By Pedro Felipe (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

A TransMilenio bus in Av. Caracas in Bogotá. Photo by Pedro Felipe (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (, via Wikimedia Commons

By Ares Kalandides

In an interview for the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo – the Brazilian architect and urban planner Jaime Lerner, three times mayor of Curitiba and former governor of the State of Parana, Brazil – talked about cities and public transportation. Lerner, to whom UN granted the Maximum Environmental Award,  suggested that Bogotá should not build an underground (Metro) because as a means of transportation it “is a thing of the past.”

The issue revolves around the first metro line planned under one of Bogotá’s main avenues, which is supposed to link the North with the South. Bogotá’s planners and politicians have been trying to deal with the almost impossible task of organizing public transportation in a functioning, but also affordable way. The past few years have seen several measures  that include the coordination of the (chaotic) small private bus operators, the (adventurous and plagued with corruption allegations) extension of the Rapid Transit System TransMilenio and also plans for the new Metro lines.  It is Lerner who is attributed with first conceiving the now word-famous Rapid Transit System in 1974 in Curitiba.

Lerner says: “In Bogota, TransMilenio was a great achievement. […] I believe that […] we can reach better results than with a Metro. One can not condemn generations of people to await the construction of one or two lines of Metro, which is 50 times more expensive.”

I could not agree more. There are of course several advantages to a Metro: 1) It has a higher capacity than most other means of urban transportation; 2) It does not interfere with other modes of transportation (in particular the private car) ; 3) It does not separate the city in parts through barriers (as e.g. does the TransMilenio). Yet, the costs for a Metro are enormous and its high-end technology makes cities dependent on long-term contracts with large corporations. It is no wonder that it is such corporations who lobby for the construction of a Metro. And as Lerner says: “A line will not solve anything and a Metro line will never replace a complete transportation system.”

Lerner continues: “The Metro is a thing of the past and more so if it is underground. The future of mobility is on the surface, relying on a system of electric buses with increased capacity and no rails […]. Likewise, we must design mobility networks and not only make corridors. When the underground systems were built years ago in Paris, Moscow or New York, it was cheaper to work underground. Now it is very expensive. In Rio de Janeiro, planning for  the Olympic Games in 2016, we proposed building more busways, for example. I think they work very well.”

I encountered severe criticism against the TransMilenio when I was in Bogotá. Most of it was about the TransMilenio always being too crowded and unsafe. Regarding the latter objection, there are no reasons why a Metro would be any safer and as for the former one, it is simply a proof that there are not enough lines. Lerner says: “These systems need to be extended constantly and it also takes a commitment to constant innovation. It is always possible to improve them. Their crisis is due they are poor design or  poor operation.”

Cities of the size of Bogotá (officially about 7 million people, inofficially maybe 8 or 9), need different systems than the ones we know in smaller ones.  “In the world there are 176 cities with TransMilenio like systems and mobilizing Curitiba 2,600,000 passengers a day. The London Underground moves 3 million, and costs are higher. We must then think about a domestic, surface system which would be highly integrated with the city. The important thing is not speed, but the frequency of routes.”

But thinking about transportation without considering urban planning in the broader sense is actually the real limitation. Highly socially or functionally segregated cities experience particular strong commuter movements. These can be between the centre and periphery (e.g. suburbs to business districts), between residential to commercial areas or between residential areas of domestic labourers (usually in the poorer parts of the city) and the areas where they work (the homes of the more affluent) – and many others. In a city which has been left to develop or – even worse – has been planned that way, trying to organize transportation will always be an impossible task.

That is why, I firmly believe that any discussion on public transportation that does not question the way we plan cities as a whole, is bound to fail.


You can read the full interview with Jaime Lerner (in Spanish) here:

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