Friday, 26 February 2016

The Amazing Race 28, Episode 3

Cartagena (Colombia)

In this episode of The Amazing Race, the travellers got to work a job that is common around the world, but almost nonexistent in the USA: bus conductor.

"Outside the First World," as I note in The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World, "All buses have both a driver and a conductor... Even a minibus usually has a conductor/fare collector as well as the driver."

The conductor advertises and recruits passengers (sometimes in fierce competition with other busess on the same route!) by shouting out the destination or route of the bus at each stop and often, in the case of local buses that stop wherever someone wants to get on or off, by leaning or hanging out the door to yell at potential passengers as the bus passes by.  The conductor collects fares, issues tickets or receipts, watches for passengers wanting to get on or off, and signals the driver accordingly.

Some buses have a crew of two who share or alternate the duties of driver, conductor, and when necessary, mechanic. Bus conductors are sometimes aspiring or apprentice drivers, sometimes child laborers who are servants or practically slaves of the driver. (Children are agile at climbing on and off moving buses, can more easily squeeze or swing their small bodies out of the way of other people getting on of off the bus or fit between moving vehicles and other obstacles when they are hanging on the outside of the bus, and take up less space that could accommodate paying passengers when the bus is crowded.) The role, status, and duties of the conductor vary depending on the country and local customs. In Argentina and some neighboring countries, one of the regular duties of the conductor, reserve driver, or passenger attendant -- the equivalent of a flight attendant on some high-class long-distance buses -- is to prepare mate for the driver at regular intervals.

The oddity is that while this is a common occupation in countries around the world, the racers were assigned it as one of their tasks in Colombia -- a country best known in the world of buses and mass transit for an innovation that, among its other features, has eliminated bus conductors on key routes: Bus Rapid Transit (BRT).

Bus Rapid Transit wasn't invented or first implemented in Colombia, but its best-known and one of its largest-scale examples is in Bogotá. It's been such a  success in Bogotá that similar systems have been put into operation in Cartagena, Medellin, Cali, Barranquilla, and other cities throughout Colombia. Whereas in other countries a growing city might be expected to deal with road congestion by building a "metro" (subway) or "light rail" (streetcar/tram) system, in Colombia BRT has become the accepted norm for state-of-the-art high-capacity urban mass transit. The Amazing Race missed its chance in this episode to expose viewers to the form of urban mass transportation that's most characteristically Colombian.

What is Bus Rapid Transit, and how is it different from a conventional bus system? BRT is mostly distinguished by how buses are operated rather than by anything different about the buses themselves.  A BRT line is like a "surface subway" with a dedicated right-of-way and special stations with raised platforms, but operated by buses rather than trains. These short videos from Streetsblog (USA) and the New York Times show how these elements of the system make it work in Bogotá.

Buses on a BRT corridor travel in dedicated bus-only lanes and stop only at designated stations. You pay your fare at the station, before you reach the platform, so there's no need for bus conductors or onboard fare collectors. Since passengers don't need to pay their fare one at a time as they board the bus, all the doors on each bus can be opened at each station, and many more people can get on and off at the same time, with much briefer stops, greatly reducing total journey times. The raised and typically ramp-accessible platforms not only speed boarding but make it much easier for people with limited mobility.

Typically, BRT corridors are set up along the busiest bus routes where there is enough traffic to support very frequent service, and attract more traffic because the dedicated lanes make them faster than private cars. As on a busy subway line, you don't need to think about the schedule or allow time to wait for the bus. On the busiest BRT line in Bogotá, there's a bus on average every 15 seconds or less. Like the main 4-track subway lines in New York, the busier BRT corridors in Bogotá and some other cities have four dedicated lanes, two in each direction, for local and express buses.

The main advantages of BRT over rail transit are that the initial cost of a BRT system is only a fraction of that of rail system, and that BRT can be implemented on existing roads far more quickly than rails can be laid, much less subway tunnels dug.

The biggest drawback to BRT, continued reliance on diesel-powered buses, can be (although it rarely has been) addressed by using grid-connected electric trolleybuses. Electrification increases the startup costs, but drastically reduces the operating costs (electric motors require far less maintenance than diesel engines), air pollution, and carbon footprint, and increases average speeds because electric buses have better acceleration from a stop than diesels. Any bus route with enough traffic to even be considered for BRT should already be a candidate for electrification.

Buses in general have a reputation in the USA as the mass transportation of last resort for poor people. Both BRT and trolleybuses have been unfairly stigmatized and disfavored in the USA as "old-fashioned" and/or low tech.  But trolleybuses are "mature" technology, and BRT is more about efficient use of existing infrastructure and technology -- rubber-tired buses on asphalt roads -- than about new construction or new technoloogy. Not having to reinvent the wheel is often a good thing!

Many cities in the USA have been "considering" BRT, but few have actually tried it, and even fewer (if any) on routes with the high volume of traffic for which it is best suited. San Francisco has been studying the possibility of BRT on Van Ness Avenue and Geary Boulevard for many years, pushing back deployment schedules again and again.

Partial implementations of BRT are often so compromised that the potential of the concept is netiher realized nor apparent. For example, the closest thing to an electrified BRT corridor in a major US city is a portion of the MBTA Silver Line in Boston. But only part of the route is electrified -- no overhead power lines were installed in the new Ted Williams Tunnel -- so there's a gratuitous delay in the middle of each run between downtown and the airport while the bus switches between diesel and electric power.  And only part of the route uses dedicated bus-only lanes, so Silver Line buses can and do get backed up in ordinary traffic in the short section on city streets between the underground South Station busway and the tunnel under Boston Harbor.

