The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world


The unbuilding of informal Buenos Aires, part 2: the terminal

Declining standards of rail commuter services in Buenos Aires has caused much of the metropolitan population to rely on combi vans, both high-end and low-end commuters alike. But while governments are providing new infrastructure for wealthy and middle-class commuters to enjoy their combi commutes in comfort, they are squeezing low-income commuters out at the same time. Drew Reed reports.

Drew Reed

Cities: Buenos Aires

Topics: Roads and traffic, Transport, Poverty and inequality

The clean and colourful new Terminal Obelisco for "high-end" combis in Buenos Aires. Photo: Tony Valdez (CC BY-ND 2.0)
The clean and colourful new Terminal Obelisco for "high-end" combis in Buenos Aires. Photo: Tony Valdez (CC BY-ND 2.0)
Combis line up at traffic lights on Buenos Aires' Avenida 9 de Julio. Photo: Drew Reed
A BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) station near the new terminal. Photo: Drew Reed
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There was a time when it was one of the most majestic buildings in Buenos Aires. It stood as a monument to the progress Argentina had made, and as a gateway between the country’s bustling capital and rich agrarian interior. Built in 1915 with British railway capital, the Retiro train station was one of the first of its kind in South America. Ornate arches, glimmering signs, and lavish ticketing areas attended to the needs of both daily commuters and long-distance travellers. Soon after, several other grandiose train stations were built to serve the city: Constitución, Once, Lacroze.

Today, decades of military governments and economic uncertainty have taken their toll on Retiro. Original signs, now tarnished, still hang from the walls. Working-class families wait in droves in front of bare-bones ticketing centres for a chance to snag cheap tickets to the northern cities of Córdoba and Tucumán. Daily commuters still rush to take the poorly maintained trains out to the suburbs, passing through broken turnstiles, perhaps grateful that at least the Retiro trains aren’t in as bad shape as the trains that leave from Once, where a deadly crash in 2012 killed 53 people.

As these terminals continue to languish, a new terminal has just opened in Buenos Aires, one that perhaps better represents the current realities of transportation in the city and its surrounding region. Instead of towering arches and antique signage, this terminal is buried underground, where LCD screens announce arrivals and departures. Instead of the larger-than-life, seven-car trains that shuttle commuters to distant suburbs, this terminal packs people into plain, unassuming, refrigerator-like white vans. The effects of this new terminal will be felt throughout the metropolitan area, perhaps most strongly by those who use it least. But to understand why this is, it’s necessary to first understand the complex divisions that run through the metropolitan area itself.

The urban stain

The outline of greater Buenos Aires is hardly elegant. Locals refer to it as la mancha urbana, the urban stain. Looking at the area on a map, it’s easy to see why. Its shape looks something like an oil slick spreading along the edge of the River Plate, with a few spindly branches of urbanised tracks jutting into the rural interior. Planners in Buenos Aires sometimes jokingly refer to these zones as “tentacles”.

This unwieldy shape is the direct result of the various railroad networks that radiate out from the city centre. The early Buenos Aires of the 18th and 19th centuries grew out evenly from the tight nucleus of the Plaza de Mayo and the port, slowly absorbing farmlands in the immediate vicinity as city life became more attractive. All this changed in 1857, with the creation of the Ferrocarril Oeste (today known as the Sarmiento Line), the first railroad in Argentina. The line began with a connection to Flores, once considered a distant western suburb but whose subsequent growth was so great that it was later annexed into the city of Buenos Aires.

Other railroads followed: the Mitre and Belgrano lines connecting to the North (later arriving at the Retiro station), the Urquiza and San Martin lines, connecting to the west along with the already built Sarmiento line, and the Roca line connecting to the south. The lines left their mark on the urban area; as the central city continued to grow out evenly, a large number of satellite cities formed around the new stations, forming the basis of the later tentacles. Some people moved to these towns to live a country life while still working in the city, the classic suburban dream. Others moved there because it was cheaper and they couldn’t afford to live in the central city.

The advent of the car caused another round of changes to the metro area. Initial road construction tended to follow development patterns already established by the railroads. Then, during the 1970s, the country’s military government decided to invest heavily in freeways. Though the dictators would be unable to finish many of their freeway projects within the city of Buenos Aires, a number of new freeways were constructed in the surrounding suburbs, creating new development patterns and a whole new series of urbanised branches into the countryside, completely dependent on the roadway network.

