Taming Traffic Chaos: Germany Exports Punctuality to Colombia

By Tobias Käufer in Cali, Colombia

The Colombian city if Cali is known for its astonishingly chaotic city streets. Now, a German company is helping establish some degree of order. A new city bus system is set to introduce Teutonic punctuality to Latin America.

The fight between good and evil is represented by the colors green and red, at least that is the way Miguel Castro sees it. Castro is a bus driver in the Colombian metropolis of Cali, and the two colored lights on his dashboard tell him whether he is behind schedule or not. For Castro the panel of lights is a small revolution. Prior to their arrival, there were only the timetables to rely on -- treated by drivers more as a broad recommendation than as hard and fast rules.

Cali has around 2.5 million inhabitants, making it Colombia's third biggest city. And it is a city on the verge of transportation collapse. The city's traffic resembles barely controlled chaos and the mass transit system just makes things worse. The buses stop abruptly any time passengers on the side of the road stick out their arms. The vehicles, most of which have seen better days, often break down and are then repaired in the middle of the street, infuriating other drivers. The air is usually thick with exhaust.

Now an ambitious new project aims to wake the city up from its traffic nightmare. And German engineers like Ernst Denert are playing a crucial role in the effort. Denert, along with his software firm IVU Traffic Technologies, is completely rebuilding Cali's public transport system. The Berlin-based company has taken on the task of setting up a punctual transport system in one of the most chaotic cities in Latin America.

IVU is just one part of a consortium contracted by the city's public transportation authority, Metro Cali S.A., to revolutionize traffic in the city. The company is to provide the necessary IT systems for the project, called MIO, an acronym based on the system's name in Spanish.

Germany, of course, is famous for its punctuality, with buses and trains -- at least in the popular imagination -- arriving exactly when they are supposed to. Once completed, the IVU system hopes to do the same for Cali's fleet of a thousand buses. The IVU software in the control center and on the buses will allow for smooth communication between the control centers, the buses and their drivers.

For Denert the job in Colombia is not only the most lucrative that his company has ever undertaken -- the contract is worth €17 million ($22 million) -- it is also its most adventurous. "We sent our employees throughout South America for two years to promote our services," the IVU boss says. Now around 10 German experts are working in the city in order to end the daily chaos there.

"We want fewer traffic jams, shorter journeys, better driving and attractive prices for public transport," says Denert, listing the ambitious demands of his client. Top priorities include the reduction of pollution from the small older buses and fewer deaths from accidents.

One new detail at the bus stops could well cause a minor sensation: Bus departure times are to be on display. Passengers will also be able to check out information about routes and connections on the Internet.

Whether such a system will prove compatible with the relaxed way of life in South America remains to be seen. It's not just bus drivers who will have to get used to the new transport rhythm -- passengers will too. Denert says that at least Miguel Castro and his colleagues seem to be reacting positively to the new system. "The bus drivers are competing with each other to see who can be the most punctual."

If the punctuality revolution is successful in Colombia, Denert is hoping for follow-up business. "We are assuming that the example of Cali will convince others of the value of the services we offer," he says. "Above all, however, the project in Cali means real growth for us. It is an important step into the Latin American market."

The Cali project began its initial phases in August but the IVU team is still at work in the city. The test run was a major attraction for the city's inhabitants. "The people waved at us and many wanted to travel on the new buses," says Denert.

According to his timeline, all of Cali's new buses will be arriving on time by the end of 2009. Says Denert: "We will be finished on time."

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