After 30 years on Bogotá’s buses, I fear that just transition is slipping out of our hands

December 2021. That’s the last date when the buses I have been working in and around my whole life will be phased out, for a new generation of all-electric ones. The City of Bogotá is leading an ‘electric revolution’ in Latin America. Over 1,400 electric buses will be in operation within two years, replacing thousands of traditional, diesel-powered buses. That is also the date I will lose my job, just three years short of retirement and without other alternatives to fall back on. It is this deadline that has led me, my co-workers and the communities we serve to fight for a just transition.

I was a bus driver for nine years, and then a bus dispatcher for almost 30. I am proud of the three decades I have spent serving the citizens of Colombia’s capital city, providing a reliable, safe and affordable public service, especially needed for the working-class communities that depend on it to move around the city, to get to work, to get to school, to make it on time for medical appointments and go about their lives.

December 2021 is approaching fast. With my co-workers on the traditional buses, we are supportive of electric buses. We know they’ll lower emissions in a polluted city, they’ll help clean the air, and they will directly improve the healthcare of workers and users. We have too many stories of co-workers with respiratory diseases to be opposed to such an improvement. We know that the traditional buses pollute the air. We call these old buses ‘rolling chimneys’.

Climate change affects us directly, through increasingly hot days, through out-of-control flooding, through ever more unstable climate conditions that make it difficult to plan a day’s work. And we know that expanding public transport is going to be vital in confronting the climate crisis.

The problem is that without a just transition for workers who operate the traditional buses and for the communities who depend on these services, we will lose our livelihoods and communities will lose critical public services.

As it stands now, the electrification of Bogotá’s buses is leading to mass layoffs with only vague promises of workers becoming “entrepreneurs”, where the operations of the buses will fall under a few private corporations that do not recognize workers’ rights; where communities on the peripheries will lose services (although they are introducing nearly 1,500 new buses, they will be phasing out over 4,000 old ones); and where the fares go up, making this public service unaffordable to many.

What do we mean by a just transition? We want workers to continue to work on the electric buses. We want senior workers close to retirement to receive a bridge to their pensions, recognising the decades of service that they have given the city. We want to learn how to operate the new buses, to provide our knowledge and skills to help in designing the routes and operations, and to contribute to a cleaner city.

We see electrification as a historic opportunity to address the shortfalls of the public transport system today. We could formalise and employ the thousands of informal women workers who work on calibrating the tyres, cleaning the buses and providing food at the major terminals. We could give women workers being displaced by automatisation in the ticket vending systems a possibility of working a different role in the electric buses. We could also use electrification to promote our local manufacturing, by building and maintaining buses in Colombia. We could bring forward a publicly owned operator that sets the bar in labour standards and services to the rest of the operators. We could take this opportunity to democratise how public transport plans are designed, built and implemented, by incorporating the voices of workers and users.

December 2021 is approaching fast, and we are running out of time. We want to scrap the old buses; but we don’t want workers to be scrapped as well.

This article has been translated from Spanish by Louise Durkin