Friday, May 05, 2006

Bizarro Protest Time

We had a bit of protest here in Bogota this week. It was bizarre, not particularly clever, and at times dangerous. First some background.

In 2000, Bogota instituted a mass transit system titled "TransMilenio". It's a series of extra-large buses that are owned and operated by the city. An underground train system was considered, but Bogota is located in a very wet valley and laying tunnels sufficient to prevent leakage were cost prohibitive. Fortunately, TransMilenio has been widely successful. In fact, it is so successful that the mayor decided to expand the system. Tuesday marked the opening of Phase 2.

Concurrently, Bogota is besieged by private buses. Since historically there has been no public transport, two phenomenon were created by the free market: an armada of yellow taxis and a fleet of private buses. This system served the city for a long period of time but ultimately is ineffective for two reasons: massive traffic and noxious pollution.

The introduction of public transportation, however beneficial at the "macro" level, is entirely unpopular with the private bus industry. In 2000, when the TransMilenio was launched, there were protests and strikes. I did not fully understand what that meant until this week. On Tuesday and Wednesday, there were no buses on the roads. It was bizarro. Schools were closed, people couldn't get to work, and I, blessedly, was able to motor around the city with 1/3 the traffic as normal. For me, the protest was simply awesome. For others, however, the protest meant lost wages and potentially lost jobs.

The "protesters" went beyond not just driving buses, however. Indeed, some used their buses to block the TransMilenio meaning no one could get to work. Others resorted to more violent means (re: engaged in nobbery) - including throwing rocks and bottles at buses that "broke the strike" or other vehicles that evoked their wrath. Now, all of this wasn't going on where I live. Instead, the violence was in the South - once again, the poorest of the poor took the brunt of the burden.

From my perspective, and virtually everyone I've talked to agrees on this, the protest was colossal stupidity for at least 5 reasons:

1. TransMilenio is here to stay.

The roads are built, the buses are purchased, the drivers are hired. No amount of protest is going to turn back the clock. In fact, there is empirical evidence to back up this claim. They didn't stop it in 2000; they weren't stopping now. The Mayor backed me up on this. He said, quoted roughly, "I'll be happy to talk to the protesters about their concerns, but as long as they know that TransMilenio is here to stay and will expand again in the future." Futile protests serve no one.

2. The protest was poorly timed.

The appropriate time to launch a protest is when legislation is being considered - not when it is implemented. The people had every opportunity to make their position about TransMilenio clear during the leglislative process - either through direct participation or protests - and chose not to. To strike on the day that Phase II is opening is right up there with Reggie Evans desperate search for Chris Kaman's twig and berries in game 4 of the Clips-Nuggets NBA playoff game.

3. The pollution benefit was clear.

The mayor had three main motivations for establishing TransMilenio: a) it's cheaper for Bogatanos, b) it should help alleviate some of the traffic, and c) it means less pollution. The private buses, in short, are a wart on the ass of Bogota. I've thought since I arrived that to remove the private buses would be a blessing for the city because they are obviously responsible for the bulk of the worst pollution. Finally, I have been proved correct. I don't have the exact figures (heard the translation), but there was a significant, measured drop in urban air pollution on Tuesday/Wednesday (in the neighborhood of 30%) simply because there were no buses. Thank you for demonstrating the absolute validity of the mayor's argument.

4. The protest hurt the clients the most.

Let's get this straight. You drive a bus, you fear you're going to be out of a job because of government policy, and your decision on how to effect public opinion is to prevent your client base (i.e. the general public) using the service to provide. Clever. What is now entirely apparent is that not only are the private buses more expensive, but they are also totally unreliable. If there was any effect on public opinion, it appears that the strike largely convinced the public that the mayor should speed up the next phase of TransMilenio, not slow it down.

5. The safety benefit was obvious.

This is not on the mayor's list, but probably should be. The private buses are extremely accident prone and just flat out dangerous. Driving in Bogota is already a hazardous experience (full length post on this forthcoming), with buses and taxis the gravest risks. I can't relate the number of times that I have had monstrous buses pull out in front of me suddenly, take a left turn from the right lane, swerve dangerously in and out of traffic, or just slowly ease into my lane as if I were not there. These buses are not just a nuisance, they are dangerous hazard.

Of course, the reason for this behavior is that bus drivers get paid by the number of passengers they collect. So buses constantly slide from the center of the street to the side of the street to pick up passengers. (There are no bus stops. There are only people flagging buses down as is they were taxis.)

Tuesday and Wednesday were notable days for many reasons, but the ease of commuting can not be understated. For the first (non-holiday) time, I did not have to drive with my hand on the horn, ready to blare at the slightest moments notice.

At any rate, now that life is back to normal, the buses are back, the pollution is back, and the dangers are back. It is very clear that systemically bankrupt protests did nothing to slow the expansion of public transportation in Bogota, just as it is clear that the sooner those people are out of a job, the sooner the city progresses.

(And no, I'm not a heartless bastard. The mayor, a leftist, has offered job training, placement, and education services to bus drivers put out of work because of TransMilenio. Surprisingly, the drivers ignore the courteous efforts of the government.)


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