At this time, the divide between rich and poor in the suburbs exploded. This division was fuelled by the nascent suburban car culture, and the creation of new gated suburban housing developments, which Argentines referred to using the English term “country”. Countries began in the 70s and 80s as small, gated areas for residences, small parks and athletic centres; today they have grown to the size of self-contained virtual cities such as the massive Nordelta country. These developments generally receive private water, trash, and other services, in many cases denied to poorer developments right outside the country gates, and benefit from high levels of autonomy, often exempt from various municipal regulations.

As the freeway system grew, the railroad network began to deteriorate. The military government in control of the then-nationalised railway system cut service on suburban routes, while some rural stations were removed entirely. At the same time, many people living in the suburbs began to increasingly rely on the roadway network. This came at first in the form of private cars and conventional buses, but the irregular shape of the area and economic status of certain users meant that these forms didn’t always work. As a result, a new form of transit emerged: privately run services of large vans known in Spanish as “combis” began to run direct service between far-flung suburbs and central Buenos Aires.

Reflecting the growing divide within the suburbs themselves, this service began to develop into two distinct camps. The first was a sort of luxury charter service, generally catering to those looking for a less stressful alternative to driving. The second was oriented toward low-income populations without cars, living in distant areas where bus service was impractical. Naturally, the first category featured expensive vehicles and high fares. The second was low-cost and low-quality; in many cases, it was run by unlicensed operators, as no formally registered combi company wanted to provide service to the poorest neighbourhoods of the region.

The combi craze

Though combis remained a transit niche in the 80s, a turning point came in 1991, when a six-day train strike halted all commuter service to the metro area. Desperate for a solution, many commuters turned to combi service, and decided to stick with it after the strike concluded. Meanwhile, train service continued to decline, fuelled by nation-wide rail privatisation in 1993 under president Carlos Menem.

As combi service exploded in popularity, federal regulators found that there was barely any legal framework to regulate this type of service. While deluxe service generally offered vehicles with high safety standards, many lower quality services were using small vans unfit for serving large numbers of passengers. In 1996, new federal standards were introduced, which improved conditions for services with the financial means to register, but drove low-budget services further underground. This trend continued with the 2001 financial crisis that rocked the country, coupled with new regulations passed that year.

In 2005, a study released on the combi transportation systems of the city gave a detailed report on the schedule, vehicle conditions, and cost of minibus service in metropolitan Buenos Aires, concluding that there is a clear divide between “high-level” and “low-level” combi service. Andrea Gutierrez, the author of the study and a researcher in the geography department of the University of Buenos Aires, says that today, the divide between the two levels of combi service continues to grow. The elite combi service has continued to expand its service within the countries and other wealthy suburbs, while avoiding poor areas, for the very simple reason that it’s impossible for them to make money there. “Imagine you’re a large combi company whose income comes mostly from rich areas,” she tells me. “What incentive do you have to provide service to areas that don’t make money?”

Meanwhile, low-cost services, the only companies willing to provide service to poor suburbs, struggle to get by. Though their low overhead makes them the only companies than can plausibly provide service to the low paying clientele of these areas, fees such as registration and maintenance which barely affect bigger companies are a huge part of their operating expenses. Even small fluctuations can potentially wipe them out, cutting service to poorer areas. To make matters worse, sinister “combi mafias” have emerged. Gutierrez found that a large portion of the low-income suburbs have been divided between five shady organisations that demand payment from small combi services for the privilege of running buses through their turf.

A new terminal is born

Though the regulatory issues facing the combi companies and their vehicles were mostly resolved with the regulations passed in 1996 and 2001, one major issue remained unregulated: the loading and unloading of passengers. In the suburbs, the low population density allowed combis to stop at street corners or bus stops with little difficulty. But in the city centre, the situation is completely different. Until recently, the vast majority of combi services converge on the central business district, centring on the city’s main landmark, the Obelisk. The rapid growth of combi service brought with it an ever-increasing number of combi vehicles in the area, flooding the street parking spots of the area and spilling over into the conventional bus stops, angering regular bus users.

These unofficial combi stops have always been a thorn in the side for Buenos Aires’s mayor, Mauricio Macri. But in 2013, the opportunity presented itself for him to wipe out illegally parked combis in and around the Obelisk. At the end of the previous year, the city government had announced a massive bus rapid transit project on the city’s widest avenue, 9 de Julio, which connects the Retiro and Constitución train stations via the Obelisk. As part of the project, transportation planners sought out additional projects to improve transportation in the area. Targeting the combi issue, they identified an unused underground parking structure, a half-block from the Obelisk, as a perfect site for an innovative new terminal for combi traffic.

