The New Faces of the Favela
Young people from the favelas can be so much more than just members of a drug gang.
Lima, Peru’s vibrant capital has to cope with chaotic public transportation. Reforms are caught between corruption and opportunism - but progress is made.
It is early evening in Lima, around 4.30 pm. It won’t be long before the rush hour begins in the South American megacity. Traffic grows increasingly dense as more and more vehicles move at an excruciatingly slow pace on the pothole-riddled asphalt. At the side of the road, a college student frantically waves his arms up and down entreating a minibus to stop. The buses are actually only allowed to stop at the official bus stops but not many drivers abide by this rule. After a while, an old bus that looks as if its best days are behind it stops. Multi-coloured stripes cut across its sides along with a list of street names. Connoisseurs can figure out which route the bus driver will take by examining the combination of colours and names, but the system is opaque and sometimes difficult even for locals to understand. The door opens and a young man jumps out yelling "Todo Benavides" so that potential passengers know that the bus will drive down the entire Avenida Benavides, one of Lima's main arterial roads. Some passengers leap out of the vehicle as the student climbs in. Before the young man can slide the door closed, the driver speeds off. To outsiders, this scene might seem strange, but it is just the normal everyday insanity in the South American metropolis, home to more than eight million according to official figures. Since the middle of the past century, the population has rapidly increased, nearly doubling in the last thirty years alone. Many fast growing cities in developing countries have to contend with an intensification of traffic due to the progressive motorization of the population, along with an infrastructure that doesn’t develop at the same rate.
The traffic chaos caused by questionable political decisions, lack of reforms, and faulty designs is now one of the most pressing problems in the Peruvian capital.
In Lima, the problem is even worse for two reasons: One, because the Peruvian capital, as opposed to Bogota or Rio de Janeiro, has not grown in height via skyscrapers, but extended exclusively in width instead. Today the urban area sprawls over an area of nearly 2,700 square kilometres. Accordingly, the city would also need to earmark more funding to build new roads and maintain the existing street network and services. The traffic chaos caused by questionable political decisions, lack of reforms, and faulty designs is now one of the most pressing problems in the Peruvian capital. It is hard to believe, but since the 1990s, city and state have put the transport sector and the fate of the megacity completely in the hands of private companies. But first things first.
Buses were first used for passenger transport in 1921, and initially circulated only in wealthier neighbourhoods. Even though more and more people from rural areas flocked to the capital in the decades that followed, the city government failed to establish a functioning public transportation system. As a result, an opaque system of public and private transport companies arose. To end this mayhem, the state transportation company ‘Empresa Nacional del Transporte Urbano del Perú’ was founded in 1976. While ENATRU did manage to improve the situation by operating several dozen bus routes that served the larger sections of Lima, the state-owned company was still unable to meet the vast and ever-increasing demand.
…almost anyone who owned a car or private minibus could create their own transport company.
In the 1980s, Peru fell into a deep economic crisis. Public expenditures were cut, which also affected ENATRU. As a result, there were not enough funds available to renew the fleet or repair broken-down buses. The company also had to contend with the 'Sendero Luminoso' terrorist organization that had destroyed several vehicles in their attacks. By the early 1990s, the situation had deteriorated to such an extent that President Alberto Fujimori decided to privatize and radically liberalize public transport.
Surely one cannot attribute the current malaise solely to Fujimori's decision, though his reforms still have widespread consequences even to this day. Because of the new regulations, transport companies had to meet just a few conditions to get a license. Companies didn’t need apply for concessions to specific routes anymore and instead participated in open competition for passengers. They were allowed to set their own prices and no longer had to subject their vehicles to minimum technical standards of any kind. It was merely stipulated that people were to be transported by a motorized, four-wheeled vehicle. This meant that almost anyone who owned a car or private minibus could create their own transport company. Vehicle imports surged in response, with many older and thus relatively high-polluting vehicles brought into the country from abroad.
There are only a few hours a day when you are not at risk of getting stuck in a traffic jam.
From 1990 to 2005, the number of vehicles in Lima doubled to nearly 900,000. Today there are about 230,000 taxis that ply the streets of Lima, only about 40 percent of which own an official license. Taxi drivers working without a permit are easy to recognise because their taxi sign is not attached to the roof, but placed on the dashboard so that it is not directly visible to everyone from afar. Then there are the exceptionally high numbers of busses, over 32,000, that carry passengers around in all parts of Lima. Fewer than a quarter as many buses ply the streets of similar sized cities as a rule.
Understandably, the rapid increase in vehicles on the streets of Lima has had serious negative effects. There are only a few hours a day when you are not at risk of getting stuck in a traffic jam. The long lines of cars have caused fuel consumption to shoot upwards, resulting in greater impacts on people and the environment. Experts estimate the economic damage that this causes at about a billion dollars. Nonetheless, despite all the justified criticism of the current system, it does ensure that the average citizen can get to any district at prices that are lower than in other cities that have a public transport sector.
