Buenos Aires, Argentina – Transportation I: Finding Liberation Through Urban Mobility

April, 2009 – An effective transportation system shouldn’t simply move people about the city – it should aspire to create a deeper sense of mobility and freedom within the lives of urban citizens.

Developing a reliable transportation system to move, manage and mobilize its citizens is an important task for any successful city and I think Buenos Aires has done a good job providing comprehensive and affordable transportation for its people. Buenos Aires has three million people within the city limits and twelve million in the metropolitan area, all of whom need to be efficiently mobilized to satisfy the daily rhythm of movement within the city.

The subway in Buenos Aires, also known as the Subte, functions well for the people in the center of town but its routes simply don’t have the distance or the detail to service the majority of the city. Taxis, official or unofficial, fill the streets with their black and yellow complexion and often seem to outnumber the amount of private cars on the street. The streets are teeming with a diverse array of busses that somehow find their way out from the city center and into the outer reaches of the Buenos Aires province. For me, the most surprising element of the seemingly thorough bus system is the sheer number of buses that actually drive on any one particular line.

To best explain this saturation of buses on a single route, I’ll discuss my experience with the 60 bus. I live 40 minutes away from my university yet the 60 bus stops right outside of the door to my residence and takes me all the way to school. I never wait for the bus more than 30 seconds; in fact, every cycle of the stop light yields at least one or two new route 60 buses. Incredibly, each bus is usually packed with people. It’s not just the 60 that runs so frequently, even during off hours, many of the popular routes still travel quite often.

Streets in Buenos Aires are bursting with buses. It’s a hectic scene with multiple buses weaving in and out of lanes to pick up commuters while dipping and dodging to avoid each other and surrounding vehicles. With vehicles and pedestrians rushing about in all directions, the mosaic of the street is quite vivid, especially since each bus line has its own color scheme and stylized décor. Interestingly, there is an orderly and respectable culture of waiting in a line for the bus so that there isn’t a chaotic rush onto the bus at each stop.

Although waiting for a bus can be a pain, particularly in unwelcoming weather, riding the bus can be a pleasant experience if you have the right mindset. The bus is a portal from your current location to your destination and there is nothing you have to do but sit. When I drive to work or to other obligations, I often feel rushed because as the driver of the car I’m in control of how I travel. Arriving late or on time is a destiny in my hands. On a bus, there is nothing one can do to speed up or alter the process – one is merely a passenger in the transportation process.

I’ve learned to embrace my role as a bus passenger knowing that I will only arrive at my destination when my bus does, no sooner or later. Because of this realization, I have come to enjoy my bus time. I usually do so by looking out the window, listening to music and letting my imagination take a ride of its own. As my eyes pass over the various scenes happening outside, I’m constantly piecing together a map of the city and remembering key locations so that I have a better understand of the city I live in.

During my first year at the University of Pittsburgh, I often rode the bus with one eye looking out of the window and one eye on a map so that I could learn to navigate the new city that I was living in. In this way, I quickly developed an understanding of the city and how to orient myself within it.

This navigation technique has helped me map out and get to know the cities I’ve been living in. Last fall, I registered voters in Pittsburgh for the 2008 presidential election. I was armed with a clip board, registration forms and my University of Pittsburgh bus pass. I spent 15 hours a week hoping on buses, traveling to hot spots in the city where I would try to register as many voters as possible. Through my exploration, I was able to create a mental map of the city and truly get to know the city I’m studying in.

In Buenos Aires, the 40 minute bus ride to school allows me to create this same sort of mental city map of Buenos Aires. It helps that transportation is cheap and easy in this city. I live one block away from the transportation hub outside of the National Congress building and I live within a ten minute walk of three subway lines. I feel like a highly mobile commuter in this city, as if any part of the city is accessible to me.

This liberating ‘mobile citizen’ feeling is what a city transportation system should aspire to create for its people. Besides acting as a reliable source of transportation between one’s home and work, public transit has the potential to connect people to their city in a deeper and more meaningful way. To expand their world past their neighborhood and area of work, and make all parts of the city feel like home.

The Buenos Aires bus system requires that passengers pay using monetary coins. This creates coin shortages in local economic exchanges like at the supermarket or at the corner store. Everyone is sort of playing a game when they stand in line at the cash register where they bluff as if they don’t have coins even though they usually do – nobody wants to give up their precious bus fare. This culture of “moneda hoarding” as we used to call it, or coin hoarding, is a burden on the transportation system and slows down the whole process.

For me, this whole moneda ordeal has highlighted the importance of having an updated and modern transportation pay structure. Regardless of whether a city uses a token, card or smart phone system, the particular type of system doesn’t matter as much as the system’s fluidity, practicality and reliability. The Buenos Aires system of pay isn’t fluid, practical and it’s not always reliable. The actual transportation system in Buenos Aires makes me feel free and liberated yet the pay system is a big hassle.

The people of Buenos Aires, also known as porteños, are armed with a secret navigational weapon – the Guia’t. The Guia’t is a public transportation handbook sold in subways and news stands with detailed maps and listings of all public transportation services available in the city. The Guia’t can be found in just about every porteño’s handbag or backpack.

Although Buenos Aires is a big city, I’m able to move easily and cheaply around the city. My mobility in Buenos Aires is part of the reason I feel so connected and so at home here. The quality of the transportation system in a city might not be something one considers while choosing a city for study abroad, but it’s certainly something that will dictate one’s experience overseas. I’m thrilled to live in Buenos Aires and I owe part of that to the subways and buses – thanks.

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