SANTIAGO – Transantiago, the controversial transport system of the Chilean capital, completes on Friday 10 years of passengers complaining about its high prices and how long it takes to catch a bus that is predictably in deplorable condition and driven by rude drivers.
It was in February 2007 when the Michelle Bachelet government launched the project that her predecessor, Ricardo Lagos, had designed in early 2000s to substitute the “yellow micros,” Santiago’s chaotic old system of urban buses, in order to solve the problem of traffic jams.
Deficiencies of design and errors of implementation turned the project into a disaster from the very start. Traffic got worse and the interests of the private companies managing it made it a financial failure.
Its launch also caused collateral damage to the capital’s transportation network, because many passengers, fed up with the poor bus service, switched to the subway, which previously did its rounds almost empty, and now operates completely packed during every rush hours.
To keep Transantiago in operation, the government invested $9.58 billion over the past five years, a figure that the director of Metropolitan Public Transport, Guillermo Muñoz, believes is more than justified.
“If you look at other countries, all their big capitals provide massive financing for public transport. Those subsidies even provide the money needed for improving other infrastructures, like the metro,” he said.
The users of Transantiago, which moves 3 million passengers a day, complain that the buses are in very bad condition and their drivers often don’t bother to stop at the bus stops.
Another problem is the rising price of bus tickets, which are very expensive for the quality of service provided – which is why not a few ride but refuse to pay.
“I ride all the time, but I refuse to pay because the price keeps going up. At first it was 400 pesos ($0.60) but now it’s almost 700 pesos,” said Vanesa Hernandez, who takes the bus every day.
Many users also slam the bus drivers’ behavior and how they treat their passengers: “I could give them a course in how to treat passengers better,” said Johnathan Vargas, a street artist who sings on buses.
How fast the drivers go is another cause for complaint.
“They go so fast that sometimes people get tripped up. I once fell down carrying my baby boy. It’s dangerous,” said Giovanna Barraza, another user.
For their part, bus drivers say they feel defenseless against the violent reactions of users who don’t pay for tickets.
“I let them through. What am I going to say? If I say anything, they’ll hit me or spit on me. They might even point a knife at me. The cops don’t care. What we need is a crackdown,” said Luis Eduardo Peña, a bus driver who is also a union leader.
Omar Monsalve, another driver, asks that the Transantiago companies protect their bus drivers and lower the fares. “If the service is efficient, everyone will pay,” he said.