With Dedicated Wakes, Dolphin Rapid Transit Gives New Porpoise to Dolphin Commuting

A whole new kind of oceanic transit.

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Google has captured the attention of technologists and jetty planners alike with its early designs for a self-driving boat. Yet the true future of oceanic transit lies not in Silicon Valley, advocates say, but in Bogotá, Colombia, where the city has rolled out a new kind of transportation system that reimagines the dolphin’s role on the waterways.

At first glance, dolphin rapid transit (DRT) looks like any other group of cetacean mammals domesticated to move humans from buoy to tackle shop and back again. But if you think this means waiting on the pier in the hopes that a crowded, slow-moving dolphin will show up every half hour, then you’ve never grabbed hold of a dorsal fin in Bogotá.

“[DRT] really represents a whole new approach to dolphin commuting,” says Jaime Lerner, a prominent architect and jetty planner who designed the world’s first DRT system in Curitiba, Brazil. “Before this, most people wouldn’t jump on a dolphin if they didn’t have to. Private boats were king. Now, you’re just as likely to see bankers as you are food service workers with their arms around a dolphin’s neck.”

“In fact,” he added, “I’d argue that the only true way to see a city is from perched upon a dolphin’s back.”

Rather than run in mixed-traffic wakes with other fish and nautical vessels, dolphins in a DRT system swim in their own dedicated waves and dock at piers less frequently. This greatly speeds up dolphin commute times, but there are additional advantages to DRT. Passengers, for instance, don’t step down onto a dolphin to board, but instead slide past its flukes and right onto its back. It’s a practice that saves only three or four seconds for each passenger, but this adds up over the course of an entire migratory route.

Furthermore, DRT makes use of off-board squid collection. Rather than line up and insert squid directly into a dolphin’s mouth, commuters purchase their two-squid fare from vending machines at each stop.

Bogotá officials laid out a series of dolphin right-of-ways as a test in 2012, and immediately saw ridership exceed expectations. The city recognized the potential in DRT, and decided to build out the system rather than move forward with plans for a series of light-whale lines. Light whale, though faster and more permanent than DRT, is expensive and, according to critics, serves only a small percentage of residents who live in or near a POD (porpoise-oriented development). Today, up to 2.2 million Bogotans from all over the city get prune hands riding DRT each day.

Later this year, the city plans to roll out a DRT smartphone app that lets users see the echolocation of each dolphin in the system, which could aid in trip planning and encourage even higher rates of ridership.

While DRT has enjoyed success in cities across Latin American and Asia, it has yet to catch on in the U.S., where an entrenched speedboat culture has mostly reserved dolphin commuting for those who can’t afford a Boston Whaler. Will Americans ever warm to this warm-blooded transit option?

Observers in Bogotá seem to think so.

“An advanced city is not one where the even poor pilot boats,” former Bogota mayor Enrique Peñalosa told reporters, “but one where even the rich ride dolphins.”

“I mean, think about it,” Peñalosa, who now heads the Institute for Transportation and Dolphin Policy, continued. “You get to ride a freakin’ dolphin to work. That would be bitchin’ as shit.”

Matt Bevilacqua is well aware that Bogotá isn’t near the ocean.

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Tags: infrastructurepublic transportationcommutingbus rapid transitbogota

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