Transit, Tricked Out Buses and the Problem with Change (by Carmen)
I asked Nathan what he would miss about Buenos Aires. His reply was, “The buses.” Yes, BsAs has some pretty awesome transit. I love taking public transportation in new cities because it gives you a glimpse into the soul of the city – people from all walks of life can be found on the subte (subway) and colectivos (buses). Transit is the blood of the city essential for every living part and every bit of growth.
Riding around BsAs I learned a few things. One is that the subte is actually pretty old. The first line was built in 1913 – not that long after other major cities such as New York. In those days they decorated the stations with beautiful tile murals which gives the system a certain grace. You can imagine how luxurious the subway must have been when it opened – especially when riding the original train cars that are still in use on one of the lines! I loved the wooden seats and old fashioned lamps. At $0.75 USD a ride we found it to be a fast cheap way to get around.
But the subte doesn’t go everywhere. That’s where the colectivos come in. They are even cheaper ($0.30 USD), they are packed and they are everywhere. We estimate they make up at least 40% of street traffic with the rest being evenly split between cars and taxis. The city has so many buses a single map could not contain all the routes. Instead there is a 30 page book of maps and related service that people carry in their pocket. This transit bible is called the Guia T. It kind of works like a manual google transit:
Step 1: look up your intersection in the index in the back of the book
Step 2: find your origin on a map and note the lines serving the area
Step 3: find your destination on a separate map and see if any bus lines match the lines in step 1
Step 4: if there’s no match you widen your scope on the map until you find a route that works.
As fun as that was, I usually used this trip planning website to navigate the web of routes that cruise every other street in BsAs.
But I hope these complications don’t leave anyone discouraged to try the collectivos out. For one, you would miss out on the excellent interior design skills of the bus drivers. My favorite drivers tricked out their buses with white vinyl curtains that have blue or red fringe, black lights and stickers with such sayings as “born to race”. Often times mirrors etched with flowers, buses, crosses, playboy bunnys, and/or the driver’s name surrounded the drivers seat. Buses in San Francisco are extremely boring in comparison.
Now the problem with change. Argentina doesn’t have enough of it. This article was written a few years ago but is still relevant. For many years collectivos could only be paid with coins. This contributed to a coin shortage as people hoarded coins for their rides. (Why they didn’t start using paper passes I don’t know.) During our time in BsAs Nathan and I joined the hoarding masses. Even getting change at the bank was difficult since it involved waiting for half an hour only to get enough for 6 rides each (the bank limits how much change you can get). But things are getting better. There is now a smart card that many people use to pay their fare. However, there is currently a shortage of smart cards. Of course!
When we couldn’t walk or take transit, Nathan and I took one of the cheap and plentiful taxis. It only costs $7 USD to get across the city if the traffic isn’t too bad. One of the amusing/scary thing about taxis is that they drive without headlights on, only parking lights. Buses do it too! I guess it’s an energy saving thing?
I could go on and on about transportation in BsAs (good bike lanes, crappy sidewalk conditions, etc.) but I’ll stop here. I’ve got a bus to catch : )