Reuters

The city's historic transport free-for-all is starting to change, but a lot of people could get left behind. 

Even among South American cities, Lima is infamous for its traffic issues. Chaotic congestion, high rates of fatalities, and a deregulated, confusing transportation network are all hallmarks of the Peruvian capital's urban landscape. 

It’s hard to understate the scope of the problem, portrayed vividly by the Discovery Chanel in an episode of "Don't Drive Here." In the first three months of this year, traffic collisions in Lima caused 290 deaths and another 260 wounded. Discovery estimated that for every 100 vehicles on the road in Lima, 2.7 people will die. Rush hour crawls along at just over 6 miles per hour.

The sheer amount of vehicles on Lima's roads also boggles the mind. For example, last year there were 32,500 buses circulating inside the city. Taxis are even worse: there are an estimated 230,000 taxis operating, of which only 40 percent are legal. Similarly populated New York City has 5,700 buses and only 13,000 cabs.

It's no wonder transportation comes up as a primary citizen concern in opinion polls every year, with over 73 percent of the city complaining about traffic congestion, and nearly half of the city complaining about bus service.

But, the city's historic transportation free-for-all is starting to change. The past few years have brought the first government interventions in transportation since the early 1990s, when deregulation eliminated public transportation and allowed exponential expansion of independent transportation companies and routes. A gleaming new BRT line cuts through the city. Developed in cooperation with the World Bank and modeled after Bogota's Transmilenio, it moves about 500,000 people per day.

Mayor Susana Villarán has made transportation a centerpiece of her administration, and is advancing with the creation of regulated bus lines for five main corridors and a few dozen feeder lines, which would cover about 40 percent of the city's ridership. In parallel, Peru's national government is pushing forward with a metrorail system, inaugurating the city’s first electric train-line in 2011 and beginning construction on a second.

Yet the informal system has important strengths that should not be overlooked. Ask a researcher who studies transportation in Lima, and they'll tell you the current ad hoc bus and taxi services provide round-the-clock, cheap transportation with extensive territorial coverage. Lima's web of small minivans and motorcycles play an important role for Peru’s poorest classes, allowing access even from distant settlements around the city and fueling the metro area's exponential growth over the past few decades.

Studies, such as those conducted by geographer Pau Avellaneda of the Universitat Autónoma de Barcelona, in informal neighborhoods of Lima show that this intricate web of private transportation options allows residents to access jobs, education, and other vital services. Without them, these populations would be even more marginalized.

Urbanist and sociologist Pablo Vega Centeno, of the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, notes that when an informal neighborhood begins to take shape, settlers always form committees to fight for access to water and electricity. “But never transportation. Why? Because they already have it, it’s the first thing," he says. "This is the mode through which they have grown."

Vega hopes that Lima's municipal government will allow the informal networks to continue in areas that would otherwise be cut-off. Despite the positive efforts being made, the majority of the population will not be able to make all of their journeys on the new bus corridors, much less the elevated electric train (which took over 20 years to complete).

He also worries that the frenzy for flashy high-tech options, such as the electric trains, is misguided. Simpler solutions—such as ensuring that all bus drivers are on a formal salary system—might have a bigger impact for users. This kind of strategy would change the dynamic of the road, he says, without having to break the bank.

Other possibilities could include targeted subsidies to ensure fares are cheap enough for the poorest populations, and regulated lines that maintain the coverage of the current system. Lima is definitely moving forward to combat a complicated urban transportation legacy, but officials may also want to ensure that they don’t throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.

Top image: A boy travels on the first line of the "electric train," as locals call it, in Lima on March 29, 2014. (REUTERS/Enrique Castro-Mendivil)

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