Colombia says "Yipi" for public transit

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As many Colombian cities struggle to keep public transit ridership levels, one city is innovating using technology, gender-sensitive employment, and ideas from Asia to curb the “mototaxiing revolution” and restore ridership loss.
Moto-taxis in Sincelejo, Colombia. Photos: Leonardo Canon

An increasing “motorbike revolution” – represented by spectacular increase in motorbike motorization and reliance on door-to-door motorized services – has changed the rules of the game and cannot be obviated in transport systems.

Flicking through the Uber website, we found that the company used to offer an “UberMoto” service in Paris from 2012 to 2013. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, the local Colombian newspaper headlines discuss the legislation forbidding male passengers on motorcycles in a number of cities in an effort to curb moto-taxis.

The impact of motorbikes cannot be ignored. Purchase of motorbikes and operation of moto-taxis have been identified as key drivers for a modal shift from public transit to private vehicles in many places around the world, including Colombia. The nationwide phenomenon of moto-taxis has revolutionized mobility in small and medium-size Colombian cities, and has become a source of income for many.

In many ways, motorbikes – and especially moto-taxi services – have taken a bite out of public transit initiatives. Over the last decade, Colombia’s National Urban Transport program (NUTP) has achieved remarkable visibility in the international transport planning community. The country’s efforts have spurred the technical appeal and popularity of Bus Rapid Transit systems (BRT), contributing to the worldwide spread of BRT systems. The first generation of the nationally-financed NUTP systems (Integrated Mass Transit Systems, or IMTS) has allowed Colombia to deploy six BRT systems in the country’s largest urban areas including Bogota, Barranquilla and Medellin.

A second generation of the NUTP investments (denominated strategic transit systems, or STS), currently under implementation, is bringing context-sensitive transit systems in 13 intermediate-sized cities such as Sincelejo, Valledupar or Montería. The STS approach is based on service planning patterns and investments tailored to their urban areas’ size and complexities, which do not yet require mass transit solutions.

Colombian authorities and international transport practitioners recognize the important function that these modes provide for local mobility, especially less-privileged citizens that live in areas underserved by formal public transport, and agree that they are here to stay. However, this phenomenon has raised concerns, given its correlation with increased road accidents, skin-related diseases due to sun exposure, crime and pollutant emissions (see UNDP’s 2014 study on Sincelejo here and Colombia’s Banco de la República study here).
Photo: Jose Olascoaga/flickr

​​The “motorbike revolution” has also pushed traditional, inefficient and old transit systems in smaller cities into deep financial hardship, even forcing some operators into bankruptcy. For example, in several cities from the Colombian Caribbean region, a typical scenario is that public transit modal share has decreased by five to ten percent, while motorbike mobility has taken the majority of the remaining motorized trips in intermediate cities.

Moto-taxis have reached a spectacular 62 percent of modal share in Sincelejo (Caribbean region), where the World Bank is supporting the implementation of an STS. Therefore, the implementation of STS happens at a time where transit ridership is decreasing and is less relevant for the mobility needs of smaller city inhabitants.

In other words, the big challenge for STS implementing agencies is this: how can transit be attractive for citizens once again, and bring riders back from motorbikes and moto-taxis, as part of a strategy to foster sustainable urban mobility?

The design parameters of STS are taking into consideration the “motorbike revolution,” and proposals for the new systems are making a concerted effort for transit to be appealing in a market where they cannot take riders for granted. The Government of Colombia and local governments are pushing for integrated bus networks, more regulation and service operation models where formalized bus operator concessions are provided with new bus fleets, GPS tracking, and formal and fair working conditions for drivers. It still appears, however, that the parameters mentioned above are not enough to lure users back to transit and away from moto-taxis.

Fortunately, not all hope is lost. The city of Monteria (with an estimated population of 441,000, also in the Caribbean region) is member of the STS program and is currently undertaking a citywide reform of its transit system. What makes Monteria stand out from other STS cities is the entrepreneurialism of one of its incumbent private bus operator conglomerates, Metrosinú.

