Privatization and the Crisis of Bus Drivers in Santiago

Early in the morning of June 2nd, 2014, Marco Antonio Cuadra walked into a bus depot as he had done for his preceding 25 years as a bus driver in Chile’s sprawling capital city. This morning, however, instead of setting out to cover his routes across Santiago, he doused himself in gasoline and set himself on fire, shouting, “This is for the workers! Let it mark a precedent!”  By the time his coworkers grabbed fire extinguishers from their buses and doused the flames, 90% of his body had been severely burned. Waiting for an ambulance to arrive, one of the drivers asked Cuadra why he taken such drastic action. The pained response (as seen in an extremely graphic video uploaded to Youtube): “For our coworkers – because of how [corporate managers] abuse us, how they don’t pay our wages, and how they fire union leaders, but nobody complains. ¿Hasta cuándo?”

Two weeks earlier, Veolia, through its Transdev branch and Chilean subsidiary Redbus, had initiated the firing of Cuadra, a leader of Redbus Union 2. The company claimed he and the treasurer of the Union failed to fulfill “the obligations expressly indicated in their work contract.” Other employees dispute this claim and note that Veolia/Redbus, a private operator for the public Transantiago/Metropolitan Public Transport Directorate, initiated the firing three days before employees were set to present a new collective bargaining plan.

The ambulance took Cuadra to Santiago’s main hospital where he underwent a series of amputations and surgeries as his organs progressively failed over the coming weeks. His wife shared her thoughts in an interview:

A memorial for Marco Cuadra in Central Santiago (picture from Laurel Paget-Seekins)

A memorial for Marco Cuadra in Central Santiago (picture from Laurel Paget-Seekins)

He was distraught because of all the injustice. He was enraged when he saw how [Veolia/Redbus] made the older drivers, and the workers in general, work very late, how the company didn’t respect them, and how they had to use diapers because of the lack of bathrooms and the length of the routes… I pray to God that he’ll come through this so he can tell me what really happened. What I think now, based on what I saw and what his coworkers have told me, is that it was a result of utter frustration, the most extreme frustration that a human being can take.

On June 27, twenty-five days after his act of desperation, Cuadra died from his injuries.
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Buses of Santiago

After last week’s rant, now back to your regularly scheduled program.

An urban design and transportation engineering team from Santiago came up for a visit to MIT last week. Next fall, a joint MIT-PUC workshop will be focused on BRT corridor planning in the Boston area and for Transantiago. In anticipation, here are some photos from my visit to Santiago last summer:

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Buses of Ottawa

OC Transpo, the transit provider for Canada’s capital city, has a fleet of just over 1,000 buses.  The agency’s service area was home to just over 800,000 people in 2010, while average weekday boardings reached 384,000.  While the OC Transpo does provide limited diesel multiple unit (DMU) rail service, the majority of its riders use the Transitway bus network.  Inaugurated in 1983, this system of exclusive bus infrastructure speeds transit passengers from outlying suburban areas to downtown, with buses operating at their 56 mph speed limit along most of the route.   The Transitway has undergone continuous expansion, and now it handles 10,500 passengers per direction per hour in the morning peak.  But with buses passing in each direction every 20 seconds downtown, the downtown bus lanes are approaching saturation and will soon be replaced by an underground light rail link.

Pictures from a recent visit are below.  OC Transpo’s Flickr photostream also has an excellent collection of historical photos.

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Seashore Trolley Museum

Pictures from the October operating day at Seashore Trolley Museum:

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Buses of Maipú

Many of the bus routes in the southwest parts of Greater Santiago have been realigned with the recently opened extension of Metro Line 5.

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Music on Transantiago

In general, there were less musicians and vendors on Santiago’s buses and Metro than I encountered in other cities’ transportation systems. One exception is the scheming gringo shown in the video below – he may look familiar to my friends from high school.

Buses of Buenos Aires

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MyCiti – BRT Launched in Cape Town

The complete Phase 1A of Cape Town’s MyCiTi bus rapid transit system commenced operation in mid-May. It was originally planned to open in April 2010, but only the airport and stadium links were operational in time for last year’s World Cup. The BRT corridor and stations between Cape Town Civic Center and Table View were completed by this past January, but contentious negotiations with minibus taxi and bus operators led to a series of delays.

