James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

In Transit: Navigating Bogotá

In Transit: Navigating Bogotá

Bogotá’s public transportation system is complex. As in, it would be complex to properly explain the decades of political infighting, corruption, and disastrous urban planning that have left the biggest, wealthiest, and most populated city in Colombia lacking a competent public transport grid. (A subway system has been in the works, in some form or another, since 1950.)

In the meantime, we’ve had to settle for several kinds of bus systems, such as the flagship of Bogotá transport: TransMilenio—a BRT (or Bus Rapid Transit) system that is, essentially, a bus network with dedicated lanes and stations in the center of large avenues. This is an innovative system, world-renowned, but it suffers from regular road blockades organized by people desperate to get decent service or fair prices (the city government would call them “political instigators”), buses that break in half, overcrowding, never-ending lines, traffic jams, and air quality so bad that it’s actually healthier to stand near a congested street than to breathe inside the buses.

A daily commute during TransMilenio’s rush hour is one of the city’s more unpleasant activities (did I mention that pickpocketing is common?), and 40 percent of Bogotanos have to use the service almost every day. So, please excuse our bad mood. Still, if you’re reading this, you’re obviously interested in giving it a try.  Welcome! And I have to admit, when it’s not rush hour, TransMilenio is one of the fastest ways to move around town. Here’s how to use it:

TransMilenio: Getting started
First, know that TransMilenio is not the only public transport in town. The system is supplemented by a series of small green buses, called alimentadores (“feeders”), which you can take from the end of TransMilenio’s lines to more distant neighborhoods. A few TransMilenios (called “dual” buses) also venture outside of the system’s exclusive lanes, pick up people in regular streets, and eventually go back to the dedicated lanes. There is also a group of large blue buses called SITP (or Integrated Public Transport System, for its name in Spanish), which you can spot from afar by the large trail of black smog they leave in their wake.

You can pay for both TransMilenio and SITP (the alimentadores are free, though) with a card called Tu Llave, which you can buy at TransMilenio stations, or at certain grocery stores (though usually it is hard to tell which carry them). It costs 5,000 pesos (about US$1.80). By the way, this amount does not go towards using the card; you have to put credit in it, which you can do anywhere you can buy a Tu Llave card. When you get credit, you’ll spend 2,300 pesos per TransMilenio ticket ($0.80), while a SITP ride will cost you 2,100 pesos ($0.75).

For TransMilenio, you have to press your card against a reader at the entrance of any of the system’s stations. This will be good for however many bus rides and transfers you like, as long as you don’t go beyond any station’s exit turnstiles (if you do that, you’ll have to pay again).

For the SITP buses, you have to press your card against the reader near the entrance tourniquet in the bus. You have 95 minutes to transfer to another SITP bus, or from a TransMilenio to a SITP bus for free. You’ll have to press your card again, but nothing will be discounted. A transfer from a SITP bus to a TransMilenio bus is 200 pesos ($0.07), however.

There is also a slew of old buses operated by private companies. Sometimes these go where SITP and TransMilenio buses don’t go, but often they cover similar routes. Their cost varies (if they’re older, they charge less), but the prize is usually around 1,500 pesos ($0.55), which you have to give in cash directly to the driver or his assistant.

What bus to take?
Now, you have to figure out what works for you. TransMilenio goes through most of the city’s main avenues, though it skips many of Bogotá’s most touristy areas, like Chapinero or Usaquén. However, it can drop you within walking distance from La Candelaria, Bogotá’s colonial downtown, La Macarena, a trendy, artsy neighborhood, and many business districts along the northern part of the city. It also mostly skips Bogotá’s unavoidable traffic jams, thanks to its dedicated lanes, but it does have to stop at a few intersections, and accidents, causing massive snarls in the bus lanes do happen from time to time. SITP and the older buses cover most of the other streets in the city and will unavoidably get into traffic jams (unless you’re using it after 9 p.m.).

Deciphering the TransMilenio map
Now, to find a station. All of TransMilenio’s stations are above-ground, and you can tell many of them because of the long, metallic pedestrian bridges that serve as entranxces. TransMilenio does not cover the whole city, so you might be far from one. Still, you could try this crazy trick to find your way around the system: TransMilenio’s absurdly convoluted map.

First, know that the TransMilenio maps––like every map of Bogotá––puts East on top (where you would usually find North) because the mountains we use to navigate the city are in the East. Also, the map is not to scale: distanced between stations on the map rarely correspond to real distances.

The map is divided into lettered and colored zones: these zones correspond to route names. For example, the green Autopista Norte zone, in the northeastern part of the city, is labeled “B.”  So, if you see a bus route (all buses in the system display this in the front and on the side) that starts with a “B,” that means the bus is headed to the Autopista Norte zone in the system. Simple enough. But it gets more complicated. There are “local” (labeled with a number from 1 to 9) and “express” (labeled with a letter and two numbers) buses, so some stop in every station along the way, and others don’t, and they usually have very different schedules.

So how do you know which bus gets you to the station where you want to go? Well, if you are inside a TransMilenio station, the fine people working there believe this handy chart will help you. You have to look at what zone you’re in, and find the one you want to go to. Then, you have to figure out which route goes through both zones. Then, you have to see if that route stops in your station and in your destination. If it doesn’t, and you can’t find any route that does, you’ll have to take a route that leaves you in a nearby station, and then take a local service. Or you might need to figure out what other transfers work for you. Oh, and don’t forget to check what time the route is active; some of them only work really early in the morning and some of them stop coming in the early afternoon.

Of course, it’s probably simpler to also use an app like Transmilenio y SITP or Moovit to help you navigate the system. Just put in the start station and your destination and they will help you calculate the best routes. You can also ask Google Maps, which, miraculously, works well here, even though it doesn’t seem to grasp Bogotá’s address system.

Cycling
One good thing to come out of the city’s disappointing public transport (TransMilenio has a 19 percent approval rating) is that Bogotá is becoming a bicycle city. The city has a bike path network of around 190 miles, and new paths are inaugurated constantly. Also, on Sundays and holidays, from 7 a.m to 2 p.m., (and on two nights each year), many large avenues in the city turn over half of their lanes for bikers, skaters and runners. This is known as “Ciclovía” and it covers 75 miles. For now, there is no public rental bike service, but there are plenty of companies renting bikes per hour or per day. There is even a company that has started an electric bike share service, though they have very few stations. Just remember to wear a scarf or a mask to protect yourself from the SITP and TransMilenio pollution, and be aware that it can start raining at any time, no matter how clear the sky is.

Getting to the airport
Since the city spent its public transport building TransMilenio, it would have made sense to build a station at the airport, especially since we remodelled the airport at about the same time we built the TransMilenio line, on the avenue that goes directly to the airport, no less. It would have made sense. But there is no TransMilenio station at the airport. We do have, however, a terminal station called Portal El Dorado, about 2 miles from El Dorado Airport. You can take an alimentador, an SITP bus, or one of those “dual” TransMilenios that veer off the exclusive lanes for a bit, to get from the airport to the Portal El Dorado and enter the TransMilenio system. You can check where they stop in the airport here.

However, they only work until 10 p.m. (TransMilenio shuts down altogether at 11 p.m., as do most SITP routes). Out of hours, your best chance is to get a taxi. The good news is that you can get in a safe cab in a designated area of the airport and that, no matter where you’re headed inside the city, your fare shouldn’t be more than US$15.

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