edgar Zuniga Jr.


  1. Great article and the Transmilénio in Bogotá is a great system.

    The country name is Colombia, not Columbia.

  2. I’ve seen a counterexample of free public transit close up. The university I attended had a free bus service that would get you from your dorm to your classroom miles away, free. It was standing room only during the day.

    Part of the success of that system may have been the difficulty of parking a car anywhere near campus. The cost of owning a car, in money and hassle, was far greater than the cost of using the bus. I think the test of whether public transit is working or not is whether people choose to simply not own a car.

    1. I think it is the usefulness to PITA quotient. If you have to pay more, or its a bigger issue to not use public transit, then you end up with higher transit use. Ie Boston — everyone uses it because driving in that city is annoying and parking is expensive and also annoying, also the ‘T’ Lines are segregated. The redline runs through fancy neighborhoods runs every 5-10 minutes the orange line which runs through not so fancy neighborhoods will take 20-30. While vaguely classist in its implementation, this points to the “separate services” without a separate system that worked and presented challenges in Colombia.

      Also Ciclovia in Bogota is awesome – though the path-ramps in the city were more like mountain biking… and when I rode my bike from Bogota to Zipaquira, I was amazed at how much the cars were aware and respectful of bicycles. You could buy reflecto-gear at street vendors!

  3. Drivers will also switch to mass transit if the mass transit gets them there faster–this was one of the arguments for an elevated monorail in Seattle, to rise above traffic.

    1. I agree. My biggest drawback to not taking the bus RIGHT NOW is that it adds about 45 minutes to my commute. Even if its only $50/mo for an unlimited bus pass, and I spend about $60-$80 on gas/car related maintenance a month. I have a bus stop on the end of my block and in front of my work. There is really no reason I shouldn’t take it, I just value my time greatly.

  4. These systems primarily focus on bus rapid transit—a system that uses dedicated bus lanes and other efficiency measures to get the benefits of metro train lines and subways, without the higher cost.

    Those “higher costs” are only higher investment costs. The long-term costs of low-friction heavy transport – particularly when you figure in the externalized costs of brake dust, tire dust, fuel pollution, and accidents -= are dramatically lower in a well laid out system.

    Remember, on level ground you can pull sixteen times the weight with the same horsepower when you use rails. Extreme slopes are possible, too – beyond what rubber tired busses can accomplish – see wikipedia’s entry on cog rail.

    And remember the world bank is a political entity that exists to promote certain types of consumption that are believed to be beneficial to the world bank’s leadership. In this case and many others, it’s promoting consumption of tires, fuels, lubricants, sealants and diaphragms made by first-world petroleum processing.

    A nation’s taxpayers are much better off if their leadership avoids the world bank, and better off with a good rail system than a bus system. This is slightly complicated by the fact that a half-assed bus system is better than a half-assed rail system, but Colombia is small enough that it should be able to build a decent rail system despite local corruption and incompetence in high places.

  5. How to increase public transit ridership in the United States

    Raise gas tax to $6 / gallon.
    Put the revenue toward public transit.

    1. Yes! Gas should cost 5 to 10 times as much as it does now with the extra money going to mitigate environmental impacts of burning fossil fuels and to create transportation infrastructure such as transit, greenways, sidewalks, bike facilities, and WALKABLE cities.

    1. Safety rails if you ride on top of the bus, grocery bins by your seat if you ride inside, an English Butler who delivers your Bat-suit or giant armor to your location in 20 seconds flat up to twice a day, cellphone seat reservation, 7 spare drop or pickup reservations a week, tea with fruit and knives and functional china, masseuses, hairdressers, A/C…stuff like that.
      Orbital service.
      A no-ads bus.
      A roman bath mid-bus.
      A roman chorus mid-bus.
      Sleeper service.
      A PODS-like service that just reels in your mattress topper and you, and trucks you to work and back.

  6. Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is often touted as the better solution than rail for the USA. But in practice it is just “Build Roads Today” as state Depts of Transportation use the projects to add lanes to roads. Usually the bus service does not materialize, the road lanes are always the bulk of the money, resources, planning, engineering and implementation for these projects.

