Buenos Aires has been quite the mess this past week. Traffic jams for blocks and passengers packed into buses like sardines have provided vivid imagery for what happens when the subways are not running. Currently on the tenth day of the strike, AGTSyP (Trade Union of Subte and Premetro Workers) has demanded a meeting with Metrovias and Macri to improve working conditions, including a cost of living increase to keep up with runaway inflation. Exactly who is in charge of the subway and the wages of the workers has been muddled by privatization and the fumbling of the transfer from the national government to the city.
The problem here is not a lack of available capital; with an economy that grew at more than 9% every year except for two since 2001, the Federal government has consistently been running a budgetary surplus. Rather, the issue lies in the prioritization of individualized automobility over collective or non-motorized transport. The shifting of resources form public transport has left a system that is unable to pay its workers or continue offering its services, let alone making improvements to the infrastructure.
In January, Mauricio Macri, the Mayor of Buenos Aires, signed an agreement with President Christina Kirchner to accept control of the subway. After a well-publicized and tragic crash at the Once Train Station, he has since reneged on his agreement, leaving the subway without a government willing to fund or manage it. Such political strife and continuous reduction in funding public transport has led to the raising of fees and the reduction of services, including drastic measures taken this summer.
These changes can really be felt in the daily lives of the city’s residents. Six months ago, when the price for a subway ticket jumped by a whopping 127%, the economic hit on the population was clearly seen in the sharp reduction of ridership—by nearly a quarter. Indeed, as Elsa, a twenty-eight year old resident of Buenos Aires can attest. Although her 20 hours commute could be cut in half by using the metro instead of the bus, she is not able to spare the extra 5 pesos every day.
When the news coverage focuses on long lines and political infighting, we often forget to ask where is all the money going. The government, both national and city, have implemented active and multi-faceted support for the automobile. Between 2006 and 2010, the funding for road construction increased by more than 2.5 times. During this same time, we have seen repeated reductions in funding for public transportation, including a fifty percent reduction from the federal government for the subway in January. Additionally, oil companies, automobile manufacturers and suburban sprawl are all subsidized by various governments. The national government has gone on a spree lately in search of oil, reasserting claims in Las Malvinas, inviting Venezuela into the MercoSur trade bloc and nationalizing Argentina’s largest oil company, YPF.
Argentina is experiencing a crisis in transportation, as roads become clogged and buses more crowded. The technical know-how to fix these problems is available, as ITDP has been working closely with the city of Buenos Aires. The money is also available, though misdirected. The only problem is the cultural paradigm that sees driving as a right, to be protected by the government, and public transportation as an excess of the masses, to be criticized and slowed at every turn. These disruptions to public transport have the potential to further sully its image. It is high time to end the subsidizing of automobility in favor of a sustainable and healthy trajectory.