September 06, 2017

How BRT TransCaribe Improved Transport in Cartagena, Colombia

In March 2016, the Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos inaugurated a BRT system in Cartagena, a historical city of one million people on the Caribbean coast.  Its centerpiece is a 10.5 km long segregated busway along Av Pedro de Heredia, connecting the old town with the “El Portal” transfer terminal.  Each of its 16 stations has an extra passing lane, which permits express services to overtake buses loading and unloading passengers.

Transcaribe buses run exclusively on Compressed Natural Gas (CNG).  Articulated buses, 18 m  long with a capacity of about 150 passengers, provide trunk services (“troncal”) along the busway – many of them skipping intermediate stops and thereby achieving high commercial speeds of up to 30 km/h.  They have high-level doors on the left side and dock on centrally located platforms which are 90 cm above the bus lane.

In contrast to Colombia’s initial BRT systems such as Bogotá and Pereira which launched providing pure trunk-and-feeder operations (where the BRT corridor is connected to local bus systems speeding up local buses through the corridor while allowing easier access to bus lanes outside the corridor) the system design – conceived in 2003 – included the (then) innovative feature of hybrid services (“pretroncal”), which run partly on the busway and partly on city streets.

As shown on the BRT map, this permits direct busway services, without intermediate transfers, to Crespo near the airport, to the popular tourist area of Bocagrande, and to the southeastern suburbs.

The standard-sized buses (12 m long) used for hybrid services have two high-level doors on the left side, compatible with the BRT station platforms, and three low-level step-down exits to provide access to the sidewalks of city streets; each of these buses has one lift on the right side to accommodate wheelchairs.  When the bus operates on city streets, passengers enter the front door and validate their farecard in view of the driver.  When  the bus operates on the busway, passengers enter through one of the high-level doors on the left side after validating their farecard at the station entrance.

In addition to the hybrid buses, Transcaribe began implementing feeder services, usually using small (8 m long) buses which connect with the trunk-line buses at the last two stations of the busway – El Gallo and El Portal.  These feeder services called Alimentación are shown in the map above in green. It is expected that these will be vital for the growth of TransCaribe into a region-wide integrated transport system.

Most Colombian cities, especially the low-lying ones near the Caribbean Sea, have in the last decade experienced a rapid growth of motorcycles, which now account for about 60% of all motor vehicles registered in Cartagena, compared to 30% in 2008.  While the number of private cars increased by 74% from 2008 to 2015, the number of motorcycles grew more than five-fold; many of them are used for taxi (“mototaxi”) services, providing quick and fairly inexpensive door-to-door travel.  As a result, public transport use in 2016 had fallen to 48% of all trips (of which 35% were in conventional buses and 13% by Transcaribe).

Following the successful experience with Bogotá’s TransMilenio system in 2000/2001, the Colombian Government decided to establish BRT-type mass transit in other cities. In 2016, Cartagena became the seventh city with this type of service.  While the implementation of TransCaribe was slower than planned, its design benefitted from the experiences of other cities, such as Pereira, Medellín and Cali (and of course Bogotá where the initial BRT has been greatly extended in the last 15 years).

The slow implementation progress of TransCaribe was much criticized.  The above photos illustrate the tremendous change that most of Avenida Pedro de Heredia underwent in the last 10 years.  This made it difficult to stick to the original construction schedule.  Apart from procurement issues, the project was delayed by complicated land acquisition and resettlement problems, especially at the Bazurto wholesale market where one of the main BRT stations is located.  However, it now appears that TransCaribe has become an example of good BRT design (although perhaps not of rapid project execution).

The Colombian Planning Ministry reports that the total investment of TransCaribe amounts to 660,000 million Pesos, equivalent to about US$ 220 million according to the current exchange rate.  As in other cities, the Colombian Government contributed 70% of the total costs, supported by a World Bank loan, with the remaining 30% being the responsibility of the city Government.  At the technical level, the implementation agency (TransCaribe S.A.) received support from consultants, ITDP, and specialists of the Colombian Transport Ministry. The system also received support from a GEF project to improve its linkage to non-motorized transport (bicycles and pedestrians).

The pictures below show that special attention was given to the functional and aesthetic design of BRT stations.  It is expected that public information panels will be installed soon, following the inauguration of a GPS-based control center in April 2017.

The non-governmental organization, Cartagena Cómo Vamos, (Cartagena – how are we doing?), has been monitoring the performance of TransCaribe.  Based on surveys carried out in September and October 2016, they determined that on the busway the commercial  speed had risen to 24.9 km/h, compared to 11 – 21 km/h in the mixed-traffic lanes alongside the busway (these lanes had also been upgraded as part of the overall project and are still being used by many conventional bus services).  Point-to-point travel times by public transport had gradually increased from 57 minutes in 2005 to 68 minutes in 2015 but, after the introduction of TransCaribe, fell by 37% to 43 minutes.  

Not surprisingly, 80% of TransCaribe users rated the experience as satisfactory, compared to only 59% for other public transport modes.  Motorcycle users who account for a quarter of the trips in Cartagena, are somewhat less satisfied (75%)  – despite the low point-to-point travel time and the relatively low out-of-pocket costs. Interestingly, when asked about best way to get to far-away locations in Cartagena during visits to the city, TransCaribe was the suggested mode of transport by hotel staff in El Laguito (a high-end area of the city).

As the Transcaribe services increase, and taking account of the high satisfaction ratings observed, it can be expected that users of conventional buses, and some motorcyclists, will be attracted to Transcaribe, and that its ridership will substantially grow from the 90,000 daily passengers reported in January 2017 – although the quoted 2019 forecast of 450,000 passengers per typical weekday appears optimistic at first sight.

In terms of potential integration of bicycles to the system, a recent study conducted by Despacio (a local research center) for the city found that there was great potential to implement bicycle parking in the terminal station, and in future the entire system. The results are being reviewed by government to find opportunities to implement.

Cartagena’s Trancaribe shows the potential of BRT to be change the trajectory of transportation systems, providing a viable alternative to the growth of car and more recently motorcycle traffic. The system already appear to be changing cultural norms across economic lines. While the implementation timeline provides a cautionary tale, the final system is another example of successful BRT in Colombia. Current signs point to continued success, especially with better integration with bicycles and other improvements.


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