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Get On the Bus

For proof that buses can solve most of our mass-transit problems, look no further than Bogotá.

Is there any less sexy form of transportation than the bus? To the degree that Americans have paid attention to them at all, we have traditionally regarded city buses as a form of third-class transportation, a necessary evil, a kind of welfare on wheels. It's not that we have an innate aversion to mass transit. Consider that in Brooklyn, where I live, we so completely identified with our early-20th-century streetcar system that we named our beloved baseball team the Trolley Dodgers. Then General Motors rolled into town, bought up the trolley lines, ran them into the ground, and replaced them with diesel-belching buses. Suffice it to say that no one ever nicknamed a sports franchise after the local bus system. Even in New York City, where 2.5 million people ride the bus every day, it is a much-unloved form of transportation.And yet, an updated version of America's most boring way to ride may very well be the fastest, cheapest way to solve some of our nation's most pressing problems. You want to reduce traffic congestion, cut carbon emissions, and make America less automobile-dependent? Then it's time to get on the bus.

It's hard to believe until you've seen it for yourself, but the city bus can, in fact, be a sleek, fast, efficient, and first-class way to get around town. Unfortunately, you can't find that kind of bus service in any U.S. city. You've got to travel down to Bogotá, Colombia, and ride the TransMilenio bus-rapid-transit system. That's right: A city in a country that most Americans associate only with Pablo Escobar and Juan Valdez is now running the most modern, high-tech bus system in the Western Hemisphere. As you step aboard your first TransMilenio vehicle, it hits you pretty quickly: When it comes to buses, the United States is a Third World nation.The city wants to do everything it can to encourage ridership on the TransMilenio, and it goes out of its way to accomplish that. The TransMilenio, like most top-notch bus rapid transit systems, has its own dedicated lanes. Fares are collected before passengers board, reducing wait time at each stop. Smaller "feeder" buses travel through neighborhood streets picking up passengers for free and delivering them to more centralized stations. The stations also include free guarded bike storage. The TransMilenio vehicles, meanwhile, are extra long, clean-burning, and have low floors that meet the platform for fast boarding and alighting. Real-time information systems let passengers know exactly when the next bus will arrive, and centralized traffic controllers keep buses running on time. On the TransMilenio you are never stuck behind a slow-moving car: Private motor vehicles have been relegated to their own lanes.
Some TransMilenio bus lines move so many passengers per hour that people call it "surface subway." But unlike New York City's Second Avenue subway project-which has been under development, off and on, for 80 years and will take tens of billions of dollars and decades more to complete-Bogotá's then mayor, Enrique Peñalosa, got the first phase of TransMilenio up and running in just 18 months. TransMilenio immediately produced dramatic increases in bus speeds, reliability, ridership, and economic opportunity for people living in neighborhoods far from the jobs in the city center. Along with the construction of extensive bike networks and new public plazas, Peñalosa's TransMilenio is a cornerstone of Bogotá's rapid transformation from a traffic-choked mess to a model of sustainable urban development.It's hard to imagine that Americans would ever love the bus. But experiencing something like Bogotá's TransMilenio system makes you realize that the bus can be truly lovable-even kind of sexy.

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