Image​In a departure from traditional bus transit service, Metrosinú has taken a comprehensive approach that capitalizes on the appealing features of its moto-taxi competitors. With creativity, technological innovation, a gender-sensitive approach to employment, pricing, marketing, and a few ideas brought from Asian practices, Metrosinú is managing to take the best bits from the moto-taxi travel experience and, in addition, provide modern public transport features.

​The result: an unprecedented recovery of its ridership market that is unique in Colombia, as well as a breath of fresh air to the formal public transit industry.

In a nutshell, bus operators in Monteria have decided that perhaps it is unnecessary and inefficient to adopt a proper feeder-trunk scheme for bus networks in a smaller city (again, emulating the route setup of bigger BRT siblings where passengers transfer from feeder bus to trunk bus). Monteria operators have come up with a micro-feeding scheme using three-wheeled motorbikes (similar to rickshaws in India and tuk-tuks in Thailand) to pick up passengers at their door and carry them to designated rickshaw-bus transfer stops. The feeder ride is free, and you just need to send a text message or make a phone call and the three-wheeler will be at your door in less than five minutes.

The name of the feeder system is “Yipi”. The Yipi rickshaw feeding scheme in Monteria incorporates a set of innovations worth mentioning:
  • Image​Regulation and control (geo-fencing allows tracking units and limits operation to predetermined zones) links to a control center in the operator headquarters with 24/7 surveillance;
  • Fare integration (a very simple non-electronic ticketing system allows discounted fares for bus rides for those taking authorized rickshaws);
  • Unprecedented levels of market accessibility penetration as there are no fixed routes, but rather zones; and
  • Road safety features (vehicles drive within speed limits). If the demand is high and roads allow, the free service is conducted with a six-passenger mini-van instead of a rickshaw.
The social dimension includes a gender-sensitive community-based driver competitive recruitment scheme for local neighborhood women, allowing them to work in their communities, transporting persons form their own community (“Maria, please come pick me up!”) and with flexible work hours (two free hours during off-peak) to allow balancing work with household needs.

While in Monteria, we heard testimonies such as “Maria takes care of me! Maria is my neighbor (or my cousin or the friend of my aunt!) and I am helping my community and not that faceless bus operator.”  All these reasons make Yipi a service which stands out from moto-taxis, providing a highly trusted, women-friendly, safe, reliable, and affordable personalized service. This stands in contrast with moto-taxis, which are mainly operated by young men often unknown to their passengers, and have acquired a reputation of insecurity and even danger (related to hazardous driving and reported cases of abuse and mistreatment).

Image​Women drivers, after an eight-week induction/training period, are now working in the formal labor market and gaining access to credit, They are respected by their communities and gaining employable skills. And, furthermore, these women use the Yipi service to support communities by helping if there is a medical emergency or quick need to transport people wounded from a road accident.

The result: to date, Monteria seems to be one of the very few cities in Colombia reversing the worrying trend of decreasing demand in public transit, and slowly but steadily increasing ridership by approximately one percent per month (as confirmed by Metrosinú during a Bank mission in November 2014).

Lessons learned from Monteria’s Yipi offer hope to other cities. However, the challenges ahead – associated with the regulation and acceptance by Colombia’s national and local governments of rickshaws as forms of para-transit and other transport innovations – might slow down or limit the germination of similar innovative schemes in other cities in Colombia and the region.

Innovation, however, tends to happen in spaces where laws and regulation are unclear. If not, ask Uber and its countless legal battles around the world (Colombia included), or an Uber-inspired app for moto-taxis currently picking up speed in Colombian cities: easy-moto, the moto-taxi version of the blockbuster easy-taxi app. Back to Paris. 


Leonardo Canon Rubiano

Urban Transport Specialist, World Bank

Ramon Munoz-Raskin

Program Leader for Infrastructure and Sustainable Development, Western Balkans Region, World Bank

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