Bogota is a big city. Ten million people, many of whom wish to move from point A to point B at some time in the day.
To assist them they have Transmilenio (big buses in dedicated lanes), buses of various sizes and yellow taxis. White taxis exist and are mostly for tourists or employees of large businesses. There is no rail system, although we were told an underground is under construction. It’s a confusing combination for new arrivals, very confusing and made more difficult by the security processes that we enjoy here more than anywhere else.
Let us begin with Transmilenio. It is relatively new, opening lines progressively since December 2000 and arose as a compromise solution. An underground was expensive to build and so dedicated bus lanes were created above ground. The buses are what I refer to as “bendy buses”, a single deck bus with another single deck bus, minus drivers cab, stuck on the back and a flexible middle section that allows the lengthy contraption to turn. The system works rather well. We travelled from Central Bogota to Zona Rosa and it was one bus and very cheap and quite quick. We bought a one trip smart card and once we were shown how to get it to operate the turnstiles, all was well.
The Transmilenio worked so well that it is currently carrying 50% more passengers than its design specifications. Our taxi driver said that at rush hour the queues can be an hour long to simply get onto a bus !!!! The Transmilenio was envisioned to remove all the small annoying buses from the roads which tend to be great polluters and slow the traffic with their frequent and unexpected stops wherever passengers lurk. Nothing has changed, there are as many small old smokey buses as ever. The air is smoggy in Bogota, so smoggy that private vehicle drivers are obliged to leave their car at home during rush hours (6 of them are defined for each day), two days a week, according to the final digit of its number plate.
Transmilenio buses at Las Aguas parada. A very satisfactory form of transport.
Despite Transmilenio the streets are still packed with an eternal jam of old style buses and taxis.
The yellow taxis are a mystery unto themselves. They are prevalent, most certainly so. Guide books, internet chat rooms and Bogota based advisers are united on one matter. Don’t hail them in the street. This is a safety precaution as there are taxi cabs that look like taxi cabs but simply prowl awaiting a passenger to fall into their sticky yellow cab web. The passenger being driven to an unwelcome place and meeting unwelcoming people and losing a portion of their possessions or worse.
The very fair question arises of how do I use a yellow taxi? Are any of them safe to use ? To answer in reverse order, yes and as follows. You telephone a cab. You telephone the number of a trusted phone company. They despatch a cab and provide you its registration number. For the protection of the cab driver ……… recall that taxi drivers have the same and probably greater safety issues than Joe Punter. For the protection of the cab driver you have to provide him (never saw a her, for understandable reasons) …..you provide him a code and he puts it into his machine. If it matches, you are the person who called and the transaction and ride proceeds.
For a visitor to the country there are a couple of problems with this. Firstly, you need a phone, secondly, you need an understanding of spanish……..in my experience no one in the yellow taxi industry speaks english….no one. Thirdly, you need patience with humanity. The background to this comment is as follows:
Taxi drivers are not well paid. Petrol costs the same as in Australia, cars are the same price or greater, fares are about half those in Australia. There is an overwhelming volume of cabs on the road, which means ample supply for the market and negative impacts to a driver’s yield. The back of my envelope concludes that taxi drivers are very poorly paid, they are in a profession that is unskilled and carries risk of robbery and injury.
In my experience of 8 yellow taxi journeys, half the taxi drivers will try and augment their poor salaries by inflating the fare. The system of metering the fare assists them in this endeavour. The meters in the cabs, visible to the passenger, do not record the price of the fare, they record the units. A translation sheet of units to value, is, by law, available in every yellow cab. Mysteriously, this sheet often seemed to disappear when we got into cabs. It was only the fabulous memory of the driver that enabled us to understand the final price of the trip!!! The inflated value was usually only a few dollars by someone who needed those dollars more than I. Alternatively, you can argue the point, but you may not be quite certain how confrontation may end in a place like Bogota. So perhaps pragmatic to just pay the few extra dollars. For those who wish to see how much they are inadvertently “tipping” there is a calculator on one of the taxi apps such as Tappsi.
