The crisis of Lima’s transportation system, and what’s being done to mitigate it.
By Andrew Sandweiss
Mr. Araya took a sip of his coffee. His wife, Paola, nodded in agreement. To the right of our table, along Avenida Balta, an assortment of cars and buses crawled angrily. The noise of engines and honking created a low drone that diffused throughout the café.
“Lima is a pandemonium. Here, anything can happen. There are rules and laws here, but they aren’t followed.”
Mr. Araya has been driving his airport van service for the past 25 years. It’s a family business: the only other employees at PeruTaxiVan are his son, wife, and brothers. All work and live within the chaos that is Lima’s transportation nightmare.
“People are very ugly about it,” Mr. Araya began sadly, “people are very, very aggressive. [But] If someone cuts me off, it doesn’t matter to me. It’s not important, because somewhere up ahead there’s a worse driver. And beyond there’s an even worse driver. I’ve learned that you can’t always be stressed.”
To anyone who has experienced intra-city travel in the City of Kings, it is no surprise that Mr. Araya has developed a strategy to combat the constant slew of backed up thoroughfares.
To put it bluntly, Lima’s current transportation system is a confused, corrupted, and chaotically inefficient network of buses and cars: rapid mass transit has only made a quiet debut in a city with over 8 million people.
According to the Instituto de Estudios Peruanos, Lima loses $800 million, 1.5% of its GDP, due to Lima’s poor transit system. Six out of every ten Limeños are unsatisfied with public transit. Every six minutes, a car accident occurs. Every ten minutes, a person is hurt in such an accident. “Problematic”, “chaotic”, and “a crisis.” These are the words most commonly used to describe the situation.
The largest issue is traffic.
According to Lima Como Vamos (LCV), a government watchdog and data collection organization, 25% of Limeños spend more than 2 hours a day commuting. Another 10% spend greater than 3 hours a day. New York City’s average commute time, the highest in the US, is 6 hours and 18 minutes, per week (3). Those in Lima spending over 3 hours a day commuting spend at least 15 hours in transit every week.
In 2014, it was reported that there were 1,590,755 vehicles of any sort in Lima, 66% of all vehicles in Peru and double the number of vehicles in Lima since 2009. There are approximately 1,888,840 vehicles, excluding buses, in New York City (1).
Alfonso Mazzini, the general manager of Transitemos, a private transit reform advocacy foundation, laments that “In Lima, there are [roughly] 1,700,000 vehicles, so how is it that with 1,700,00 vehicles, we can be in such a crisis?”
The reason for such a crisis lies partly in the city’s design. Mazzini describes Lima “like a sand clock, everything converges in the middle. All economic activities are centralized, and thus, everyone who lives on the periphery has to come from all corners.” An LCV report from 2015 confirms this, as 14.5% of the commuters are heading to the Cercado de Lima, or Lima’s historic center, a stretch of land only 21.9 square kilometers. Combining all of “central” districts of Lima together forms a core to which 44% of commuters travel to every day, creating a consistent rush hour and traffic jam throughout Lima. But the vehicles clogging up Lima’s highways are not just cars, but buses as well.
Of the city’s 8 million people, 75.6% use public transportation (LCV). Although it is fantastic that so many use the public transport system, Claudia Bielich, noted sociologist and professor at the Universidad del Pacífico, notes that “the system is problematic in origin.”
Alfonso Mazzini describes, Lima is “set back 80 years in urban public transport.”
There is no real network of mass transit in Lima, save for a single Metro (rail) line finished in 2011 (after 21 years of construction) and a single Bus Rapid Transit line (the Metropolitano) finished in 2010. In 2015, the Metro serviced only 3.4% of Lima’s population, and the Metropolitano only serviced 4.4%. 59.2% of Lima’s population—more than 78% of its public-transit-riding population—relies on the confusingly unique private bus system in Lima.
Patricia Seminario, a professor of Architecture and Urbanism at Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú (PUCP), describes this system, and specifically the actors within it, as “the mafia.”
It’s a complicated system, but in order to understand its inefficiencies, it is essential to understand its inner workings. The network is made up of a series of private bus companies, operating modern busses, but also decades-old vehicles, called micros (mini-busses) and even smaller vans, called combis.
The owners and administrators of the company, los transportistas, stand at the top of the private bus food chain. There are two types of people within this group: accionistas and dirigentes. The first group concerns themselves with decisions for the company or junta (group) of bus businesses teaming up. The dirigentes get paid a salary to carry out decisions made by the accionistas. Oddly enough, these administrators rarely own a single vehicle, and their offices are small, sometimes even just a desk, according to Ms. Bielich. One level beneath these actors are the propietarios, the owners of individual vehicles (combis and micros) who pay a fee to the administrators to affiliate themselves with the company. Oddly enough, these owners rarely drive their own vehicles. That honor is given to the choferes, the drivers, who are hired alongside a cobrador, fare collector, by the propietario. The driver and fare collector do not get paid a salary, but rather a commission. The more passengers the two get, the more money they receive. Of their earnings, they must pay a daily sum to the vehicle’s owner, then pay for gasoline, and finally split the remaining money amongst the two of them: with 60% going to the driver, the rest going to the fare collector.
The competition is not just between company and company, but between every driver in the city. They are all trying to make as much money as possible by carrying as many passengers as possible.
And the choferes and cobradores do just that.
“Drivers speed where they shouldn’t speed, or plant themselves at a stop waiting where they know there are passengers,” states Patricia Seminario, “The system gives the incentive to drive badly.”
