Next stop Villa 31: the politics of placing a subway station in a Buenos Aires slum
A new subway line through an old informal neighbourhood in Buenos Aires is shaping up to be a political battle between social idealism and engineering pragmatism as Drew Reed discovers in Villa 31.
Buenos Aires is home to the oldest subway system in Latin America, and one of the oldest in the world. For the entire time the network has existed, it has connected between upper and middle class neighbourhoods, but avoided poorer areas and never connected to the villas, the informally developed areas or "slums" of Buenos Aires. Recently however a new plan in the city legislature hopes to introduce a subway station to Villa 31, one of the biggest villas in the city.
Villa 31 is located between the port of Buenos Aires on the edge of the Rio de la Plata to the north and the train tracks leading to Retiro, Buenos Aires' main train station, to the south. The villa emerged as a makeshift place of residents in the early 20th century, and later saw an influx of new residents moving in from the interior of the country. Today most dwellings are made from shoddy materials, and are not officially recognised by the city or federal governments. Pollution is high, as is crime. The lack of good transportation options is another of the many ills residents suffer; schoolchildren don't have the option of regular bus service as do kids living in other parts of the city, and the area is served by far fewer buses compared to other neighbourhoods of similar density.
Rerouting the politics
The city's subway system, despite being well established and heavily used, has been slow to expand. The H line, which currently ends in the neighbourhoods southwest of Retiro, is now being planned to extend into Retiro directly. Plans call for a route approaching from the south side of the station, but a controversy over whether a station planned for Plaza Francia would damage historic trees led to a series of alternative route proposals for extension.
Among these proposals was that of Rafael Gentili, a Buenos Aires municipal legislator from the party Projecto Sur, to reroute the line so that it enters Retiro via Villa 31 on the north side. The plan calls for a station at the entry to the villa, as well as another station at the nearby long distance bus terminal. Gentili comments that this would be part of a larger plan to update the infrastructure of the district.
"The proposed extension of the subway will be carried out in conjunction with further improvements in the future Padre Mujica neighbourhood, which will be constructed as soon as existing bills are implemented. We believe that providing this future neighbourhood with quality infrastructure … will elevate it on the same level as the rest of the city, while also reducing travel times for residents of the neighbourhood and increase their opportunities to take part in the development in the rest of the city and metropolitan region."
Regarding the specifics of the project, Gentili added: "It will allow connections between both the subway and commuter rail network before connecting to Retiro, and it will shorten travel times for high demand routes, such as trips to the University of Buenos Aires. … As opposed to the other proposal, this proposal will improve transfers and better serve neighbourhoods with high passenger demand."
Social responsibility or engineering?
In opposition to this proposal, two high profile rail engineering experts have voiced their dissent in interviews given to the Buenos Aires-based subway blog, enelSubte.com. Pablo Martorelli, president of the Argentine Railroad Institute, takes a dismissive tone regarding Gentili's proposal. "There's no doubt that the legislator didn't analyse this project correctly," Martorelli states. "I don't believe in the demagoguery in favour of extending a subway line to an informal neighbourhood, with a poorly conceived claim to social responsibility. I believe in studies and serious, responsibly executed projects, which the original subway route proposal clearly will have. … In addition, the original plan doesn't have to 'ask permission' from anyone, whereas [Gentili's plan] requires agreements from federal government agencies … his plan also doesn't consider underground interferences or soil composition."
Juan Pablo Martinez, director of postgraduate studies in railroad engineering at the University of Buenos Aires, contributes a similar perspective. In addition to pointing out technical limitations of the plan, he notes that: "My opinion is that the population of Villa 31 should be relocated to other parts of the city … but we must be coherent with existing land uses and facilitate the mobility of residents, for which it makes much more sense to create a wide avenue connecting to the neighbourhood." Martinez also proposes that the area would be better served by Metrobus, a bus rapid transit network being developed by the city.
In response to this criticism, Gentili states that "the subway will create less contamination and greater efficiency in comparison with the Metrobus." He also notes that the subway option, in addition to connecting to the villa, will provide a connection between the train and bus stations that a bus connection cannot do. However, though cost estimates have not been considered, a subway option will presumably be much more expensive.
The slow train of progress
Regardless of which option is chosen, it will be a long time before anything is built. Subway progress has been slow in Buenos Aires' recent history. The modest 5km of the H line currently in service was completed behind schedule. Additions to lines A and B elsewhere in the city have been delayed too; subway stations have been complete for over a year but have not entered service, which the city government blames on lack of available trains. Before it is built, the plan for a new subway will have to be approved by the legislature and then built according to specifications by SBASE, Buenos Aires' official subway construction agency.
If the subway is built through the villa, it will be one of the first examples of mass transit connecting to informal housing in Latin America. Other major cities in the region have large populations living in informal housing as well, yet leadership is reluctant to address the fact that transit is sorely lacking in these areas. The subway, if built, could serve as a test case to see how improved mobility helps people in these situations. However many obstacles remain, and only time will tell if the subway extension is ever built.