Learning how to successfully navigate Lima’s public transportation system involves developing a good sense of navigation and knowledge of the city, a sense of balance, an open mind to deal with unexpected events, a watchful pair of eyes to ward off pickpockets, and a good ear to appreciate the informal entertainment; usually provided by a singer who will then ask for a few coins, and may even offer to sell you some chicha morada (purple maize) or lemongrass candy.
If you are lucky, you will climb aboard a modern bus with comfortable seats. If you are feeling adventurous, you might get on board an old, sagging and limping bus that looks like it was once used to take children to school. Some stickers on the windows provide wise advice, such as “Everything in this car is awesome: the music, the car and the driver” and “If you are late, it is not the driver’s fault.” What you will not find is a map detailing the route this bus will take, and the location of the bus stops. Even if the bus is crowded, the driver will shout “There is space at the back! Move along, move along!” You will likely be clueless about the location of the actual bus stop, and many people just signal the driver to stop when they want to get off.
Lima’s public transportation system is colorful, inefficient, often uncomfortable, time-consuming, and even dangerous. It consists of large buses, some smaller buses (coasters), and much smaller vans, originally converted Volkswagen Kombis, known locally as combis. Some of them are fairly new, and others are several decades old and look like they had an interesting past before being retired to Peru. On at least one occasion I climbed aboard a bus that still had advertising signs in Japanese on the inside, even though on the outside it had been painted over with the colors of the bus line.
On the upside, public transportation in Lima is plentiful and extremely cheap for users. However, a ride in one of these buses may also involve speeding, zigzagging, and being stuck in traffic. This chaos and disorder, nonetheless, also begets creativity and even humor. The phrase “There is space at the back” became the title of an extremely popular television sitcom. In 2009 a Facebook-based game called “Crazy Combi,” in which players controlled a bus which speeded, dodged, and even jumped over other vehicles, exceeded 350,000 users within twelve days of its launch.
The current state of the city’s public transportation has many causes, but part of the chaos can be traced back to a 1991 decree that eliminated all legal and administrative barriers regulating it, which meant that any person could operate any vehicle with three or more wheels on any route, and to a 1992 law that loosened all restrictions involving the importation of used vehicles. Rather than a central system, the city has numerous lines, legal and yet informal, which run overlapping routes and compete for passengers. Although some piecemeal efforts, like the Metropolitano system and the Metro, have been implemented to deal with these issues, the city urgently needs a wide-scale reform to solve its public transportation woes and make it safe, efficient and sustainable.
What are the current challenges facing public transportation in your city?
Credits: Images by Rosabella Alvarez-Calderon. Data linked to sources.