Development that Works
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    This blog highlights effective ideas in the fight against poverty and exclusion, and analyzes the impact of development projects in Latin America and the Caribbean.
  • Democratizing public transportation



    By Sergio Deambrosi*

    Despite the great benefits that Cali, Colombia’s new mass transportation system has brought to the city, low useage poses a challengefor its long-term sustainability.

    COLOMBIA - Users prepare to board the recently inaugurated MetroCali. Photo: David Alejandro Rendón-Wikicommons.

    COLOMBIA – Users prepare to board the recently inaugurated MetroCali. Photo: David Alejandro Rendón-Wikicommons.

    Just three years ago Cali, Colombia’s third city by population, had chaotic traffic. Streets and avenues were congested most of the day with a proliferation of buses, which contributed to long travel times, numerous accidents and high pollution.

    In 2006 the IDB gave the city a US $ 200 million loan through the federal government to implement an urban mobility improvement project. Its goal was to set up a modern, efficient and reliable public transport system that would connect the low and middle income population zones with areas  offering employment and social services.

    The Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system consists of preferential and segregated lanes exclusively for high and medium capacity buses and feeders. The BRT, operated by MetroCali, a municipal company, started operating partially in 2009, when some of the corridors and stations were still under construction.

    By December 2013, when the initial phase of the project concluded, the system had 36 km of main corridors and 153 km of feeder corridors; 55 bus-stop stations and 3 bus terminals; and other infrastructure including pedestrian bridges and new overpasses In addition, 25 kilometers of bicycle paths were built.  The improvements changed Cali’s urban landscape.

    The system served 150 million passengers that year, more than 80% of the expected demand. The average travel time to downtown was shortened from 65 to 45 minutes from the south of the city and cut from 32 to 25 minutes from the east.

    Public transport has become more efficient, comfortable and safe for passengers in Cali, and  pollution and noise were reduced. When the project was completed, MetroCali presented the results of a short-term socioeconomic impact assessment. Public surveys show that 64.2% of lower income residents use the Bus Rapid Transit system. A large proportion of users reported they were satisfied  with travel times (52%), comfort (69%), security (54%) and client service (74.4%).

    During construction, users gave their impressions in videos collected by MetroCali: “The environment is better. The city is being harmonized. And there’s less congestion; there will not be so many traffic jams. When all routes are functioning and the work is finished, Cali will be a better city.”

    Expansion of the BRT continues: some construction is still going on, and some old competing bus routes are still being phased out. However, there is still much to be done. The study found that Cali’s population has not fully embraced the new transit system. Non-users remain skeptical of its benefits, and occasional operational problems and delays in implementation of the system have soured some. The growing popularity of low-cost motorbikes has provided some commuters with an alternative to city buses.

    In order for Bus Rapid Transit to be sustainable in the long run, it’s crucial for more commuters to become convinced of its benefits and start using the system. MetroCali’s study recommends adoption of a public relations campaign to remind the city’s long-suffering commuters how much the Bus Rapid Transit system can improve their quality of life. As one client said,  “I do not want another system, but this one working the way it should be …”


    This post is part of a blog series on development effectiveness featuring stories on learning and experiences from IDB projects and evaluations. To learn more about design, monitoring and evaluation of IDB projects visit

    Sergio Deambrosi is Lead Specialist for the Transport Division at the Inter-American Development Bank. Deambrosi is a Hydraulic Engineer specializing in Environmental Engineering, with graduate courses in Urban Mobility Planning and Public Services. Before joining the Bank as Infrastructure Specialist in Honduras, Uruguay and Colombia, he was Chief Operating Officer of the National Authority for Water and Sanitation Works in his home country, Argentina, and consultant to the United Nations Development Programme.

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