Thursday, April 26, 2012

Brief Notes from Peru

The weather has again taken a strange turn, perhaps even more extreme than in 2010. Lima should be starting to cloud over by now, but until my last day there it continued hot and sunny. The afternoon we went to the coast, you could see the sea fog trying to come in but burning up before it got on shore. Meanwhile, by April, skies above Arequipa should be cloudless but there's still a lot of cloud and haze around the mountains, with big cumulonimbus puffing up in the afternoons. The January to March period apparently saw the heaviest rains for many a year, so intense they damaged some of the streets in the city centre. Rain and even snow continues in the sierra and there is apparently likely to make some crop harvests late or significantly reduced.

Both Lima and Arequipa, especially the former, have seen rapid and significant modernisation of their vehicle fleet, which seems to have had a notable impact on pollution levels.

The issues of great debate in the national media continue to relate to exploitation of natural resources. The most prominent controversy at the moment relates to plans for a mine known as Conga in the northern department of Cajamarca, part of the mining project Yanacocha. This project was approved by the previous government but is opposed by the majority of locals in Cajamarca -- including the regional government -- because of fears of the impact it will have on water sources (four highland lagoons are slated to be used for depositing tailings from the mine). The current government ordered a review by a panel of international experts, which has recently been completed. Barely three days later, President Ollanta Humala announced that the project would go ahead, but with stronger conditions related to direct generation of employment, water storage and protection of the environment, as recommended in the international expert report. Early indications are that many in Cajamarca are not happy with this compromise, so debate and protest are likely to continue.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Impressions of El Metropolitano

I'm a minor conossieur of urban transport issues, and, as I've written on a number of occasions before, one of Lima's greatest problems has been the lack of the mass transit system that is enjoyed by pretty much every other Latin American city of a similar size, as well as by several that are smaller.

 Therefore, it's great to have an opportunity to finally try out El Metropolitano, Lima's new guided busway system. Similar in conception to Bogotá's Transmilenio, it at present has a single line running through the city centre from Independencia in the north to Chorrillos in the south.

On Thursday I  and a friend rode El Metropolitano from the central city to the end of the line at Chorrillos, from where we found our way to the beach to eat cebiche, and then doubled back to Barranco to pick up El Metropolitano back into the centre. On Friday I took a couple more rides around rush hour. On the strength of my experience so far, I'm giving El Metropolitano a B/B+.

 In making an evaluation, I'm not including any consideration of the extent or coverage of El Metropolitano, which is obviously inadequate at the moment but will hopefully be improved over time. I'm only taking into account the features of the service that currently exist. Details below.

The Good
  • The buses are modern, clean, quiet and internally uncluttered with seats that are comfortable enough and leave enough space for those standing; there are also plenty of grips to hold onto if you're standing.
  • Although I haven't tested how it handles the peak of a Lima summer, the bus was comfortable enough in Thursday's 25 degrees.
  • The payment system is straightforward: you purchase a single card and load money on to it at the same machines, which are available at all stops. These are easy to use, although I would recommend having coins to pay with.
  • It's good value: a single journey is S/. 1.50 (about $0.75 NZD) regardless of where you get off.
  • The platforms are simple and unobtrusive. The barriers are easy to negotiate with your card: the single price allows the added benefit that you only have to zap in when you enter and not when you get off. When you zap through the barrier it shows how much money you have remaining on your card.  The boarding and getting off processes are relatively efficient, through electronic doors in the platform barrier that align with the bus doors.
  • Although there's only one line, there are some minor variations through the centre of the city and three different express services.
  • It's clear that the infrastructure and investment required for this service has been much less than for a train or metro. Expansion along existing road networks is feasible without prohibitively grand public works. Yet El Metropolitano moves with similar speed and smoothness to a metro. If Tony Randall reads this, I'd say it provides support for consideration of guided busways as a serious public transport alternative.
The Bad

  • The buses are crowded, with standing room only in the central section of the route even during the middle of the day. At rush hour they're packed like sardines. I'll acknowledge that many metros around the world can also be very crowded, but this is usually only in the central four or five stations of a line and only during rush hours. From my experience, I'd say that around a third of the entire route is standing-only for most of the day. I wonder whether this is due to a deliberate trade-off to keep prices low in return for a level of discomfort assumed to be tolerated by Peruvians. If so, I think this is short-sighted.
  • Unlike trains or metros, El Metropolitano has to stop at traffic lights, although this is not much of an impediment on the stretch immediately south of the centre, where it runs through its own bus tunnel for a while (similar to Brisbane!), then follows the expressway.
  • The ticket machines don't give change. You can understand that this keeps things simpler, but beware of trying to buy a card or top it up with a large-denomination note.
  • There is an almost amusing paucity of information, including some of the easiest things to get right. On Wednesday I wandered down to the central station to see if I could find out something about the service in general. I asked in vain if anyone had a pocket map or pamphlet that explained the services. "Hmm, I think there used to be something like that but not any more" was the general reply. El Metropolitano has a website that does explain many aspects of the service, but nowhere does it tell you the pricing system! (I had to ask at the station to find this out).
  • Unlike almost all metros, there is no stylized map in the interior of the buses that helps you map your progress, and, importantly, realize very early if you're going in the wrong direction. On the station platforms, there are helpful stylized maps of the different route variations (eg, showing the stations that the express services stop at). But unlike most metros, there are no street maps of the area surrounding the station. It's assumed you'll just know where to go. Therefore, although El Metropolitano is an improvement to public transport in Lima, it does not yet provide the more intangible services of security and orientation to the stranger and citizen, which are offered by the best mass transit systems

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Back to South America

In the tradition of this blog I have to announce without any warning that I'm back in South America and am writing this from Lima, Peru. I arrived yesterday afternoon and am currently battling to overcome jet lag. It's the end of summer and still very pleasantly warm, although the low cloud drifting in from the ocean is starting to win its annual battle with the sun.

There's been a bit of a blog hiatus as I've been very busy with academic work and all the practical things related to getting this trip underway -- including moving out of my Wellington flat, storing my things, and cleaning the place from top to bottom.

This trip is going to be more than six months -- my longest since 2004/05. What I'm hoping to achieve are several vague but related things. It will help a future evaluation if I list them here:
  • Tie off some of the extra details related to my research on tourism in the Colca Valley, mixed in with co-authoring a possible book chapter with a Peruvian colleague
  • Work with one or more of the local NGOs to carry through some ideas for a couple of small projects that ocurred to me when I was doing my Master's research
  • Spend some sustained time in small rural villages and the countryside, learning more about agriculture, herding and how people deal with day-to-day life
  • Visit some different parts of Peru (I'm thinking Huaraz and the northern sierra) as well as spending some more time on one or two of the other Andean countries
  • Come away with some concrete and describable ideas for PhD research