‘Subway-free’ Buenos Aires

The cosmopolitan capital of Argentina is one of the largest cities in the world. Every day its transport system needs to cope with over 13 million people living and moving around its metropolitan area.

Even having one of the largest metros in Latin America, for years, it has failed to provide enough capacity to move all the citizens who depend on it.The subway opened in 1913, in what was the first underground system in our continent.

Today it is a vital artery for a chaotic Buenos Aires, which has traditionally glorified the private car. Besides congested second level freeways, the city also boasts a couple of unusual urban roads: the widest (‘9 de Julio’) and the longest (Rivadavia) in the world.

It is not sufficient to navigate through the traffic jams, which are so characteristic of most great cities of the world, to really understand the mobility challenge there. For the authentic ‘porteño’ commuter experience, you need to take the subway during rush hour.

As the lines of the subway system are connected with several other commuter rail lines and bus stations, carriages soon fill up during the first few stops. One must pray for a miracle to find a space starting from the third or fourth train station. The crowding is acute and the lack of lack of personal space oppressive.

However, the system works well enough. The locals, though blinded by their uncomfortable journeys, still reach their destinations. Now, imagine this great city without the metro – would it continue to function?

Since political fights have no limits in creating disruptions, the great fear of many came about during the first two weeks of August: the subway went on strike and closed down completely for 10 days! The urban mobility system collapsed (obviously).

Fortunately, since the last subway strike, a new mode of transport has been strengthened in Buenos Aires. In recent years they have built around 80 kilometres of protected bike paths (i.e. permanent structures with high kerbs to protect cyclists from traffic). These are part of an initial plan to build 100 interconnected kilometres, mainly aiming at universities and public buildings.

With the strike, many ordinary citizens decided it was the perfect excuse to dust off their bikes, or to rent one of the thousand public bicycles, with which the city complements its network of bike paths. Some local newspapers reported a doubling in demand for these public bikes during the strike; a pleasant surprise.

When the strike finally ended, having plunged the Buenos Aires streets into unprecedented chaos, no politician was left unscathed. According to a survey carried out by Opinión Autenticada, 40.3% of locals held the national government responsible for the subway strike, while 28.2% blamed the city government.

The political fight during the conflict, sustained between President Kirchner and Buenos Aires Mayor Macri (former president of Boca Juniors football club), left no one unscathed. By contrast, it only reminds us of the importance of shielding urban transport systems from the strategic interests of politicians. After all, it is only us – ordinary citizens – who lose out in these kinds of crisis.

by Carlos Cadena Gaitán, PhD fellow at Maastricht Graduate School of Governance and UNU-MERIT. First published in El Mundo, 27 August 2012. Images: Flickr / Michele Molinari / Eric Illuminaut. Translated from the Spanish by Howard Hudson.

One thought on “‘Subway-free’ Buenos Aires

  1. There does need to be sufficient protect of the cyclists by high kerbs, otherwise the perception remains that cycling is dangerous.

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