Foreign Policy Blogs

Surviving the Commute in Bogota and Caracas

A recent New York Times article rightfully praised the bus rapid transit system now widely used in Bogotá. Known as Transmilenio, it has been credited in part for the transformation of the Colombian capital, which has become increasingly organized and safe during the past decade. It is estimated that 7,000 fewer buses are now on the streets, reducing exhaust and smog – although having grown up breathing the fresh air of rural western Massachusetts, I often could not tell the difference when I lived there.

 

Caracans are likewise proud of their metro system, launched in 1983 and now undergoing significant expansion. Interestingly, while crime has surged throughout the Venezuelan capital during the past decade, making driving seem like a live version of Grand Theft Auto, the subway is still considered quite safe. It is heavily used, clean, and generally efficient. Commuters, however, must be prepared to jostle for space and cram into the cars at rush hour. Upon exiting recently I found myself face to face with a swarm of commuters trying to enter. It was me-against-them, and as one man pushed his way onboard we squared off eye to eye and pushed forward as if two football linemen.

 

Despite these extensive public transportation systems, the majority of Bogotanos and Caraquenos travel to work by other means. Each city has its fleet of smaller busses, known respectively as “colectivos” o “carritos.” The residents of Bogotá generally seem more open and friendly to foreigners but they appear to have more reckless bus drivers. With the chance of being run over as a pedestrian probably about equal in the two cities, it seems that the hurried Colombian conductors think that they are competing at the Indy 500. Perhaps it is the capitalist spirit – “time is money” – revealing itself in a way that does not exist in Venezuela?

 

The capitals each suffer from enormous traffic jams due to the greater number of cars on a limited amount of roadway. In Colombia increased access to credit has made passenger vehicles more affordable. In Venezuela, low gas prices and – until the current global economic crisis – high-consumer demand mean that the streets are not only filled with fuel-guzzling SUVs, but also 1970s clunkers that would not be allowed anywhere near pavement in the United States.

 

Over recent years, commute times have risen steadily and significantly in both cities. Bogotá has highways of five lanes or more but a friend told me she sometimes needs an hour and a half to travel the 10 kilometers to her office. And as a colleague in Caracas explained, whereas he once could depart his house at 7 am, with each passing year he has to head out earlier and earlier in the morning. He now leaves home at 4:50 am in order to arrive at his office by 8 am. These commutes of over three hours are not unheard of for distances as short as 20 miles. An interesting Economist article further describes the subject.

 

Author

David D. Sussman

David D. Sussman is currently a PhD Candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (Tufts University), in Boston, Massachusetts. Serving as a fellow at the Feinstein International Center, he was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study the lives of Colombian refugees and economic migrants in Caracas, Venezuela. David has worked on a variety of migrant issues that include the health of displaced persons, domestic resettlement of refugees, and structured labor-migration programs. He holds a Masters in International Relations from the Fletcher School, where he studied the integration of Somali and Salvadoran immigrants. David has a B.A. from Dartmouth College and is fluent in Spanish. He has lived in Colombia, Honduras, Nicaragua, Mexico and Venezuela, and also traveled throughout Latin America. In his free time David enjoys reading up on international news, playing soccer, cooking arepas, and dancing salsa casino. Areas of Focus: Latin America; Migration; Venezuela.