Construction on the terminal proceeded rapidly, and it opened to the public on 26 July 2013, two days after the opening of the bus rapid transit project. The project is designed to handle 50,000 passengers per day, who have access to free wi-fi and can easily find their combi service via LCD screen display or by asking. Combi companies that use the terminal are required to pay 25,000 Argentine Pesos per loading platform per month. This money goes to the Comisión Nacional de Registración de Transporte, the national transportation registration commission that coordinated with the city government to construct the terminal, which provides them with automated entry passes.

Immediately after the opening of the terminal, the city began aggressively targeting combi companies still loading on the streets above the terminal with fines, effectively kicking most of them out of the city centre. Despite the fact that the terminal’s combi services all serve the southern and western suburbs, home to many traditionally low-income areas, the combi services effectively ignore these areas, serving only the middle-income and wealthy suburbs. Gutierrez points out that La Matanza, a southwestern suburb, is particularly underserved. In addition, the average price of between 15 and 35 pesos for combis that use the terminal is all but impossible for working class Argentines to pay on a daily basis.

Driven out of town

Though the divisions between high-end and low-end combi service had always been clear, the new terminal has driven them further apart. After a short visit to the new terminal, these differences are abundantly clear. On weekday afternoons, the terminal fills with well-dressed, well-coiffed professionals, frequently checking their smartphones as they walk briskly down the pedestrian entryway. It is well lit and thoughtfully decorated, using the official yellow and white colour scheme of the Buenos Aires city government’s publicity team. The wi-fi never fails to connect, and security guards ensure that users never feel at risk from rogue elements of society.

The scene is quite different at the Puente Saavedra, a zone that Gutierrez identifies as one of the last remaining focal points of informal or semi-formal combi service. The neighbourhood is just outside city limits, since low-end combi services consider it safer not to enter incorporated Buenos Aires. This means that commuters starting from the city centre have to travel 45 minutes by city bus just to get there. On weekday afternoons, the streets brim with people waiting for their next ride farther out into metropolitan Buenos Aires. Those lucky enough to live near an official bus line fill the main avenues that run through the zone as they wait for their bus to arrive. On side streets, dilapidated minibuses attract smaller crowds. These services have no schedules or information booths, and there certainly isn’t any public wi-fi connection. At any moment, a police sting operation or financial difficulties for the operators could unceremoniously snuff out these services, further complicating commutes for those who rely on them.

How can the transportation situation be improved for these people? Gutierrez thinks that the region should return to the railroads. However, though the train system is far from extinct, daily commuters aren’t overly eager to rely on train travel, deterred by unreliable service, poorly maintained vehicles, and above all, the lack of safe operating procedures. The Sarmiento Line, in addition to producing the tragic crash of 2012, also crashed twice during 2013.

Improving the train lines will certainly improve these perceptions. But even with better service, the never-ending expansion of suburban Buenos Aires means that trains will never be able to reach everything, and Buenos Aires will probably never see the return to prominence of stations like Retiro or Constitución. But there’s a good chance it will soon boast a new terminal for combis. In July 2013, Juan Jose Mendez, chief of staff for Buenos Aires’s transportation secretary, announced that the city was considering building a new combi terminal. Presumably, this one would also have little to offer for lower-income users.

Whither the free market?

As with Macri’s earlier artisan market project that I described earlier this year, his decision to build this new terminal represents a curious departure from the free market ideology he tends to espouse. Combi buses are an innovative strategy to provide transportation to a clientele that desperately needs it, yet Macri’s government, this time with the help of the federal government, seems at best indifferent to helping that service reach lower-income residents of the metropolitan area. This could be attributed to the powerful lobby of the large long-distance bus companies, many of which are the parent companies of the high-end combi operators, who have a vested interest in eliminating unregulated combi service. More cynical observers might conclude that Macri’s government is simply uninterested in working with companies that serve lower-income populations.

This project differs from the artisan market in that the people it hurts the most aren’t the people who provide the service, but those who rely on it. For the foreseeable future, these commuters appear to be relegated to commutes lasting several hours. But once they finally return home, they have the peace of mind of knowing that their homes, however humble they may be, aren’t threatened by imminent government eviction. Not so for those affected by Macri’s third and final informality-oriented urban design project; a project that was ironically also created by freeway construction, and one with the most profound implications for the entire region.


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