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Santiago Buses (TranSantiago)

From: "andrew cooke" <andrew@...>

Date: Wed, 11 Apr 2007 09:21:41 -0400 (CLT)

I don't know if I've ever mentioned it here, but one of the things that
most impressed me when I arrived in Chile was the public transport system,
particularly the buses (the other is the tax system!).

Santiago was full of yellow buses, hurtling around, which would get you
almost anywhere - quickly and cheaply (if there were sacrifices they
tended to be in comfort and what you might call "quality of service" -
whether the driver slams on the brakes while you're walking to the door,
sending you flying down the aisle...).

The impression they gave was one of chaos and emergent order.  People
("los sapos" - frogs) would stand at busy junctions making note of when
buses passed, advising drivers when to speed up or slow down so that they
would find more passengers.  These people were not "official" in any
sense, but paid by the drivers themselves, handing out coins as they

There appeared to be many companies involved and it was not unusual to
find yourself on a bus owned by the driver - this would be clear by from
the extra decorations, pictures of saints, red leather, flashing lights,
etc etc.  Each company had its own style of tickets (I wonder if anyone
collected those) and the price, while nominally (and legally) fixed, could
be negotiated with the driver

This has all changed.

The government has introduced a new, integrated, system.  The theoretical
advantages are clear enough: a single, automatic payment system allowing
transfers (prepaid cards - there are interesting issues about how
distributed data are handled which I do not understand, but that is
another story) and a passenger flow designed to move customers onto the
metro (underground trains) for faster transport over long distances. 
Buses are now used mainly as feeders for the metro or to provide
complementary (not duplicate) routes.  The change was also a chance to
introduce new buses and remove the most ramshackle and dangerous ones.

From the bus companies' point of view this was also a chance, I think, to
squeeze out the independent operators (typically owner-run buses were
older) and to guarantee a fixed price from everyone (no deals with the
driver at the expense of the company) and reduce competition.

It has been a disaster and is becoming a political scandal.

There are huge queues during the rush hour at various places.  The metro
is so crowded that medical advice is being given to restrict certain
people (old, pregnant etc) from travelling at peak hours.  There have been
riots on the outskirts of the city as people vent their frustration.

To some extent it was obvious that the system was going to fail.  Anyone
who has lived in Europe knows that "good" public transport (not just
efficient, but regular, clean, polite, controlled) requires a level of
funding beyond chilean means, and that without that funding service will
suffer (incidentally, I am reading an excellent book on the history of
economics at the moment - I'll post a review when I finish - Machine
Dreams Become a Cyborg Science).

In addition, Chileans always said that the bus companies were "a mafia",
and the government here - which has been in power for way, way too long,
is complacent and increasingly corrupt.  So any agreement between the two
was going to reduce competition.

So, if failure was so predictable (and it really was - I had many
conversations with Chileans, urging them to leave the system alone) why
did it happen?

There's a very simple, clear reason.

The generation in power grew up with the old, yellow buses.  At a time
when there was a law giving them lower prices.  So every time school
opened or closed, buses were full of children (paying little).  Over time
it seems that this turned into institutionalized warfare.  Buses would not
stop for school children.  A friend of mine recounts how he was beaten by
a driver.

The generation in power hates the buses.

It's that simple.  It's Pavlovian - a deep, instinctive dislike.  And
completely understandable.  Unfortunately, it made "TranSantiago"


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