On mass transit and buskers

Perhaps my favorite part of the Lima experience so far are combis, the city’s quick public minibuses. In reality, combis aren’t public: each is privately owned and run for profit. But they function as the city’s primary mass transit, performing the service more effectively and as cheaply as any public transportation in the U.S. A typical combi has about 20 seats, including one next to the driver, in front of the door. The buses are old, as are most of the cars here, their exteriors are painted in bright colors, and their routes are written under the windows in the names of the districts and streets they travel: Callao Wilson Arequipa Benavides V. Salvador, for example. Rather than stopping at regular points, they pick and drop off passengers continually. And rather than allowing such frequent stops to slow the trip, passengers are expected to run to catch the combi, jumping on and off as the bus comes to a very brief stop and the fare collector shouts: “Suben, suben! Bajan, bajan!” Fares supposedly vary by distance and quality of the bus, but I’ve always dropped a single sol (about 35 cents) into the fare collector’s hand and he’s never returned change or asked for more. Though they are usually full, they rarely develop standing crowds, since the streets are teeming with them: it’s not unusual to see three or four combis in a row, or ten in a minute, along major streets.

Like much here, combis could never exist in American cities. For one thing, buses speeding down the street, competing for passengers, and making riders of all ages hop nimbly aboard would lead to bankrupting lawsuits before the end of their first rush hour on the streets. I also doubt the idea of private mass transit will catch on, even in a national wave of privatization. But why is that? I recognize the benefit to having public transportation easily regulated and with an accountable organization that answers to the people. But combis do what no buses in the U.S. seem to do: arrive quickly and move lots of people fast. The longest I’ve waited for a combi is the length of a stop light–there’s rarely a bus more than a block away–and, despite the frequent stops, combis hustle their way across town. Cabs, which range in cost by distance but have cost me between five and twelve soles ($2-$4), move no faster through the city’s heavy traffic.

In other ways, though, combis can offer tastes of home. This afternoon, a young guy got on the combi I was riding with a guitar and, a couple minutes later, began playing. Given the combi’s limited space, I was surprised that playing such a venue would be profitable for the musician, or that the driver would let the guitarist take up a valuable spot. But he played for nearly ten minutes, and he played beautifully. I don’t know the norms here, but I wanted to reward him for making my commute much more enjoyable, so I gave him a sol. And I was reminded of another powerful performance on public transportation, one which I was not lucky enough to see in person. I found this a couple months ago but it still strikes me. From beginning to end (do watch or skip to the end if you start the video), the event is a beautiful one.

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