…experts estimate that about 1.5 to 2 million of the nearly 9 million Limeños are directly or indirectly employed in the transport sector.
Fujimori reformed the transport system with the intention of meeting the population’s growing demand. Economic considerations were undoubtedly equally important, since the privatization of public transport has created many new jobs. Curiously enough, not just new jobs, but new occupations were also created. Today, drivers are usually accompanied by a 'cobrador', a kind of organizer, who woos passengers and collects the money from customers. Among the Limeños, cobradores don’t necessarily have the best reputation and some locals claim they pretty much do whatever they want. Passengers are sometimes treated badly. In addition, different customers are apparently charged different prices for the same distance. 'Dateros' are a kind of timekeeper that stand on the side of the road and record the times, the number of passengers, and the lines of all buses that pass by. They inform the driver or the cobrador about the competition. If the datero calls out to the cobrador 'two, five, three', you know that the last three buses traveling the same route passed at intervals of two, five, and three minutes. The datero is paid 20 centimos per vehicle. In addition to the drivers, cobradores and dateros, who earn their money directly in the transport business, there is also a whole host of vendors and squeegee men who indirectly benefit from the current system. It is hard to believe, but experts estimate that about 1.5 to 2 million of the nearly 9 million Limeños are directly or indirectly employed in the transport sector. Since the mid-2000s, new transport sector reforms have been introduced to the public debate from different sides in an attempt to solve the existing problems – such as a bus rapid transit system financed by a partnership between the public and private sectors. Naturally, transport workers have fought recent changes in this area very stubbornly for fear of losing their jobs. Nevertheless, they could not prevent the city council from approving the plans. In 2010, after four years of construction, the first line of the 'Metropolitano' was officially inaugurated. The buses do not drive on normal roads; they use a separate track. The new system was accepted by the population surprisingly quickly. Today the Metropolitano transports about half a million people every day and the buses are not far from being fully utilized. Despite this great success, the bus rapid transit is not a panacea for Lima's traffic problems. Although the design and construction took several years and huge amounts of money, the 'Metropolitano' covers only about five percent of demand.
Although the 'Metro' was only partially completed and hence practically useless, then-President Alan Garcia opened up a partial section in the 1990s.
The 'Lima Metro' is a vivid illustration of the problems that Lima's transport sector is facing. After years of negotiation and planning, construction on the 'Lima Metro' – called 'Tren Electrico' or ‘electric train’ by Limeños – began in 1986. After a short time, the work was interrupted about halfway through because Peru when was plunged into a deep economic and social crisis. Not only did the project financing stand on shaky legs, but it was no longer possible to communicate to the population why government funding was still intact for such a prestigious project, while the average citizen had to worry about harsh cuts. Although the 'Metro' was only partially completed and hence practically useless, then-President Alan Garcia opened up a partial section in the 1990s. Since then, the project has been used by various parties during election time. In 2009, the 'Consorcio Tren Eléctrico Lima' consortium was founded and tasked with finishing the construction work with a loan from the Development Bank of Latin America. At the same time there was a call for tender in which companies could apply to win the bid to operate the Lima Metro. In 2011 it was re-elected President Alan Garcia who again opened up the first line 21 years later. Additional lines are planned.
The biggest problem, it seems, is that the different means of transport are not sufficiently connected with each.
But the construction of the Metropolitano and the completion of the Tren Electrico were only the first steps in the reform efforts. Following Susanna Villaran’s election as mayor in 2011, a whole package of measures was put together: Authorities began to limit the number of licenses in order to reduce the number of 'micros' and 'combis'. This year, the first two of a total of five planned corridors were set up to run along the main roads. In the next two years, one billion euros are to be invested to provide 5,000 new, environmentally friendly buses. Transport companies were invited to apply in public tenders to operate these lines. The main objective of the reform, however, is to develop an integrated transport strategy. The biggest problem, it seems, is that the different means of transport are not sufficiently connected with each other so they can transport Lima’s citizens quickly and effectively.
It is no coincidence the decision-makers sometimes lack an eye for the big picture. On the one hand, large, prestigious infrastructure and transport projects are often used by politicians to score points with voters. On the other hand, office holders benefit financially from such projects, since close links between business and political corruption are not an uncommon occurrence. Luis Castañeda, who won the mayoral elections in October, has also had to deal with allegations of corruption in the past. He had already held the post of mayor of Lima from 2002 to 2010. At that time, Castañeda was able to win the election by promising to invest in infrastructure and alleviate the traffic problems. In the past election campaign, he did not clearly indicate whether he will continue the reforms that began with the construction of the Metropolitano during his tenure. The millions of commuters have no choice but to hope for the best.