Given host and co-producer Phil Keoghan's perennial interest in bicycling as both a sport and a mode of transportation, it's surprising that The Amazing Race didn't include a cycling challenge in its first visit to Colombia. Colombia is one of only a handful of countries (along with France, Belgium, and Eritria) where interest in bicycle road racing matches or exceeds that of soccer as the national sport. The Amazing Race 28 only visited Cartagena on the coast, but many of the other big Colombian cities are located at sufficiently high altitude to give athletes who grow up there a major cardio-vascular advantage over people from sea level. Cyclists from the Colombian and Eritrian highlands have the same sort of edge as long-distance runners from the East African highlands of Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania. Colombian cyclists have excelled in multi-day stage races and in long climbs. Colombians are by far the largest contingent of Latin American riders in international road racing. A Colombian rider, Nairoo Quintana, finished second overall in the Tour de France in 2913 and again in 2015. The Vuelta a Colombia is the most difficult and prestigious stage race on the continent, and routinely includes climbs substantially longer and higher than any that have ever been included in the Tour de France, including one, the Alto de Letras, with 82 km (50 miles) of continuous well-paved upgrade gaining more than 3,000 meters (10,000 feet) of altitude.

Tourists I've talked with in recent years have highly recommended tours of Bogotá by bicycle as a fun way to learn about more of the city than they would otherwise have seen. On Sundays in particular, you could also rent a bike and explore Bogotá on your own. Every Sunday, more than 100 km of streets and roads in Bogotá are closed to motor vehicles and opened up to cyclists (mostly) and pedestrians. Bogotá's original Ciclovía has inspired similar "open streets" events elsewhere, including CicLAvia in Los Angeles and Sunday Streets in San Francisco, but Ciclovía in Bogotá remains by far the largest event of this sort in the world, bringing more than a million people into the car-free open streets every Sunday. It's a must for any visitor who can arrange to be in Bogotá on a Sunday.

(Fans of bicycle racing and of The Amazing Race need not despair: It flashes by quickly during a series of almost subliminally short cuts under the introductory titles, but the trailer for this season of The Amazing Race includes a teaser for a novel bicycle racing challenge that I expect we'll see later in the season!)

What about other aspects of travel to Colombia? I've been curious about Colombia for many years, but until recently my acquaintances with experience in Colombia -- from a Colombian-American refugee from political violence to workers for human rights organizations -- all gave me the same answer: "Colombia would be a wonderful country to visit, but it's not safe for tourists (or anyone else) right now."

In the last two or three years, the story I've been hearing from friends and fellow travellers has changed, and foreign tourism to Colombia, including from Europe and the USA, has boomed.

Colombia is still a dangerous country (as is, by any objective global standard, the USA), with a culture of violence greatly exacerbated by the US "War on Drugs". The US government has been a perpetrator and participant, not a bystander and certainly not a force for peace, in the war(s) in Colombia. One of the reasons for me to visit Colombia would be to try to learn, to the extent that it's possible to do so as a tourist, something about what's been done with my tax dollars and in my name.

Conditions have changed in some ways, and, "You could go to Colombia now as a tourist, without thinking about politics if you didn't want to. It's a beautiful country. But Colombia is not at peace," my friend the Colombia expert and peace activist John Lindsay-Poland told me when I asked about conditions today.

At the same time, Colombia is a country, not a war, as I and others have often said of other places such as Vietnam that foreigners have tended to look at only through the lens of a particular crisis or problem.

What I've been told by a diversity of recent visitors and people with longer-term experience is that the dangers for foreign tourists in Colombia today -- including "gringos" identified as being from the USA -- are similar to those in other countries with huge disparities of wealth between rich and poor, and strong and racialized class animosities and histories of class violence. That leads to crime and violence against both people and property (as in the USA, and unlike in countries where almost all crime against tourists is property crime), but not necessarily to crime that is (otherwise) "political" or directed at foreigners or tourists any more than at anyone else who appears similarly wealthy.

For one of my friends, warnings from Colombian hosts to watch out for muggers, carjackers, and snatch thieves ("Don't take your cellphone out of your pocket, or let anyone see it, in public!") interfered with the ability to enjoy their time in Colombia and explore without inhibitions. Other friends felt that they were in no more danger in Colombia, and needed to be no more cautious, than in the US cities where they live. At the other end of the spectrum, my friends Willie Weir and Kat Marriner, who spent several months travelling by bicycle on back roads throughout Colombia in 2008, felt that their obvious vulnerability and the trust they manifested by travelling by bicycle led local people to be especially generous and protective of them. They've been (although very rarely) victims of violent crime on the road in other countries, but not in Colombia. Your mileage may vary.

I had planned and bought tickets for a trip to Colombia a year ago. I was excited about finally visiting a country about which I had long been curious. But the more research I did, the more uncertain I became. I remained interested, but I began to think that it might be one of those trips that are more thought-provoking than fun, as much of my time in South Africa had been. Worthwhile, but work. Then, at the last minute, I had to cancel the trip for reasons beyond my control and entirely unrelated to my growing ambivalence about the destination. I may yet get to Colombia, sooner or later, or I may not. I'm no longer sure.

What about you? Have you been to Colombia recently? What was it like? Would you recommend it to other visitors -- and if so, to whom, and why?

Link | Posted by Edward on Friday, 26 February 2016, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | TrackBack (0)
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