bus in BogotaCuritiba, Brazil, and Bogota, Colombia are rightly famous for their world-changing bus rapid transit (BRT) systems and other urban transportation innovations, but other cities in Latin America are starting to give them a run for their money. Quito, Ecuador and Cali, Colombia, are now also becoming leaders in taking on the car in Latin America. At the Transforming Transportation conference organized by the World Bank and EMBARQ, Quito Mayor Augusto Barrera said nearly two-thirds of residents use public transit, while just 20 percent own cars. Buses and bike share systems are also well-used. Still, the explosive growth in car ownership presents a huge threat, so the city is continually updating and modernizing its public transit system to keep up.

Barrera said the 1999 global financial crisis depleted the savings accounts of many Ecuadorians so “cars are increasingly viewed as a safer, more tangible asset than bank accounts.” To combat growing car ownership, Barrera is changing regulations to create an integrated transit system, with metro, bus rapid transit (BRT) corridors, conventional buses, biking and pedestrian infrastructure all working together seamlessly. Agencies that used to be in control of different pieces are getting merged, so that the institutional barriers don’t hold up progress.

In Cali, Colombia, Pilar Rodriguez, who works for MetroCali and also represents the Latin American Association of Public Transport (SIBRT), which includes members in 8 countries and 19 cities, public transit ridership is also going down and car ridership is going up, so it’s harder to convince policymakers to invest in public transit systems. “Unfortunately,” this means “the people using cars and taxis get more of the transportation budget.” Still, the city has some numbers many progressive U.S. cities would kill for: there, 40 percent of people ride public transit, 35 percent walk or use a bike, 7 percent take taxis, and 10 percent have cars.

To ensure the car share doesn’t grow further, “public transit needs constant improvement.” She said MIT, EMBARQ, and other international groups have been in Cali to help the city “modernize public transportation quality.” As a result, new bus system plans are in place to help reach 80 percent of the expected demand for public transport; right now, only 53 percent of the demand is being met. Additional aerial cable cars are going in to reach hard-to-reach populations on the slopes. New bikeways through the center of city will help move people out of cars.

Jorge Kogan, CAF,  argued that in these cities and elsewhere, leadership from the top is critical to integrating public transit systems and improving their quality. “Cities need to integrate authorities to achieve integration on the ground.” However, in too many cities, said Arturo Ardila Gomez, World Bank, clueless leaders let integrated transportation authorities fight bloody “modal wars,” with metro, BRT, and bike system contending for funds. “We can’t have competition between sustainable modes — it has to be between cars and all other forms of transportation.” So only leaders well versed in the issues of sustainable transportation can get everyone working together in an integrated system.

Rafael Acevado-Duanas, Inter-american Development Bank (IDB), said another major challenge was maintaining service quality while reaching poorer people without access, the “people who truly need these services to survive.” The poor in most cities in the world actually live the farthest from the “productive centers,” meaning their transportation costs are high and the time they spend commuting each day is long. Any integrated service that has connection times of more than 10 minutes isn’t working. More non-profits then need to be involved to make sure transportation systems work for everyone.

What no one mentioned was the value of building green infrastructure into these integrated public transit systems as well. Networks of trees, green streets, bioswales, and pocket parks could help forge connections to the transportation systems and make these cities more livable, too. Greenery can make that daily commute with all of those connections less painful. Let’s hope these Latin American innovators tackle those challenges next.