Here in Cusco, public transport is private, hectic, often crowded and dirty – yet it is outstandingly affordable and wonderfully democratic! While on a bus travelling to a soccer game about 20 km´s south of Cusco, everyone was running a little late (… a common feature in this part of the World), so the driver simply detoured to drop us off at the stadium! The local team needed the support and the few not going to the game, just weren´t bothered by the detour.
For those of us who come from a new-world car culture, public transport can seem daunting, uncomfortable and even confusing. And for those from larger, older cities, transport is a frustrating and deeply scheduled necessity. I remember back to my time living in London where I felt quite adventurous taking the ´tube´ to work – or as student in Paris when people actually smoked on the Metro! Since that time I have generally owned a car, or lived so that I could walk or bike – an enviable option I simply could not manage during this stage.
I take a rather neutral position with regard to urban sprawl and suburbia. It often seems a la mode to criticize anything modern or perceived American (at least in the circles I often find myself), but the suburban cities of particularly Canada and Australia are regularly assigned among the highest HDI (human Development Index) ratings in the world. Personally, I am willing to sacrifice certain home comforts in order to walk rather than drive but I absolutely recognise and respect the choices that may involve commuting. Older-world European cities, have avoided some degree of urban sprawl with their rings of monotonous apartment buildings. Yet to me this poor infrastructure and the often resulting disadvantaged economic (and ethnic) clusters do not offer a more appealing alternative. And thus, in parts of South America, we can look to the third world for an interesting model – offering the third way from which the term really emerged!
- At this point I really wanted to insert a good, clear definition of the Third World defining it not by crushing poverty and corruption, but rather as the 1950´s third way slipping between the grasp of the Cold War. This third way was / is meant to be less ideologically driven, allowing each people a chance to increase wellbeing along cultural and economically sustainable lines. Unfortunately the volume of resources debating such definitions is simply too daunting to offer but one link!
Obviously my previous posts – and those to come – will draw light on some of the many challenges here in Peru, but taking a pause from such critiques, I want hope to enjoy the freedom and energy we enjoy in this limbo between Euro-centrism and Newer World individualism. So setting aside (just this once) widespread poverty and the urban flow to massive cities such as Lima, I want to enjoy the ease of movement and choice that seems to only happen in a world less constrained by constructs generally found in the North.
In a certain manner, Cusco’s economically disempowered environment has protected its high mountain environment and distinct valley (it is argued the pre-Spanish capital was laid out in the form of a puma). Due to steep hills and a narrow central valley, much of Cusco is forced onto one long, polluted central road, aptly named “La Cultura” – this street of culture is more of a central artery than a road, and the alarming diesel contamination should concern ant coronary specialist. Yet the fact that at least 70% of vehicles travelling along Cultura are either taxis or public busses (convi’s), means that most people, most of the time have to share space. It also means the 450 K inhabitants of this famous city have left a relatively tiny environmental footprint on this world.
Middle class living in Cusco is achieved with only $1000 a month (or less) and therefore the majority never even consider buying a car. As public transport is private, it responds directly to the market, adapting to the needs of almost all levels of the social strata. I don’t think I have ever waited more than 8 minutes for a bus and when roads are blocked for construction, protests or even weather, the driver simply finds another route – and no one complains!
This concentrated public transport system results in a lively pedestrian culture. Streets are almost always busy and obesity remains very low (non-processed food, activity, poverty… but the Quechua are extremely strong). When a friend´s daughter was visiting from a suburban western city, her first comment about Cusco wasn´t the Inca architecture or history, but rather the happy and energetic street life along La Cultura. I remember being proud of our adopted city at that moment. Cusco´s life and spirit overshadowed its many deficiencies in the honest eyes of a 15 year old from the first world.
The rich world owes a debt of gratitude to the masses in the third world who´s environmental impact – at least in terms of waste production – is often below ½ of that produced per-person even in enlightened countries such as Norway.[i] In a previous blog I have discussed the troubling issue of garbage collection, but that is distinct from garbage production. I don´t feel equipped to fully comment upon the individual environmental footprint, but people generally appear to achieve a level of happiness beyond some correlated measure of first-world consumption.
As Cusco – and thousands of communities with similar economic situations – have avoided sprawl and conformity, they now have a unique opportunity to improve general conditions based upon their own reality. This is an ancient culture, but economic stability –certainly outside of a colonial or dictatorial construct – is rather new. Free market informality, born perhaps out of poverty and government neglect, means customisation of services, construction and individual styles. Globalised product repetition is of course here (Coca-Cola is predictably ubiquitous – presumably lobbying against potable water), but this third world city neither exhibits North American conformity nor the European rules that each of those countries maintain so vigilantly.
And so Batman gives me a ride home almost every day! When Batman is not driving by, I hop on Servicio Rapido – and 30 minutes later I am at work in the historic centre. It cost .70 of a sol – about 35 cents to cross the entire city. Nothing has better connected me with the people of Cusco than sharing crowded space on these busses. Sometimes no one talks, yet other times we play with babies, overhear personal conversations and always make room for one more person! I have personally shared a van with at least 30 people.
Looking forward: because Cusco has not spread out (or at least up over the valley), in an unmanageable manner, the city has a real opportunity to improve infrastructure while maintaining the city´s flow and spirit. There are few places I know as ideally suited for an electric train. One line, 10 kilometres long, could improve flow and clean the air in this pristine environment – and almost no one would need a car! La Paz, Bolivia´s enigmatic capital, will soon christen a cable car relieving some of its pressing congestion, thus carrying people from the centre to their homes 4000 meters above sea level.
The poster city for alternative transport options is Medellin, Colombia. This attractive city has linked a cable car system to its light rail transit, creating access to – and from – poorer neighborhoods, while fighting congestion and contamination.[ii]
The 2008 / 2009 financial meltdown was far less relevant in South America than Europe or the US and even as the northern media predicted economic collapse, the Peruvian and regional economies maintained growth. As testament to the decline of European economic dominance in a post-colonial environment, Peruvians will soon be free to travel to Europe without the hindrance of visas, and one cannot help but notice the multitudes of Spaniards looking for work in this part of the world.
Latin America is gradually taking its rightful place on the world stage, offering a model of development and personal well-being. The challenges are ominous and stability is always a little shaky, but by solidifying public institutions and respecting local culture, cities in this region can pick and choose models from around the world to really find that third way, which might offer some balance in a world of too many extremes.
I hope for a clean, safe and happy Cusco and I certainly hope to always be able to wave down Batman when I need a ride.