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Destination Gridlock


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Health hazard / TRAFFIC

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The Peru File

Destination gridlock
Car chaos is choking the urban South.
But Stephanie Boyd discovers a ray of hope in
Lima's hidden dreams of electrical public transit.

A lonely row of concrete pillars stretches endlessly into the smog of a grimy Lima dawn in the middle of the busy Avenida Aviación. They are flanked by a constant stream of cars, mini-vans and buses spewing curls of black exhaust. The decade-old pillars represent the unfulfilled plans of a socialist government to connect the capital’s outlying ‘cones,’ or low-income neighbourhoods, with a massive, high-speed electric train. Wracked by a corruption scandal, the project was shut down just before President Alberto Fujimori came to power, chaining Peru to neoliberal reforms and a doctrine of privatization.

For Fujimori the abandoned train was a monument to his predecessor’s corruption and inefficiency. But as the early morning sun struggles to break through the haze, the pillars reflect brightly painted murals of flowers, trees and rivers. Schoolchildren and a near-forgotten government commission have kept the idea alive. And now, with Fujimori gone, Lima’s Greens prepare to come out of the closet to battle the city’s car epidemic.

Lima's choking transit system.
Fred Hoogervorst /
Panos Pictures

Unbeknownst to most Peruvians, the dusty offices of the ‘Autonomous Authority for the Special Mass Electric Transport Project System for Lima and Callao’ weathered out the Dark Ages of Fujimori’s rule, tucked in a small corner of the Stalinesque Ministry of Industry, Tourism and Commerce building.

‘How did you know we were here?’ Miguel Torres, the association’s president, asks nervously. ‘I usually don’t give interviews to the press – for political reasons the Government has wanted to keep this project quiet until outside funding was secured.’

They have been working ‘very quietly, almost secretly,’ he explains, investing $200 million to purchase five trains and bringing 9.8 kilometres of track into operation. But with a government frightened of state-run services, the train’s advancement was kept hush-hush. The plan was to seduce private investors onboard with impressive flow charts highlighting oodles of potential profits. Torres has been at the helm for four years without any takers. The targeted poor clients just cannot afford their most basic needs, let alone competitive subway fares. It’s a dilemma throughout Latin America – governments towing the neoliberal line but desperately in need of safe and clean mass public transit.

Environmentalists counter such IMF-induced fears of government waste by showing that electric mass transit makes fiscal sense by reducing costly road-building and maintenance. Then there is the strain on medical systems from auto accidents and diseases related to poor air quality. Plus, electric trains make social sense, cutting down on commuting time and stress-related maladies exacerbated by continual traffic jams.

The social and medical costs of Latin America’s growing car epidemic are no joke, with more than 100 million people exposed to air contamination above World Health Organisation (WHO) limits. The results: a myriad of health problems from respiratory diseases to heart ailments and pneumonia. Children and the elderly are especially vulnerable. In Lima, respiratory infection rates for those aged five and younger are on the rise, according to the city’s Grau Emergency Hospital. Some 80 per cent of the city’s air contamination comes from motor vehicles, exposing the population to nitrogen and carbon dioxide, lead and particulate matter. Major intersections register levels of particulates at least double WTO danger-limits, prompting health authorities to warn citizens against frequenting such areas. No easy task if you commute every day.

It’s the same story throughout congested capitals of the South from Lagos to Jakarta to Mexico City. In Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, levels of lead in the air are about eight times higher than the WHO’s ‘safe’ levels, worse even than notoriously contaminated cities like Mumbai, India, or Mexico City.

Cities like Jakarta, Shanghai and Beijing have actually put restrictions on bicycle use to make more room for cars

Torres also cites crowded motorways combined with unenforced traffic regulations that have led to an explosion in traffic accidents – with 45 per cent of violent deaths in Lima the result. He is quick to add that such grave statistics are all the more reason for a safe, enviromentally sound mass-transportation system. Some 80 per cent of Lima’s nearly eight million citizens have no access to a car and must rely on a chaotic web of smog-belching private mini-vans, rumbling old buses and unlicensed taxis. Numerous Majority World cities with little public transportation are over-run by private mini-van buses. Names may vary – matatus in Nairobi, combis in Lima – but the reckless, competitive driving style, passengers packed like sardines and the use of the cheapest, lead-ridden fuel are common standards of this cut-throat form of free-market transit.

