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Top 5 Public Transportation Systems in South America

This amenity is near the top of my list for ranking a city, an amenity found in the city I live in today, and the two before that.

I'm talking about good public transportation and urban mobility.

I've been surprised to learn how great it is in some South American countries' more modern cities because, well, even many U.S. cities that could use it don't have it.

This article on the Latin American transport sector ranks the 5 urban areas with best mass transit systems.

Along the way, it will give you the best tips about travel time and journey planning to help you prepare if it'll be your first time in the region.

The Transmilenio in Bogotá
The Transmilenio in Bogotá

That's fine. Right now I'm happy in Bogotá, where I don't need a car.

But is Bogotá one of the top five public transportation systems in South America and Central America?

I have traveled extensively throughout the continent and feel I can make a fair hypothesis on the topic.

Here's what I need:

  • An extensive system: This is the most important factor, more so than anything else, because the point of public transportation is to get to as many places as possible, as quickly as possible, without a car. At least it is for me.
  • A modern system: Rapid transit buses are a minimum requirement. Ideally, there will be a metro/light rail/subway system, which helps to avoid traffic on the road network.

That's it. I don't care about cleanliness or crowding because I've dealt with crowding so often in New York and Washington, D.C., including a dirty Subway in the Big Apple.

I care about safety, but I've seen police so often at the public transportation systems on this list.

I don't think much about it, except protecting myself against pickpockets, something I do everywhere.

And the cost isn't a factor either, because it's almost the same at all of them, with cash payments usually somewhere around $1.25, give or take 50 to 75 cents. These similar systems and similar business models mean that prices are cheaper than the D.C. Metro or New York Subway and cheaper than a taxi in any of the cities these systems serve.

In the words of four-time Super Bowl-winning coach Bill Belichick, we're on to the list!

Santiago Subterraneo map
Santiago Subterraneo map

The Best Transportation Systems in South America

1. Santiago Subterraneo

Santiago, Chile

Santiago might be one of the dullest big cities I've ever visited, but it has no equals when it comes to public transportation.

The first Subterraneo line opened in 1975, and today the system is extensive and modern, a primarily underground maze of trains that serves more than 6 million people, and it works great.

I used it often when I was there.

As I said earlier, I don't care about cleanliness as a factor for these rankings, but I am impressed when I see it, and the Subterraneo in Santiago has it.

It's quite the contrast from what you see above ground, where a layer of smog gives the city a hazy carapace of pollution.

Buenos Aires Subterraneo map
Buenos Aires Subterraneo map

2. Buenos Aires Subterraneo

Buenos Aires, Argentina

This is a close second.

The Subterraneo in Buenos Aires has everything Santiago does except modern train cars. But I still enjoyed using the system.

Its first section opened just over a hundred years ago, in 1913, and today it covers quite a bit of the Buenos Aires metropolitan areas, which is home to almost 13 million people.

Riding the Subte, as it is often called, felt like using the New York Subway: it's old, dirty and sometimes in poor condition, but it's a good option to get you where you need to go.

You need to learn the map. Using the Buenos Aires Subte was more manageable than crossing Avenida 9 de Julio, the 14-lane thoroughfare — 18, if you count the two-lane access roads flanking each side of the avenue — that is the widest in the world.

Bogotá Transmilenio map
Bogotá Transmilenio map

3. Bogotá Transmilenio

Bogotá, Colombia

I'm going to catch hell for this from some readers when they get to No. 4. But I'll worry about defending it in the next section.

Here I'll tell you why I like the Transmilenio.

First of all, it's extensive. It covers a broad area of Bogotá, where a cacophony of car horns blare in the streets because this metro area of more than 10 million people tests everyone's patience.

Second, it's relatively modern.

The Transmilenio is a series of rapid transit buses, most of which have lanes, so they don't have to fight through the same traffic that provokes so many drivers to hit their steering wheels.

Only the Septima line runs with the other vehicles on the road, but that's fine. It's worth the sacrifice to ride to the Usaquen, Bogotá's prettiest neighborhood.

Medellín Metro map
Medellín Metro map

4. Medellin Metro

Medellín, Colombia

For the pro-Metro readers who are aghast now over its ranking below the Transmilenio, let me explain.

I'll start with the good stuff. I love how modern the system is, with its above-ground trains, rapid transit buses, cable cars, and soon, a tram east of downtown. All of that is great.

It's a lot cleaner than the Transmilenio as well. But remember, I don't care about cleanliness.

I need to get to as many places as possible without a car, and the Transmilenio covers a lot more ground than the Medellín Metro system.

Maybe someday, as Medellín grows and more additions are completed in the system, I can move this up.

Recife Metro map
Recife Metro map

5. Recife Metro

Recife, Brazil

Yes, I'm taking Recife over Rio de Janeiro for the same reason I picked the Transmilenio over the Medellín Metro: extension.

The Recife system is nothing special, but it seems to serve more people than the system in Rio, where the system is one line — albeit a very long line — but I can't imagine one line is enough for a metropolitan area of more than 12.5 million people.

In Recife, there are three lines: one that runs north-south, two that run east-west, one that veers off to the intercity bus station.

I'll admit, I have yet to go to Rio, but I've talked to friends who are from there or who have been there, and they say that, although it's a great place, the system just doesn't serve as big an area as it should.

At least the folks in Rio can say one thing: they're better off than São Paulo.

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Tuesday 17th of March 2015

I'm glad you made this post. The public transportation systems in my open in SA are better than most places in the USA.

Ruth Shand

Monday 16th of March 2015

I could be slightly mistaken, but I don't think line six for Santiago metro runs anymore, I have seen them working on a line 3 however (which might be line six in disguise). As it stands right now, that line is not open. I know it's not really relevant to the topic of the blog post, but just in case someone came here by chance to look at the map for directions. Interesting post though :)

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