A Remedy for Transit Troubles Backfires in Chile, Leading Commuters to Sue

By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 13, 2007

SANTIAGO, Chile -- Hardly anyone argued with the overall goal: relieve the transit woes of another growing Latin American city by remodeling the local bus system to complement a recently expanded subway system.

But months after this city's transportation redesign was unveiled, many people here cannot even mention its name -- Transantiago -- without rolling their eyes and mumbling in disgust. It has become the focus of the country's largest class-action lawsuit. A congressional inquiry is trying to figure out exactly how things went so wrong.

"Bad, bad, bad, bad," said Rosana Ramirez, 32, offering a passionate appraisal while waiting for a city bus. "I used to wait five minutes for a bus, now it's 20 or 30. I'd take the subway, but it's so crowded now because no one wants to take the bus. I feel like a sardine on it."

Before Transantiago, South America had become a beacon to many urban planners responding to a vexing international trend: The cities growing fastest around the world are in developing countries that often cannot afford major infrastructural overhauls to relieve congestion.

The Brazilian city of Curitiba was among the first to offer a possible solution, revamping its transit system by focusing on relatively cheap, easy-to-use buses that operate in dedicated lanes. Bogota, the capital of Colombia, eventually followed with a system based on Curitiba's, and the results were increased public transportation usage, fewer automobiles on the roads and less pollution. Planners from Quito to Beijing were soon flocking to those cities to study what they had done right, and they copied the concepts when they returned home.

"A lot of people assume that the expensive ideas are the most effective ones, but that is simply not true," said Jaime Lerner, former mayor of Curitiba, who is now a well-traveled international urbanization consultant. "What we proved is that sometimes the simplest solutions are the best ones."

Enter Santiago. About five years ago, planners knew that a transportation upgrade was needed. The privately run buses that traversed this city filled the streets with traffic, noise and pollution. So officials made the requisite exploratory journey to Colombia and soon announced plans for Transantiago, billed as a Chilean version of Bogota's TransMilenio system.

But instead of focusing on buses, the plan envisioned the subway as the project's spine. The government had separately spent about $1.3 billion to double the subway system's size, an expansion regularly cited as a symbol of Chile's prosperity under former president Ricardo Lagos. The bus system, according to the plan, would feed the subway routes and greatly improve overall efficiency.

But before the new system was implemented, a World Bank report warned that users might not be as enamored with the changes as planners were.

"There are very high expectations of a radical change in the system," the report stated. "However visually or superficially, the change may not be as profound as anticipated."

That proved an understatement. Although the new system has undeniably upgraded the quality of the buses that operate in the city, it reduced the total number of routes. And despite the strengths of Santiago's subway system -- it is modern, fast and clean -- the new integrated transportation system ignored key elements of the Bogota and Curitiba systems that have proved essential to their success: dedicated bus lanes and easy ways to buy tickets before boarding buses and entering train stations.

Moreover, Transantiago had more complexity of routes, requiring more transfers to reach destinations. Problems with fare cards and contracts plagued the system from the start.

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