Three Bus Systems of Lima

27 Feb 2011 // places

In a land without major train lines and airports everywhere, buses become the default method of transport. In Lima, in the absence of other types of transport I was interested in how buses fill out ecological niches in the transport economy. I saw buses used in ways I'd never seen before.

Luxury buses

Between major cities, you can catch luxury buses. It's been a few years since I've caught a long distance bus but I used to take a 12 hour bus ride from Sydney to Lismore several times a year for a decade. So I know what the baseline is.

The trip I took was from Lima up into the Andes, to a mountain city called Huaraz to see a 3000 year old archeological site. This trip was easily the most comfortable 10 hour bus ride I have ever taken. I was so comfortable that I didn't wake up till the bush gently rocked into the destination bus station.

The bus station was larger and more chaotic than any I've ever been, yet vastly better organized. Good signage directed people to the right places, and we were funneled from the counter to the baggage to the waiting area with a minimum of fuss.

The disconcerting thing was that, after checking my ID, they asked for my fingerprint. I'd never been fingerprinted on a bus before. On planes, yes, but bus, no. Then I proceeded onto the bus. When the bus was full, and everybody seated, a bus attendant walked down the aisle with a digital camera, and recorded the faces of every passenger. I found out later that this was for the unlikely event that the bus was hijacked. The bus company would then have film evidence (and fingerprints) of the hijacker. I'm glad I found out about this after I took the bus.

There was a movie provided, which although the sound was dubbed in spanish, the subtitles were in English. The Peruvians consider a violent American film such as Training Day, with shootings and beatings, suitable fare for a generic bus, potentially full of families. Good for me. I was entertained but a hypothetical kid may be traumatized. But then, this was South America.

The seats on the luxury (second-class) were a revelation. They were huge and plush. We got pillows and blankets. They could recline further than any airplane seat I'd ever been. There was a fold out platform under the seat that lets you rest your entire leg. My body was fully supported from head to foot at an angle of 30 degrees. Once the bus started, we had bus attendants walk up-and-down the aisle, serving tea and coffee, and serving snacks, and breakfast.

Luxury inter-city buses in Peru are definitely a better experience than flying, provided the highway between the cities were well-paved.

The Metro bus copy

I was very interested in the Metro bus system. It's a system adopted from the Brazilian city of Curitihba. The great town planner Jamie Lerner realized that the benefits of a train system can actually be transferred to buses, and run at a fraction of the cost.

The problem is that you need the political will to partition out the rapid transit bus lanes entirely for the buses. If you travel along the main arterial highway in Lima, you can see the mass transit bus lane, punctuated by neon-lit stations that connect to the street-level with raised walkways. There is no other traffic on these lanes, and they cut right through the city. The Metro buses zip quickly between stops.

There are few bus stops on the Metro bus system, and they are set out like tram stations. Since the bus system was new, there were station workers there explaining how it all works, especially in the Barranco station where a lot of tourists and late-night revelers go. The station had were well-illustrated maps, admittedly overkill since there was only one line. Tickets were issued by dispensing machines, and passengers had to go through a toll-gate. This dramatically speeds up the actual boarding of the bus.

You can easily see how using dedicated bus lanes can easily reproduce the rumbling capacity of a train system.

The Swarm of Combis

Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of the bus system in Lima is the fleets of combis that flood the main arterial streets of the city. At first glance, it seems to be a horrible system. Buses of all sizes, from tiny car bombs, to compact combis to large buses, stop haphazardly at every major intersection of the city. But if you can stand the cramped spaces (especially since the average Peruvian is tiny with short legs), there are advantages to be had.

What is gained is the market system elastically fills in transporting demand. I'm assuming that the buses are privately owned, where the government seems to control the costs and have some kind of toll gate. At every major intersection, there's always some guy or gal with a clipboard marking down statistics. It looks like running a combi is a low overhead business, and the number of buses rise organically in proportion to the traffic on each major road. Traffic of course is congested, but with this system, I was always been able to catch a bus along any major highway without hardly any waiting time.

The way it works is that each bus has a long route across the city where the main stops or streets are painted by hand on the side of the bus. There is always a bus conductor on every bus, which is probably one of the most strenuous jobs I've ever encountered. In the sweltering heat, the conduct's job it is to shout out every time the bus stops the proximate and ultimate location of the route. Given how small these combis are the conductor often just stands in the doorway, popping in and out at every stop, to let people on and off. The conductor has to approach each rider individually to get the fare after they sit down in the bus. The cost is like 1.50 soles but varies depending where you are going.

If nothing else, the combi bus system provides a low cost organic transport system that employs a staggering number of people.