Last Saturday, Gustavo Petro opened the debate on free public transport in Colombia. With a comment on his social media, he proposed studying the possibility of subsidizing public transport systems like those available in the major capital cities of the country, with a surcharge on the electricity bill. This surcharge would be proportional based on the user’s social stratum. Some political figures already expressed their opinions on the same day, and reactions continue to emerge, including the opinion of the Mayor of Bogotá.
Public transport in constant crisis
The public transport system in Bogotá, known as Transmilenio, has faced several financial crises in its short 22-year lifespan. The pandemic exacerbated a crisis that was already evident in another major city, Bucaramanga. In the fifth-largest city in the country, the system is called Metrolinea, and after years of financial difficulties, it announced its dissolution at the end of last month.
Other cities in the country have faced similar financial viability problems. Many have repeatedly requested financial assistance from the national government to counter the deficits they accumulate.
Given this scenario and the authorities’ inability to prevent a significant number of people from fare dodging and illegally using the service, the debate on the future plan to finance these necessary public transport systems seems absolutely necessary.
The debate is open
President Petro’s idea was almost immediately met with opposition from representatives of the Democratic Center party. Senator María Fernanda Cabal, known for her critical comments on social media against any proposals from the current government, described the idea as a “whim.” Cabal, ignoring that it was just a reflection meant to open the debate, wrote, “Free? Everything ‘free’ means someone else has to pay for it. Where is the technical foundation and financial analysis for this new whim?”
However, Carlos Galán, the candidate for mayor of Bogotá who leads some of the polls for the October elections, expressed his reservations but later clarified that he was willing to study the idea, at least in terms of public transport being free.
Former Mayor Peñalosa, a traditional opponent of Gustavo Petro, also endorsed the idea, which he described as positive.
Claudia López, in favor
The current mayor of the capital, Claudia López, who ends her term on December 31 of this year, expressed her support for the idea put forward by the president this morning. López went further, announcing that in Bogotá, “we offer to refine the numbers and pilot this.”
The Bogota mayor advocated for universal access to public transport, which is already planned for the capital by 2023. However, regarding the president’s proposal, she stated that “it is not feasible to pay for all public transport with a single source.” The mayor was referring to the payment on the electricity bill proposed by Petro. For Claudia López, this form of subsidy would not be viable, as it would mean an additional payment of 200,000 pesos per household on average, she noted. Nevertheless, López said that “multiple sources must be combined: from the national government, local governments, and households.”
Agreement is imperative
Considering the current situation of most public transport systems in Colombian cities, an agreement seems absolutely necessary. The viability of these services in large cities that cannot accommodate more private cars on the road is crucial.
The debate among politicians is ongoing. The future systems and their economic viability to address an urgent need in society – urban mobility – will depend on how it unfolds and the final agreements reached.