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Meet the Chileans Obsessed With Their Struggling Transit System

Following a disastrous launch, Santiago’s ambitious Transantiago network became widely hated across Chile's capital city. But a determined group of transit fans is trying to rescue it.

When the route changed, members of STPMet threw a 'goodbye party" for Line 122. (Maria Ignacia Pentz)

This story was first published in Spanish on our sister site, CityLab Latino.

SANTIAGO, Chile — In a cafe on the east side of Santiago, five men gather to talk public transportation. They talk about which city bus lines run most frequently and which show up the least. They talk about traffic flow studies and discuss their quest to ride every line in the whole bus network. They compare their impressive collections of transit cards.

“We’re observers and experts,” says Jorge González, the founder of STPMet (Metropolitan Public Transport Services), a volunteer organization for riders of Transantiago, the city’s transit network. He’s joined by several other members of the group—César Barraza, Bastián Estay, Maximiliano Barra, and Vicente Durán. The Chilean press has dubbed these men “fans” and “friends” of Transantiago, but such terms don’t fully represent the intensity of their relationship to the system.

Like similar transit advocacy groups in the U.S., STPMet functions as both cheerleader and critic. On an entirely pro bono basis, the members study Transantiago in an effort to improve it. They’re obsessed with public transportation, and they know the network from start to finish. Not one detail of its 480 routes and more than 11,000 stops escapes them.

“Ask me about any route and I know it,” says Gonzalez. “I know it from memory because I’ve gone over the operational plans since Transantiago launched in 2007.”

The system has had a troubled life. Inspired by Transmilenio, Bogotá’s lauded mass transit network, Transantiago was created to replace the largely privately operated system of yellow microbuses that had operated in the city since 1992. Transantiago brought with it new infrastructure, new buses, the use of a new transit card (dubbed “bip!”) that would eliminate the use of cash, and a new web of feeder lines and main arteries divided into 10 zones. But when the system debuted on February 10, 2007, problems with planning and implementation became evident. Traffic was gridlocked; buses arrived infrequently or, on the periphery of the city, not at all.

At this time, the future STPMet crew was just a few friends that shared an affinity for photography and public transportation. But when Transantiago rolled out, they became convinced that the officials in charge had no idea what they were doing. So they studied the route map themselves, published information about each zone on the social network Fotolog (popular in Chile at that time), and took to the streets.

The members of STPMet regularly ride buses and talk with other commuters about their experience with the system. In the photo, from left to right, César Barraza, Vicente Durán and Bastián Estay. (María Ignacia Pentz)

“It was public help. We wanted to guide people who were lost. That was the work that information officers were supposed to do, but didn’t,” says Gonzalez, who at that time was a 21-year-old business student. “We always did it for free. We were young and we did it as a charitable work.”

A year later, Gonzalez created a Facebook group, eventually joined by three friends, some bus drivers, workers at transportation companies in Santiago, and several students, engineers, journalists, and photographers. That eventually spawned a public Facebook page and a Twitter account dedicated to relaying information about the system to frustrated riders. “People have been very grateful for it,” says César Barraza, STPMet’s second-in-command. “Sometimes they’ve said to us, ‘You work better than the official accounts of Transantiago.’”

STPMet doesn’t have a formal role with the government, but they have contributed advice and ideas; in 2012, they presented a packet of proposed system changes to the Ministry of Transport and Telecommunications. Then, at the end of 2015, the then-Secretary of Strategy and Planning Carlos Melo contacted them to participate in “Your Stop,” an initiative to redesign Transantiago.

Some of the volunteers in front of a bus stop in Santiago. (María Ignacia Pentz)

Thanks in part to these restructuring efforts, Transantiago is working better these days. The STPMet members praise the system’s new transit cards and its integration with the Metro and suburban trains; they also like the 24-hour bus lines and the express and super-express services, which travel on the expressways. But transit users on the city’s periphery are still underserved, they say, and they’re not fans of the so-called “caterpillar buses”—articulated buses that measure almost 60 feet long—that are often used on small streets not meant to accommodate them. They complain that Santiago lacks adequate road infrastructure and has not set up enough recharging stations for the bip! cards. Then there’s the problem of fare evasion: Around 35 percent of rides are taken without paying a fare.

“We look at the positive side,” says Gonzalez. “We’re super practical. It’s not that Transantiago is bad and it’s not that it’s good; it’s improvable.”

Members of the group feel that their conversations with authorities are slowly starting to make a difference. (María Ignacia Pentz)

It’s past noon on a Monday in January, and despite the heat wave that’s suffocated the Chilean capital for weeks, Barraza, Gonzalez, Estay and Durán have been riding buses since dawn on Saturday, analyzing the operation of a few new service lines of Transantiago.

On these trips, they observe: how many people are lost, how many know about the route change before they got onboard, how many don’t pay their fare, how many continue in transit after reaching the end. It’s this kind of first-hand knowledge that differentiates STPMet from city’s official public transport experts. “They’re office academics. To know about transport you can’t be stuck in an office—you have to be on the ground, learning how it functions,” says Durán.

“The big problem with Transantiago is that it was designed within the four walls of an office,” says Barraza, “We’ve made it clear to the officials: What’s missing is people out in the field.”

The system also continues to suffer from a stubborn image problem. This may be a problem that even the true believers of STPMet can’t fix. “People associate Transantiago with the February 10th crisis,” says Gonzalez, referring to the system’s chaotic debut. “And for all that anyone says about how it’s not the same, no one is convinced. The government is putting its part in to improve the routes, the buses, the information platforms. It’s listening to people. There’s effort on their part to do the work, but if riders just hate the system, it won’t work.”

“I think Transantiago as a system is solvable. But as a name…” begins Barraza.

“It’s dead,” says Barra.

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