Torres sees an opportunity not to be missed: ‘We have to catch these disgruntled passengers now and get them hooked on using mass-environmental transit before the economic situation improves and they start buying cars.’ Indeed any urban planner is well advised to fear the encroaching car culture – across the developing world a rising trend in automobile use has already brought dire consequences for human health. According to a 1999 Worldwatch Institute report: ‘If every nation had cars at the US rate, the world fleet would be five billion – ten times larger than today. With many cities already reeling from pollution and congestion created by cars, such a figure is incomprehensible.’ Lima is already stressed with about 800,000 vehicles; weak, largely unenforced emission regulations and no requirements for safety certifications.

Mexico and Chile, hosts of the region’s most contaminated cities, have long imposed bans on auto circulation based on license plate numbers on really bad smog days. Yet each year the ‘air emergencies’ worsen. Over the past 15 years, increasingly desperate Chilean governments have expanded Santiago’s underground metro system, planted trees and banned imports of new cars without catalytic converters for unleaded gasoline. Yet smog persists. Chile’s much touted macro-economic growth has padded the wallets of the country’s wealthy and upper-middle class, stimulating the demand for imported cars. And it’s not just Chile. A quick glance at Asia, the world’s cycling giant, provides a clue: the region has seen bicycle use in many cities decline in recent years as the use of personal cars and motorbikes grows. Asia’s swelling lust for the engine is tied to government policy supporting the region’s mighty auto-industry – producing about a third of the world’s cars and owning 17 per cent of the global fleet. Cities like Jakarta, Shanghai and Beijing have actually put restrictions on bicycle use to make room for cars.

In the mid-1990s, Peru’s Government promised to put a car in every (middle-class) garage. Cheap second-hand cars flooded the market, lining the pockets of importers. Peruvians are encouraged to buy on credit and operate the cars as informal taxis to meet the payments. William Alvarado, a book-seller and second-hand car owner explains the hard, cold reality. ‘Before work in the morning, during lunch and again in the evening I take off my suit-jacket and slap this pink taxi sticker on my windshield. The majority of people who drive taxis have another job, sometimes two or three,’ says this 33-year-old father and husband. But Alvarado says profits are dismal, what with gasoline prices soaring and roads that are glutted with informal taxis.

Planners like Torres seem to have seen the light, however. The electric train champion slips into a Peruvian rendition of ‘I have a dream’, out-lining his plans for Lima’s future metro, designed to move a million, mostly low-income, Peruvians at full-capacity. The route not only improves transit between distant shantytowns, but facilitates the urban poor’s daily journey to Lima’s historical centre, commercial zones and the seaside enclaves of the rich and famous.

‘But it’s not just about building a rapid-transit system,’ says Torres excitedly. ‘It’s about creating liveable spaces for the city’s poor. We want to raise their spirits so they see their own future could be better.’ Torres unrolls stacks of design plans and pulls out mini-models to illustrate the green spaces he hopes to create around the metro stops in Lima’s dry, desert hinterlands. They will be free from garbage and crime, complemented by bicycle lanes, connecting trains and buses fanning out across the sprawling cityscape. He has shared this dream with children from local schools, organizing trips where they ride the few kilometres already completed and paint their visions of a greener future on the train’s unfinished concrete pillars.

‘The children are key,’ he explains. ‘They go home and tell their parents, so everyone knows there is an alternative – they don’t have to be trapped in poverty. This way the community is brought into the project, so they know it is their’s – their train... and they can push subsequent governments to make it a reality.’

Stephanie Boyd
writes from Lima on a range of issues. She also is well known in cyberspace for her humourous e-mails.
[email protected]
Stephanie Boyd
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