Old City, New BRT: Notes on Transcaribe

From time to time – we can’t help it – we’ll be sharing some more focused, topic-specific, and, for lack of a better word, nerdy reflections on the systems and situations we’re encountering. I am instituting the “nerd alert” tag on such posts so feel free to skip if you don’t care about the intricacies of transit, or coffee, or whatever strikes our fancy.

I’m also backdating this post, which is about Bus Rapid Transit in Cartagena, to when we were interacting with the system. (We’re generally trying to post in something resembling chronological order, but there are always going to be exceptions.)

I am always fascinated by urban formality and urban informality. We can think of formality as carefully controlled, regulated systems or structures, often with the explicit or implicit involvement of a robust public-sector entity – think a shiny new apartment complex or a public transit network that shows up on Google Maps – and informality as more organic, ad-hoc, disorganized systems or structures, like a network of jitney vans or a tin-roof squatter community. Without getting into it too much, it’s certainly not the case that formality always entails greater wealth or “economic advancement” than informality, but there’s definitely some association there. (Feel free to blast me for a simplistic depiction of informality in the comments.)

One feature of the urban landscape that has often stood out to me when traveling is the sharp juxtaposition of formal and informal elements – as when the high-rise we stayed in in Bangkok was flanked by a disorganized slum. So I am fascinated by Transcaribe, a modern and formal Bus Rapid Transit system situated within the often informal contexts of Cartagena.

(Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT, is a transit typology that seeks to obtain many of the benefits of a full-blown rail transit network with the much cheaper rolling stock of buses, by providing some of the off-vehicle amenities essential to rail transit: dedicated right of way, i.e. bus-only lanes; off-board fare collection; level boarding, at purpose-specific stations; and all-door boarding.)

The recent collapse of Chariot (Ford’s private luxury transit service) underscores the persistent reality that private transit is not economically viable in the United States. But due to a range of factors including different land use development patterns, different vehicle ownership rates, different cultural norms, and different levels of subsidy for private vehicle operation ranging from artificially low gas prices to excessive supply of lane space in otherwise dense urban contexts, private transit is alive and well in much of the world.

Cartagena, like many cities in Latin America, has a flourishing private transit scene. Brightly colored vans of 15 to 20 seats pass by very frequently, with their destinations indicated on the windshield and shouted by an on-board attendant. It costs 2100 Colombian pesos (COP), or about US$0.66, to ride. They’re heavily ridden and by all accounts easy to use once you have a good mental map of Cartagena – but god help the new arrival trying to figure out how to get around or where to catch the bus.

Informal private transit in Cartagena. (Photo: El Universal – Colprensa)

Into this context arrived Transcaribe, a formal public-sector bus system that debuted in November 2015. The core of Transcaribe is a BRT network currently consisting of two dedicated corridors, and the system also includes a range of feeder routes and hybrid routes that run along dedicated rights of way and then continue on all-purpose streets. This latter enables riders to benefit from high-speed travel along the BRT lanes and then reach more far-flung destinations without changing buses.

We rode Transcaribe for just one round trip, to and from the Bazurto market, so have an extremely small base of experience. Nonetheless, following are my observations on the system. (Worth noting that our one round trip was very easy and successful.)