The political clashes and strikes leading up to MyCiTi’s implementation have their roots in historical difficulties regulating the informal minibus taxi industry:

In deregulating the minibus taxi sector in the late 1980s, and subsequently aiming to return to regulation through formally structured interventions such as the Taxi Recapitalisation Programme and the creation of a government-sanctioned representative structure (ie SANTACO), government has not created conditions conducive to the formalisation of minibus operating or business practices. Past interventions have, rather, contributed to the entrenchment of informal operating practices, the creation of ‘warlord’ figures fervently opposed to a loss of control of the sector; representative structures and operator associations well organised to violently disrupt the transport system and threaten public safety; and fluid loyalties within the industry. [Herrie Schalekamp, ACET Research Officer, in Mobility Magazine]

In one of the meetings I had with Herrie, he described the city as attempting to use BRT as an “infrastructural solution to a social issue.” Attempting to address transportation regulatory and governance issues by building dedicated rights of way and BRT stations would clearly lead to the “imbalance in work streams” characteristic of the project, with physical infrastructure delivered far earlier than operational and organizational structures. Further complicating the efforts to formalize and regulate the taxi industry (which receives no operating subsidies but generally pays no taxes) were unrealistic promises made by politicians and the lack of reliable data on existing operations.

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These two factors combined to confound the process of compensating existing minibus operators. At a national level, politicians promised that existing operators would not suffer any “legitimate loss of revenue” due to the implementation of BRT. Yet in most South African cities, revenue from legitimate minibus taxi operations is difficult to calculate accurately, especially considering the industry’s marginalized origins in the apartheid era. In Cape Town, transportation officials do not know accurately how many minibuses operate, or on what routes they operate, since so many minibuses are unlicensed. Given the promise to compensate existing operators for business taken by the BRT system, Cape Town officials must either offer jobs or monetary compensation to a growing list of (licensed and unlicensed) minibus owners whose routes will be affected. Officials agreed to compensate owners with unlimited permits for seven years of lost income, owners with limited permits for three years of lost income, and owners without licenses for one year of lost income. In agreeing to compensate unlicensed taxi drivers, they undermined earlier government attempts to negotiate only with legitimate taxi owners associations. The industry’s ongoing fragmentation has been a significant cause of delays to BRT implementation. As Herrie summed the situation up, “it’s a mess trying to regulate without the data.”

Cape Town’s private commuter bus operator, Golden Arrow, receives a R630 million subsidy annually, and has been another agent delaying MyCiTi’s inauguration. Golden Arrow was registering their concerns with BRT plans as early as 2008; in a 2010 speech at the South African Bus Owners Association Annual Conference, Golden Arrow’s General Manager FE Mayer objected:

The first and probably most important issue we have with BRT is that the concept was sold to Government on a false but convenient promise. The promise was that BRT will not need any operating subsidies. We say this is not possible and it will require more subsidy than current services require. In the recent past, Government has mainly held a negative view on the current bus subsidy system, and in most discussions it becomes evident they believe they are not getting good value for money. When they therefore heard that such a good system as BRT does not require subsidy, it was obviously an answer to their prayers. In itself it was enough for Treasury to buy into the concept.

Golden Arrow was clearly reluctant to give up their monopoly on subsidized road transport in the Western Cape. After two years of negotiations, they were able to pressure the City of Cape Town into letting them remain an independent operating company within the MyCiTi setup, instead of integrating with minibus operators to form a joint operating company as was originally planned. The Cape Times reported on the taxi industry’s displeasure at the city’s February capitulation to Golden Arrow:

This plan has annoyed TransPeninsula Investments [run by minibus leaders], which provided post-World Cup IRT services for the city. The company has already earned R1.5 million and R42.3m in two separate deviations from the city for the service. A senior executive of TransPeninsula said taxi operators concur about a third operator. “This will become evident soon. They want to give Golden Arrow their own company even though they’ve been having a monopoly for the last 150 years,” said the executive, who asked not to be named.

Transpeninsula threatened litigation, leading to further delays. Their recalcitrance is explained partly by the benefits they received from delays. As the provisional World Cup operator, Transpeninsula only was supposed to have contract for airport shuttle and special event operations (such as shuttles for the Cape Argus Cycle Tour) until October. Delays to BRT implementation meant extensions of their contract.

As late as April, officials were not confident that negotiations would be complete by May. The persistent effort of local and national government leaders eventually achieved success, and contracts were signed one day before the beginning of a phased rollout. The system has received generally positive publicity. With so many regulation and negotiation hurdles cleared, the implementation of future phases will likely be much easier.