Even worse, any accidents that occur with these vehicles become a nightmare for the victim. If someone gets hit by a micro, their logical first step would be to go complain to the company. But the company would respond, according to Ms. Bielich, saying “that vehicle is not mine, and that driver is not my employee”, making it extremely difficult to resolve accidents.
The drivers’ 14 hour work days don’t help.
This competition does have a few benefactors outside the bus company. Although rarely mentioned, there are groups of individuals who profit from the commission system. These people act as scouts, collecting real-time data on the business of stops further up bus routes, and selling this information to choferes and cobradores. Los transportistas also benefit—it’s essentially their system. Little is required of them to make money.
It wasn’t always like this.
In the 1970s, Lima was a much smaller city, both demographically and geographically, with a government run transit system. When the city was inundated by mass migration, the migrants purchased small, cheap vehicles to provide transit between homes and major avenues. “People”, according to Ms. Bielich, “saw this as good business, and bit by bit these services grew, and there were more combis as the system began institutionalizing itself.” The government turned a blind eye. It knew it couldn’t satisfy the demands of Lima’s growing population, so it let these privately run companies expand into chaos.
An official liberalization of transport came with the government of Alberto Fujimori, and although he was well known for other dramatic events in Peru’s political and economic history, he was also responsible for a radical change in Lima’s transit history, with Decreto Legislativo 651, a law that liberalized transport in the early 1990s. He dismantled the publicly owned transit system, firing multitudes of people, but then allowed them to offer transportation service on their own. At the same time, the importation of cars from East Asian countries and a relaxation of import taxes provided an influx of vehicles in the city.
It was, from a theoretical stance, a very democratizing act. As Mr. Araya put it, “everybody was becoming a taxi driver. There were taxi doctors, taxi engineers, taxi laborers, taxi professors, taxi police officers” as for many it provided needed extra income.
Alas, the democratizing D. L. 651 has plagued Lima with congestion.
Patricia Seminario of PUCP stated, “the liberalization of transport was the worst thing for Lima.”
And as the government played a hand in dealing with Lima’s current traffic situation, it also inadvertently (or purposely) works to maintain it.
The government does this primarily through administration changes. When an administration changes hands in Lima, many projects and proposals get left in the dust. Politicians simply want to build infrastructure with their name associated with it. “Everyone goes in for their own political purposes,” says Alfonso Mazzini, from Transitemos. Thus, there is no continuity, which is necessary for transit reform.
Corruption also plays a role. According to Mr. Araya, “The police are very easy to manipulate. You can give them 20 soles and they’ll let you off without paperwork or fines. So what happens? When you pass a red light, you’re fine.”
Lima is in a dire situation. With an ineffective government, lack of substantial mass transit, an informal and dangerous system of busses and taxis, it’s a network of confusion and delay.
But there is hope. For throughout the city there are individuals and groups proposing, advocating, and developing ideas to help the city travel in the right direction.
There are a myriad of projects underway or proposed for the City of Kings.
Metro’s Line 1 and the Metropolitano have had the most visible impact. Although servicing a small percentage of the population, they are landmark symbols of progress.
Despite these public transit-focused developments, Lima still maintains itself in a car-centric mentality. As Alfonso Mazzini states, “The theme of transportation that we have now is something out of the 20th century: building bypasses, and such”, an unfortunate mentality considering that only 15.5% of Limeños use private automobiles to commute.
Alfonso Mazzini states that “here, everyone goes in for their own political purposes, and long-term plans are inconvenient to these politicians because if they begin a project, they most likely won’t be there to inaugurate it with a political model that avoids the reelection of municipal administrations. It’s very difficult that such a reform, involving 5 to 6 different administrations and 3 national government agencies, can be carried through.”
The last plan regarding transportation in Lima was released in 2010. Since then, Lima has had no cohesive vision, even though coordination must take place for any real change to happen.
Getting people to obey the law is another story altogether. No reform can happen unless drivers are willing to make changes to their driving patterns. In Lima, such behaviors are further supported via police corruption. But, according to Mr. Araya, there is a place where this issue has been solved.
“In Callao, things are different.”
Callao is an autonomous province located to the northwest of Lima. Although the smallest province in Peru, it is also one of the most important, containing Lima (and the country’s) main airport, as well as the largest port and intermodal facilities. It has also succeeded in another transport area: traffic regulation.
In Callao, when a police officer leaves a ticket, he or she gets a percentage from the fine, a rule absent in Lima. Cameras are located throughout the province, catching and recording speed violations, and sending fines either by mail or electronically. There is no room for corruption—Callao has managed to push it out.
The effects of these programs have already been felt. In 2012, the accident death rate in Lima was 67.3 deaths via accident per 1,000,000 people, whereas the accident death rate in Callao was 28.5 deaths via accident per 1,000,000 people, a significant drop. This only makes sense, as speed is one of the biggest factors in these accidents (2).
There’s a unique mentality to going into Callao. Taxi drivers, van drivers, all know to follow the law because they know there are consequences if they don’t.
Callao has tapped into a wealth of new methods and ideas on how to control traffic patterns around the Lima region.
No matter what type of reform arrives next in the City of Kings, it will have to jump through many, many hurdles. Administrative changes, transit companies, uncoordinated agencies, corruption: avoiding these issues is like one big obstacle course. But, as Patricia Seminario states, “Lima is a city with [nearly] 10 million inhabitants, we’re not here to play games.”
Andy Sandweiss is a sophomore in Trumbull College. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org