“ Metro-bus system in Bogota, Colombia. „
Given the choice between a train (or tram) and a bus, I'd always choose the former. Why? Because trains go on strict routes and stop in defined places. They cannot go off the rails, so to speak. Busses, on the other hand, can go wherever the heck they want, and the less developed the country, the more likely they are to do just that from my experience.
Bogota does not have a Metro system (over ground or underground) like some places in Colombia, and so public transport comes down to two choices: busses, or the Transmileno which are sort of busses, but special ones.
The Transmilenio system is similar to the Metrobus in Mexico City, or the Ecovia etc in Quito. Although they are busses, they run on strict routes, occupy special lanes on the road, and only stop at purpose built stations. While they are a little dependent on traffic (and have to stop at red lights and so on) they are much more like trains in many ways, and that's why I like them.
The Transmilenio system was my first induction into public transport in Bogota, but it is simple to use. In fact, the two hardest parts are getting hold of a route map (most stations cannot supply you with one, nor can the tourist info offices) and working out what to do with the ticket, but I'll come to that later.
The system covers large chunks of the city, with key routes running north to south, and east to north west and south west. The obvious place it doesn't reach is the airport, though there are plans to extend it to here in the future. Stops are named either for the street (Calle 19, Calle 26 and so on) or for a place, such as Portal 80 which is both a busy junction and the name of a shopping mall. Most tourist attractions don't have specific stops, with the exception of the Botanical Garden and the Gold Museum, but since stops are quite close together anyway (about every 500m on some routes) you rarely have to walk far.
The Transmilenio is an automatic sort of set up, with little human interaction. The exception is at the stations where you will find ticket offices and uniformed security guards, though here everywhere has visible security (I believe more in an attempt to create jobs than through actual need). I prefer to buy tickets from the machines at the station, as it's a great way to use up the otherwise hard to get rid of $50,000 notes (not as much as it sounds, when the exchange rate is $3000 to £1). Once you board the busses, you won't find any staff. The reason for this is you have to use your ticket to get into the station, and therefore no one needs to check it once you board. Tickets cost the same no matter how long your trip, or how many times you wish to change lines, as long as you don't exit the station. This means you can get a trip of 2 hours or more for the standard price of $1700 (about 60p) which is great value and yet costs more than the same trip on a normal bus here.
The tickets you get are rechargeable cards, though since you don't pay a deposit for the card (like in Mexico) the only advantage to adding lots of trips to it is that you don't have to join the long queues at the stations. The thing that flummoxed me was that you use your card differently depending on whether you're using up one of a number of trips remaining on it, or using the last one you have left. If you, say, have 5 or 10 or 15 trips charged to it, you enter the station by hovering it above a reader on the turnstile (like with an Oyster card). However, when it's your last trip, you have to insert it into a different part of the machine which swallows it like with a normal single trip Tube ticket. This is no doubt so people don't run off with or throw away empty cards but it really confused me the first time, as everyone else was swiping but mine beeped horribly when I did this. It's also important to have a vague idea of how many trips you have left, as sometimes the machine can beep if the card is not aligned perfectly. The first time this happened to me, I inserted it instead and let it be swallowed. It was only as I boarded the bus that I realised I must have had at least 6 trips left, and I'd just thrown them away. Since then I've always tried to rescan a beeping card a few times before surrendering it.
The platforms have specific areas where you can step onto the bus, and the drivers are good at lining up with these. Some stations specify certain doors as for pregnant women, the disabled and the elderly, but this isn't adhered to, unlike in Mexico where guards keep men out of the women and children carriages.
The station controls, however, are less reliable. Regularly the security glass fails to open, though there is a backup that allows you to open them manually if you're tall enough. The greater problem is that the glass will open when there is no bus there. The height is not much of an issue, but the proximity to fast moving traffic is a little more worrying, so although I like to be at the front of the crush to try to get a seat, I never really want to get too close to the edge.
The staff at the stations are friendly and helpful. On that first fateful day, one stepped in to show me how to pass through the turnstile. Another time I was going to my first class (at 5.30am) and a helpful security guard showed me which port to stand at and which number to get. The stations are staffed all the time busses are running (from about 4.30am to midnight, though less on Sundays and public holidays).
Notice how I said the guard showed me where to stand? Getting a Transmilenio can be a little complicated, even when you've worked out how to enter the station. This is because different busses run different routes, but stop at some of the same stations, and all at the same gates. If you're going to an end of line station it's fine as the name is on the front of the bus, but otherwise you need to look at a map until you know the routes, and just because something is running up and down, say, Avenida Caracas, it doesn't mean it will stop at every stop. Some express routes skip dozens on end, which is a pain when you've accidentally got on one and can't get off until it finally stops. While you probably won't get a map of your own to keep, every station has several route displays so you can figure out which numbers go to where you want to be, and where you may have to change. In spite of this, the clear advantage of Transmilenio over normal busses is that if you go wrong, you can turn round without having to pay again unless you've left the station. If you get a normal bus the wrong way, you'll have to get off and find another, and will be forced to cough up a second time.
Transmilenio busses are much cleaner and more modern than normal mini busses that also serve the city. This is no doubt because they are centrally owned and maintained, and also because the price is a little higher so some people will never travel on them (a normal bus is 300 pesos, or 10p, cheaper per route). They are generally more comfortable because they are more spacious (with more seats and standing room) but if I ever have to catch one again during rush hour I may take that back. Obviously it depends on the route, but even starting some lines is no guarantee you'll get a seat as many people transfer in from feeder busses, and switch to the Transmilenio at certain hubs. We went up to the north of the city on Tuesday and the bus was packed. We had seats but my sister had a bulging, denim clad crotch in her face most of the way.
Any negatives? The busses sometimes break quite sharply leaving you flying forward. Because of their dedicated lanes, the Transmilenio drivers do like to pick up speed quickly even if as soon as they do they need to slow down again. The normal mini busses here operate at a much more sensible and constant speed rather than constantly being in a mode of acceleration or breaking.
Most people cluster near the doors rather than 'moving along the bus' so things can get sticky and claustrophobic. There's no one controlling the flow either, so people squeeze on when really they shouldn't (and no doubt frequently break stated capacity limits in the process). Finally, they have silly little windows that are hard to slide open and closed, and I got quite wet the other day when I sat below one that was wedged open as it poured with rain outside.
And a final positive? You don't get people selling things on the Transmilenio, either on the busses themselves or on the platforms, since you can't get on to them for free (people who sell on other busses get on and off at traffic lights, sometimes bribing the drivers with a pack of gum). Since I don't want to buy a lukewarm drink or some pork crackers most, or indeed any, of the time, this suits me well.
Busses run regularly - depending on the route and the time of day - and many stations have LCD screens telling you when the next bus is due. Sometimes you get them backing up behind one and other but this is quite rare. They're normally spaced out well so it doesn't matter if you miss one, or it's too full to get on. The old adage is true, and another one will be along in a minute....
Ultimately, I like the Transmilenio because there is no questioning where I will end up, and for that reason I used it almost exclusively for the first 6 weeks until I was brave enough to try a minibus. For visitors to the city who can stand to 'waste' the odd 10p here and there, I would not hesitate to recommend this system for getting around the city without the stress.
The English website can be found here: