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.