For Lima’s Bus Drivers, Congestion, Competition and Chaos

Lima | 01/22/2013 4:47am
Manuel Vigo | Informal City Dialogues

“I know everybody,” says Tito, a 60-year-old bus driver who has been working behind the wheel for 28 years. “After working here for so many years, those who don’t know me are blind.”

A short and robust man, his forearms sleeved with tattoos he got in the Peruvian Navy, Tito has spent those 28 years watching Lima’s transportation system devolve into chaos. He started working for the city’s transit department as a bus driver in the mid 1980s, back when traffic flowed easily, he says, and transportation was better organized.

“Things are very different today than when I started,” he says, looking out over a city where 30,000 buses now operate. Lima’s population has quadrupled since 1960. Combine that growth with a lowering of import tariffs in the 1990s, a burgeoning (and status-hungry) middle class, and an influx of cheap taxi cabs from China and Korea, and you have a city stuck in perpetual rush hour.

Today, much like the city itself, the public bus system in Lima is a bewildering mixture of formal and informal, and virtually devoid of any real accountability. Drivers are essentially free agents, assigned to routes by concession holders who have city-issued permits that enable them to operate buses on a designated route. Tito tells me the company he works for owns over a hundred buses that run on different routes all across the city – buses that come in an endless array of makes, colors and sizes.

He shows me his permit, which contains a detailed breakdown of all the streets he’s allowed to drive on, down to the very last turn. But even permitted buses rely on bribes to pass safety regulations and avoid fines. “There are a lot of buses that have no papers, but city officials are also very abusive with us who do,” he says, parked by the side of the road, waiting for passengers.

“A traffic ticket from the police is cheap, but a ticket from the city is expensive. For example, if the city catches us here, at this stop, this ticket could cost 3,600 soles ($1,362 USD),” he says. “But police are reasonable.” They’ll often issue tickets for lesser violations, as a warning. “There are ways to negotiate,” he smiles: no need to elaborate on what those methods might be.

On his bus, Tito is one half of a two-man team. The other guy, a cobrador — Spanish for “collector”’ — is in charge of collecting fares, operating the door, and luring passengers by yelling out the name of the route as the bus speeds through the city’s streets, a useful service in a city where printed routes and schedules are an alien concept. The driver and the cobrador are usually issued a minimum passenger quota by the bus operator; if they fail to deliver, they risk not getting paid, which is what gets Tito out of bed and behind the wheel by 5:30 every morning.

The cutthroat competition, coupled with ever-worsening congestion, results in thousands of accidents each year, and hours-long commutes for the roughy 80 percent of residents who depend on public transportation. “These kids they think they’re doing a public service by just racing down the streets,” Tito says.

Though it’s still common to see old school buses from the U.S., brought over to Lima some 30 years ago, Tito drives a relatively modern vehicle, an unusual sight in the capital’s chaotic transit system. The new bus, he says, is the result of a business move that ultimately proved to be a boondoggle for his bosses.

“The company bought this bus because there was a law that said buses older than 1992 would have to be removed from the streets. They wanted to replace them with these big Euro 3 buses,” he says, referring to the emissions rating. But several private bus firms threatened prolonged strikes, leading the city to delay phasing out the old buses. Now the operator Tito works for is stuck with a pricey vehicle he doesn’t need. “They lied,” says Tito bitterly. “The company made an investment — this bus cost $73,000. Now they want larger Euro 5 buses.”

Making the competition for buses even stiffer, in 2010 Lima inaugurated the Metropolitano bus rapid transit system, and in 2011 opened the long-delayed Lima Metro railway, two major steps for a city that has struggled with organized public transit for decades. Though not free from controversy, the Metropolitano and Lima Metro have been generally well received by locals, many of whom have seen significant improvements in commute times. These systems still only cover a few areas of Lima, but the government has announced aggressive expansion plans for the bus system in the coming years, as well as a new underground line for the railway.

In addition, Mayor Susana Villarán recently announced that the city would aim to halve the number of privately operated buses by 2021. Tito thinks the Metropolitano’s current routes will do the city good, but feels sorry for those who have seen their routes replaced by the formal system. “They lived off their route,” he says.

When I ask him if he would consider working for the Metropolitano, he shrugs off my suggestion. “There is no room for me there,” he says. “We’re used to working day to day, and earning day to day. With the Metropolitano, what would I earn? Maybe 1,000 or 1,200 soles ($390 to $472 USD) every month.”

“Here,” he says, “it’s money straight to my pocket.”

Manuel writes about politics, business, tourism, and culture for Peru This Week, where he is the news editor. Follow him on Twitter @mv_peruthisweek