What’s Present

  • Dedicated right of way. This is THE crucial component of BRT and I’m impressed with how much lane space has been dedicated for buses on some of the city’s most hotly contested streets. The key examples are:
    • Avenida Pedro de Heredia, Cartagena’s most major thoroughfare, where a typical cross-section now has two or three lanes for private vehicles and two or three lanes for BRT. I don’t readily have a “before” cross-section for comparison, but this is at least a 50 percent reduction in private vehicle space on the busiest street in town. (Compare, favorably, with the long-overdue Van Ness BRT project in San Francisco, which reduces private vehicle lanes from six to four, a measly 33 percent drop that doesn’t leave room for buses to pass each other.)
    • A BRT-only street runs through the old walled city, while private vehicles have to go around it or wade through its narrow streets choked with pedestrians. This is the kind of advantage that makes transit truly competitive against private cars. (Also, interestingly, the pavement of this street is colored a light pink, the better to blend in visually with the palette of the old city. Historic preservation meets modern transit!)
  • Off-board fare collection. You pay via a wireless tap card (like London’s Oyster card, or SF’s Clipper card), which, happily, can be used to tap in multiple people for the same trip (good for tourists). It costs 4000 COP (about US$1.25) for the tap card, and 2500 COP (about US$0.80) per trip, so this is about a 20 percent price premium over the city’s informal transit. Nevertheless, the system is attracting plenty of riders.
The author at Centro station. Level boarding platforms and a sizable queue can be seen. (Photo: Sara Draper-Zivetz)
  • Level and all-door boarding. The stations are spacious and visually prominent, and maybe even accessible for people with physical disabilities, though I’d be leery of getting wheels stuck in the 6-inch gaps between platform and bus. (Despite these positive features, which are aimed at reducing dwell – the time the bus spends stopped at the station – Transcaribe will have a hard time competing for low dwell with the informal buses, which hardly stop for more than two seconds as they let well-prepared passengers on and off!)
  • Frequent service. The Spanish-language Wikipedia article claims about 5 minute headways on most routes. In our anecdotal experience we never had to wait more than a few minutes.
  • Shiny new rolling stock. Seriously, these buses are really nice, and obviously they’re only a couple of years old. What a breath of fresh air, especially coming from the land of BART, which has the oldest commuter rail fleet in the US.
  • Supportive transportation policy. The system is in full expansion mode, with total buses in service increasing from about 200 to about 330 in coming months, and planners recently increased the ultimate total fleet size from 650 to 850 vehicles. Moreover, Cartagena has lately embraced the so-called pico y placa system (which restricts some vehicles from high-traffic areas at peak times on some days, based on the last digit of the license plate) to reduce vehicle congestion and encourage transit use.
A shiny new articulated Transcaribe bus. (Photo: Wikipedia)

What’s Missing

  • A system map!! Neither in the various bus stations nor on the website can you find a unified map of the bus system.
    • Perhaps this is because they’re actively expanding the system (two new routes began service just last month) and don’t want to constantly reprint soon-to-be-outdated maps?
    • But that doesn’t excuse the lack of a web map, and despite some decent third-party resources, I still have no clear idea of the Transcaribe service area.
    • The route-by-route maps are also a little difficult to follow: street names aren’t shown on the map, and stops are indicated by the name of an adjacent business. This works well if you already know the city, but one of the benefits of a putatively formal system is that it should be useful and legible to the newcomer as well as to the local.
  • Automated fare payment kiosks. At least, I didn’t see any at the three stations we visited. Instead there are one or two (usually one) human-attended ticket booths, which is good for helping people navigate the system (the attendant kindly indicated which routes would work for our trip, which, see above, would otherwise have been difficult to figure out) but bad for the service rate, leading to some pretty long lines of people waiting to buy or reload tap cards (visible in the above “level boarding” photo).
  • On-board electronic information signs. Compared to physical elements like dedicated ROW and frequent service, this is more in the “nice to have” category – but then again, we almost missed our stop.

Overall Rating

4 out of 5 buses.* Transcaribe is a promising addition to Cartagena’s robust transit scene, and while they could make some important investments in wayfinding and system legibility, it seems like they’re pouring that money into more service instead, and it’s hard to argue with that.

Next week we’ll be in Bogotá, home of TransMilenio, one of the oldest and best known BRT systems, so it’ll be interesting to contrast the BRT experience in Cartagena and Bogotá. (At least TransMilenio has a system map!)

* This rating is based on basically nothing.

One Reply to “Old City, New BRT: Notes on Transcaribe”

  1. I love this post! Even though we have used nearly every type of public and private transportation mode available to us in our month in Peru, I hadn’t put together the relationship between the various modes. Your post could be a great professional article, and the deficiencies you identified in Cartegena’s system sounds like a business opp for F&P.
    Keep these transportation reflections coming!

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