Taming Lima’s chaotic, choking transit system

Old buses in poor repair spew pollution as underpaid cab drivers jockey for customers

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LIMA, Peru — The rickety buses careen down Lima’s dusty avenues, steel hulks rattling.

White-knuckled passengers hold fast. Tailpipes cough soot. Drivers grimace. Pedestrians scramble.

Too often, three or four buses at a time jockey for fares on haphazardly oversubscribed routes.

The drivers are in a perpetual race. If they don’t meet a daily passenger quota, they don’t get paid. So they put in nerve-racking 16-hour days and work seven-day weeks.

Peru’s capital is afflicted by an anarchic, corrupt transit system that the city’s freshman mayor calls a shameful menace.

Mayor Susana Villaran is promising, against tall odds, to fix it and the traffic chaos that might well lead the region in motorized hostility to pedestrians, cyclists and human lungs.

“I’d say the city is in serious collapse, given the quantity of vehicles, their age and the notorious absence of operating rules,” says city councilman Rafael Garcia, a reform advocate.

Lima is far from alone among Latin American cities with exasperating traffic congestion and near-complete gridlock on major thoroughfares.

But unlike in Bogota, Colombia; Sao Paolo, Brazil; or even Mexico City, it is not a surge in private passenger vehicles that is causing Lima’s traffic nightmares. Vehicle ownership is low; four in five commuters use public transit.

The problem: chronic mismanagement and corruption dating back two decades. And it’s not just the belching buses but also Lima’s quarter-million taxis, half of them unregistered, all of them unregulated.

That’s one taxi for every 18 Lima inhabitants. Ms. Villaran blames the cabs for more than 70 percent of traffic jams.

Taxi drivers, like bus drivers, will stop anywhere. And forget meters. Cab fare is negotiated on entry.

More lethal, though, is Lima’s sorry bus fleet, the chief culprit for air pollution that exceeds World Health Organization limits ninefold. A 2009 government report blamed vehicular contamination for 6,000 annual deaths in Lima from respiratory ailments.

The fleet coexists and competes with a shiny new rapid transit bus system with dedicated lanes that burns clean natural gas. Modeled on Bogota’s Transmilenio system and launched last year, the Metropolitano is slated for expansion but so far only handles 3 percent to 4 percent of Lima’s commuters.

The average age of Lima’s buses exceeds 20 years, according to the citizen’s group Lima Como Vamos. Thousands are mechanically unsound threats to life and limb. The average age of a Sao Paulo bus, by contrast, is 4.2 years, the group says.

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