Transmilenio buses at a depot in Colombia, where three cities are working toward electric buses as a catalyst for a more resilient and equitable transport system. Photo by Daniel Cano
Cities are increasingly trying to discern what post-pandemic resilience will look like, especially in terms of mobility and public transport. And in Colombia, cities are known for their innovations in public transport systems — like Bogotá’s bus rapid transport and Medellín’s Metrocable.
To build on existing political will and bus infrastructure, the Accelerating Electric Bus Adoption in Colombia project, funded by UK PACT Colombia and executed by WRI Mexico and Clean Energy Works, is providing direct technical assistance in bus electrification to three mid-sized cities in Colombia – Monteria, Neiva and Pasto – and helping coordinate among actors at the national level to support these cities’ goals for more sustainable, resilient transport.
In February 2022, WRI and partners gathered over 50 stakeholders across Colombia in Bogotá for a workshop that pushed participants to discuss themes ranging from financing to existing laws that affect electric bus procurement and operations. Attendees from government, financial institutions, public institutions, academia and more talked about obstacles that have hindered electric bus procurement in the past, including regulation challenges, fleet financing, legal provisions, coordination and technical capacity. The conversations focused on national-level challenges and potential solutions, bringing in knowledge from across the country.
Drawing insights from this workshop and turning the focus from national to local, a team from WRI and the Colombian Ministry of Transport visited Monteria, Neiva and Pasto to present the proposed electrification strategy. In each city, we spoke with the mayor’s office, secretaries, operators and civil society representatives about our analyses around charging, route optimization, finance and environmental impact for their context. We had found that each city had their own challenges in finding suitable places for charging infrastructure, modifying bus routes to accommodate charging time, and financing baseline operations in the wake of COVID-19. In Monteria and Pasto, we were able to visit the existing bus depots, guided by the bus operators, and experience firsthand the bus routes that would be transitioned to electric.
Conversations with the bus operators also revealed some of the challenges these cities have faced during the pandemic – in particular, loss of bus ridership. In Monteria, ridership dipped so low that two operators, Sinu Movil and Monteria Movil, merged their fleets to capitalize on ridership and cut financial losses. As public transport fleets try to bring riders back and compete with other modes, like motorcycle taxis, electric buses can offer residents a safe, zero-emission, comfortable option. While electric buses may be more expensive up front, in collaboration with Clean Energy Works, WRI was able to seek out both public and private financing and co-financing opportunities for the cities. Additionally, we explored various business models in each city, with financing models to back up our recommendations that delved into both capital and operating costs.
In both Pasto and Neiva, city officials committed to pursuing electric bus procurement recommendations. An immediate and important next step for the cities is to identify funding opportunities and financial assistance for the procurements, which was initiated through the process with Clean Energy Works. In March, the WRI team returned to Pasto and Neiva to host framing workshops focused on setting goals, identifying impacts and risks, and creating a stakeholder map to further assist the cities.
The team was also able to visit a new state-of-the-art electric bus depot in Bogotá to see how the electric bus rollout is going there. Based on conversations with city stakeholders, public transport systems there were similarly crippled by COVID-19. So far, COVID-19 relief packages in Colombia have focused on providing basic needs rather than expanding transport. Despite this, the Transmilenio system in Bogotá has grown its bus fleet to 2300 buses, 655 of which were electric in February 2022, and has continued to innovate and expand.
The Transmilenio electric buses are equipped with technology to promote public safety; each bus has seven video cameras with a live feed, so if there are any incidents, the driver will be notified in real time. One of the benefits of electric bus procurement is that cities see this as an opportunity to modernize their public transport systems. In the cities we visited, this included updates like air conditioning, route and service improvements, and safety improvements such as security cameras and better 360-degree vision for drivers.
Our visit to Bogotá showed the promise of electric buses, and our work with Monteria, Neiva and Pasto showed the willingness among Colombia’s smaller cities to follow in this path. These cities are keen to modernize their transport systems to be more resilient and sustainable, and they see electric buses as a catalyst for a more resilient and equitable transport system.
Sarah Cassius is an Electric Mobility Research Analyst at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.
Lidia Henderson is an Electric Mobility Research Associate at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.