Yellow cabs. Usually tiny cars, usually without operating seat belts in back. Frequently driven by people who mislead you to pay more than is regulated. Number plates on doors, as well as front and rear, for ease of verification.
Tappsi is another method of ordering a cab which validates user and cab in the same way as the call centre for the cab company. I never used it because I did not have the wifi access when I was in a place I needed to get a cab. I used a similar app (Taxi99) in Brazil and it was very good and Tappsi had same look and feel.
The amusing difficulty we had with calling cabs arose from the location of our apartment. It was on the 20th floor of an apartment block (amusing in hindsight, painful at the time). We would call a cab and record the registration plate from the phone as the cab was assigned to us. By the time we had caught the lift and made it outside the front door the cab had arrived, waited very little time, and had gone. This extremely quick service reflects the enormous supply of cabs and the proximity of our apartment to a big Avenida full of prowling cabs. We calculated we had 3 minutes between receiving the number plate and getting to the front door. We organised children to be ready, holding open the apartment door, and as soon as we had the rego, we ran. We ran out of the apartment, down the corridor, into lift………………. endured its lethargic descent………………prayed no one else was going to halt its journey…………. and finally we hit ground floor and flew out of the lift . We were quickly into the street to hopefully see, three familiar letters followed by three familiar numbers on an approaching cab, or one temporarily paused before us. It was a race we could win, but only if the lifts in the apartment were kind to us, which was about half the time. And the other half time……….well we trudged back upstairs and started again.
Now imagine getting a yellow cab to somewhere. How do you get back? The answer is that the restaurant calls, or there are safe arrangements at airport or bus station, or there are white cab arrangements at the up market shopping malls. Or, as a visitor, you speak spanish and call and explain where you are. We found all of this more difficult than is our usual experience.
One of the solutions to the problems of the yellow cab, is to take a white cab. White cabs are about twice the cost of yellow cabs. They are reliable, have seat belts on all seats, are a modern, better maintained fleet, are comfortable and clean. Their drivers seem to regard you as clients and not targets, so from all angles they are the safest option. Unfortunately, we stayed in an apartment. White cabs can only be accessed from a contracted relationship with a hotel. Its that safety thing again about knowing the identity of the person with whom you deal and placing a trusted third party intermediary to record the transaction. Now we did manage to side step this using elite car service. Not sure how they managed to operate outside this cosy arrangement, but they did. It was perhaps that they were a US company and I assume that was where my paypal funds were directed. They were very good. They were the only such provider we could find without schlepping around the hotels…..we couldn’t always access them when we wanted. That supply/demand thing.
Transport on buses between towns. Joy. They are great. We have travelled on Libertadores and on CopoTran both fabulous. Much leg room, toilet, TV, air conditioning and all luggage tagged. In fact CopoTran’s point of differentiation was that it had two toilets, advertised as ” for the comfort of the ladies” …..although I saw no gender imbalance in the passengers that suggested their tag line was winning this audience. They were big Scania buses or big Mercedes buses and I felt comfortable. Everyone had a seat and was obliged to sit in it, and no folddown seats between the fixed rows. Four hours cost us $11.5 first trip and $16 second trip, very reasonable fares, no chickens or any other livestock. Libertadores had a man in a uniform who screamed the buses destination from the moving vehicle at any likely looking passengers. He told me that it was a sackable offence for them to allow livestock on their buses.
Long distance buses are a positive transport story to end. The opening positive story was of Transmilemnio. Let me relate a quirky aspect of that experience. I indicated that we were shown how to use the smart card to get through the turnstile, to where the buses stopped. In fact, Alex was the last through and the person who helped us gave her, his card. He operated in a very particular industry. I attach his card below below, no need to translate it. Alex did not look at the card until we got home at the end of the day and was amused. When I said I had taken a photo and was to put it on the blog she wanted one matter clearly understood ……………..it wasn’t just her to whom he was providing his card !
The young gentleman who helped us at the Transmilenio station kindly provided his card to Alex. No issues in that department thank you !!!!!