Can Worker Reform Improve Public Transportation?

In her 2007 study, Bielich investigated the inner workings of three transport companies and interviewed their management, drivers and assistants. (The results were presented to the public this week; a link to the paper is included below.) What she discovered is a competitive system with little government regulation, where drivers and their assistants make a living only by competing for passengers — by fighting in la guerra del centavo, the battle for a cent.

Critics have described the Lima public transportation system as informal, but Bielich argues that it’s largely formal. Companies buy concessions to work certain routes from city government. Things get muddled within the company, where the formality of the labor varies by company. In most cases, the vehicles are owned by individuals who pay the company to use the route. The vehicle owners find drivers and assistants (whose responsibilities include collecting passenger fares) to operate the buses and vans, in most cases charging the drivers to rent the bus.

http://filer.livinginperu.com/Can Worker Reform Improve Public Transportation?
Claudia Bielich, sociologist and author of the study.

The driver and the assistant work an average of 16-18 hours a day, Bielich reports, and have no fixed salary and no benefits. They have no formal employer, and rent the vehicle on a day-today basis. "Not having a fixed salary forces them to find passengers, which is why they opt for tactics that can cause congestion and disorder," writes Bielich.

Two common driver tactics — to which any visitor who has used a combi, or van, can attest — are trolling for passengers and racing against the competition. Drivers stall at spots with dense foot traffic, waiting for more passengers (Bielich calls this chantarse); they also drive aggressively and race against other bus drivers to position themselves well for the next stop (this tactic is called corretear).

Many companies require a specific time distance between their vehicles, on threat of penalties for drivers, which are kept track by employees along the route called dateros. The demand of a consistent frequency and the need to pick up passengers has a frenetic result: "[Drivers] start to troll and then when they’re short on time to make the clock, they fly," said one driver interviewed by the study. "They drop off passengers like crazy men."             

How can the public transportation system be fixed?

A reform of the incentives within transportation companies is the only way, Bielich concludes. To escape la guerra del centavo, she says, transportation companies should directly own the vehicle fleet and drivers and assistants should be made formal employees of the companies, with fixed salaries and benefits.

"It’s the city’s responsibility [to bring reform]," Bielich said over the phone, "but they’re more interested in infrastructure projects and bringing the bus fleets up to date."

El Metropolitano, a 40-kilometer bus-only corridor, is one current city project that hopes to alleviate traffic and speed up travel (the average speed of travel in Lima is an achingly slow 16.8 kilometers per hour, according to a study done by the city). Analysts, including Bielich, say it’s a positive and necessary step. But El Metropolitano will only satisfy an estimated 8-10 percent of trips. That project alone won’t solve the disorder on the streets.

Can Worker Reform Improve Public Transportation?

The current system, chaotic as it may be, does benefit consumers by its sheer supply of transportation. In 1991, the Fuijimori administration privatized public transportation and allowed the import of used vehicles. Those measures are credited with satisfying the demand from a metropolitan population that expanded rapidly throughout the ’90s. And now, as Bielich says, "you can find transportation at any hour in any corner."

With no overhauls of the public transportation system in the works, Lima residents can expect the status quo — and maybe a bit of correteo from a passenger-hungry driver, in their combi rides for the near future.

The study, sponsored by Instituto de Estudios Peruanos and Consorcio de Investigación Económica y Social, can be downloaded here.