    In Minnesota an expensive HOV system was set up on I394 and a few 3 trip/day bus routes added. But the MNDOT changed the HOV lane to a
    toll way for cars. No “BRT” was ever implemented and is not currently planned for the heavy traffic route. However, there are many many BRT
    projects planned in Minneapolis-St. Paul, all involve massive
    road building projects. All stalled because of budget constraints.

    Google “BRT” “bait and switch” for many BRT transit scams. BRT is a stalking horse for the highway industry and is dead in the USA as a general transit alternative. (a few specialized uses do work, usually college campus based)

  7. I think I’m far from alone in disliking public transit that comes in the form of buses. For a variety of reasons, light rail systems just seem so much better. It’s mostly perhaps because you don’t have to think as much since it’s a fixed track – but there are other aspects too.

    And if they want people to take the bus lane seriously, rather than just being an annoyance by making car traffic worse, it should be difficult to take a photo of the bus lane with no buses in it. Bus lanes make sense, but you need to have the volume of buses to make up for the loss of car lanes, the routes need to be sensible and easy to figure out, etc.

    It’s almost a catch-22, though – you can’t justify the volume of buses without having the volume of passengers, but you won’t get the volume of passengers without having the buses and making it easy for people. In the mean time, everyone will just be annoyed that traffic is worse because they can’t use some of the lanes.

  8. I like trains, but mainly ride a bike- buses seem quite unreliable when they have to deal with the same traffic cars do. The quality of service argument is one that has comeup here as well. Local transit authorities want to improve service but need to pay for it. But they aren’t given the option of running a years- long defecit in order to do so, yet raising prices will keep people from riding. If services improve so will ridership and fares won’t have to increase, but to do this you have to dig a very deep hole…

  9. So.. Can someone say more about what these ‘premium’ transit services are? Or why having rich college students using them makes other people thing ‘this is not for me’?

  10. Colombia’s transit system is unique, in that they effectively banned the ownership of privately owned vehicles (cancelling public parking on streets entirely to open up extra lanes of traffic in crowded urban areas). If you visit Bogota, other than the highest reaches of the middle class and the upper class, every single vehicle is either a Combi or a Taxi. Privately owned “public transportation” (Combis) handles all aspects of traveling about the city, running regular routes up and down avenues and streets, while the state siezed a couple of major avenues throughout the city to turn into dedicated bus lanes that work similar to an above ground subway system (google “TransMilenio”). It’s very efficient and will get you across town during rush hour with zero problems.

  11. It’s unbelievable that when you look around you all you see is one person in a giant piece of metal. Cars should be much smaller.

  12. Drivers will also switch to mass transit if the mass transit gets them there faster

    Yes, but that’s a tough bar to hurdle outside of badly-congested rush-hour corridors.

    One of the prime weaknesses of line-haul mass transit is that the vehicle has to stop and wait for passengers to board/deboard every mile or so.

    The LA Red Line subway system – completely grade-separated heavy rail – only manages a 29 mph overall end-to-end speed. The trains are capable of 70 mph top speeds, but with most stations 1-1.5 miles apart, the heavy train only gets to about 45-50 mph before it has to start braking for the next station.

    And in fact, it only averages 29 mph because of the five-mile station-free segment under the Hollywood Hills on the way to the Valley, where it can actually hit top speed. If you’re not going to the Valley, overall average speed is about 23 mph.

    You can increase the speed by increasing the station spacing (like, say, LA’s heavy-rail Metrolink commuter-rail service), but that greatly reduces the usefulness of the system and vastly increases the need for feeder buses at one or both ends – which also kills fast trip times.

  13. A “WALKABLE” city is actually called a “small town in the country”. Cities are a construct and people were never meant to live in tight, cramped places without some nasty outcomes. That was the point of drawing people into cities over 150 years ago. Raising gas prices and thinking the extra money will go to some “worthy cause” (at least in your minds) is a joke since all the extra taxes on gasoline for all these years was supposed to go to education. You can see how well that worked. Raising taxes with “austerity” measures coming isn’t the answer and y’all may start to rethink what it is you’ve posted thus far.

    1. “A ‘WALKABLE’ city is actually called a ‘small town in the country'”

      Is it? Aside from the occasional winter storm, I’ve never found it difficult to walk in New York City. Another city that is very walkable is Hong Kong.

      Both are cities with excellently-designed public transportation systems. Both are walkable. And neither is a “small town” in the country.

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