Something to read en la cola


Caracas’ traffic for beginners: my latest for Foreign Policy’s Transitions blog.

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  1. Not only that, Venezuela spends somewhere between 4 – 8% of the GDP in the gas subsidy. We spend more on the gas subsidy than on education. Which leads of course to more fuel burning, traffic and pollution.

    I see nothing wrong to the fact that no new highways are being built in Caracas. Highways can destroy the social fibers of a community and the will just get crammed again.

    Fast, economical and comfortable public transit is the answer. Financed by… drumroll….. gasoline being sold at market prices.

    And… more importantly, Venezuelan government is so misplaced (desubicado pueh), why the hell are they producing milk and steel (something that private industry is superb at) but letting public transportation be private and fragmented?

    • It’s not just in Caracas anymore. Other cities are facing serious increases in traffic jams.
      Barquisimeto is the living proof, but at least some work has been done by Lara State Government, with renovations in one of the main avenues: La Ribereña.

        • New highways and roads doesn’t quite get the cars out of the city; people need reasons to leave the city: creating income opportunities, and making money go a longer way, outside the city is the ticket (i.e., cash distribution).

        • JC and GEHA,
          Experience shows that more highways and roads lead to only more cars. And again, congestion. Highways are for connecting cities, not for inner city transit.

          Dense cities like Caracas have a better chance of decongesting the roads by pricing them and providing kick ass mass transit. Hong Kong is a great success story. London as well to some extent.

          • Now there’s a great idea: let’s shut down the Autopista de Prados del Este! That’ll make traffic go away!

            Sorry for being snarky, Rodrigo, but I think Caracas is in desperate need for a highway surrounding the city so that trucks going from Valencia to Puerto La Cruz don’t have to cause congestion in Plaza Venezuela. The needs of the city are simply too big for the amount of roads we have.

          • JC,

            I think the need for a circunvalacion is a common misconception of a need. Trucks go from Puerto Cabello to Caracas, and from Puerto La Cruz to Caracas and from La Guaira to Caracas. There is actually very little truck traffic going through Caracas.

            Autopista Prados del Este is a great place to shut down a lane for normal traffic and using for a superficial mass transit system such as Transantiago, with several stops and parking lots at key locations. The goal is that if you take transit you actually get to where you are going faster than if you had a car. And if gas had real prices, for cheaper.

            The highway thing Juan, could be counter-intuitive, but it is true.


          • I’m all for mass transit. In fact, my approach to solving the traffic problem is all of the above: congestion pricing AND mass transit AND eliminating the gas subsidy AND more infrastructure.

            You, on the other hand, are being dogmatically anti-highway.

          • If you propose new highways for Maracaibo or Valencia, Pto Ordaz, Maturin I would be all for.

            In Caracas there might be a small argument for a southern highway connecting tazon with guarenas (at an extraordinary cost). Highways have certain passenger carrying capacity and certain cost per passenger associated with them. They are not the solution for high density transit. That’s all. No dogmas. That’s a fact.

          • The highways they have built in Santiago de Chile in the last few years have been a solution for a lot of people. That’s also a fact.

          • Densidad de Santiago 430 hab/km^2. Densidad de Caracas 3900 hab/km^2. It probably made sense there. Just for reference, London is 4760 hab/km^2. Hong Kong is ~6500 hab/km^2.

            We are closer to london and hong kong than santiago.

          • Wikipedia’s sources are a bit conflicting in terms of densities, but OK. Fine, build highways for Caracas where needed. But please consider the other options. Highways tend to congest eventually.

            No one has done a serious analysis in the matter. I would be skeptic of a highway in Caracas as a solution as most of the traffic is to get to the city and remain in it. To me it seems that it could be better solved by a comprehensive plan that includes, trains, buses and parking lots.

          • Let’s agree to disagree on this one. I understand your point, but I think those arguments were made for other realities. Caracas is a city with notoriously few large avenues for people to get from point A to point B, and the density doesn’t take into account the fact that many places have one access point in and out (due to the presence of the hills). There are several people that have studied this, and argue forcefully for a Circunvalación, as well as alternate highways to places such as La guaira.

          • I think the solution passes for mass transit systems. Germany is awesome in that.

          • I can see it now, right over El Guaire.

            Seems to be a cost effective “aerial subway”.

            Where do we sign?

          • But everything is comprehensive. Some highways are needed, some are not. What is the ratio of people moving in the london inner city or hong kong in individual cars vs transit?

            The impact of every dollar invested in a highway will be smaller to the impact if that dollar was invested in transit. Highways have their capacity, and for some scenarios they are not practical.

          • You have yet to convince me that highways are not needed. Why not? The alternative to the highway is a magical mass transit that will never get used, or a magical network of Metros that, let’s face it, we are thirty years away from.

            The traffic problem in Venezuela is way too urgent for us to wait that long.

          • Highways will take as much as a metro network to build and by the time they are done they will be at capacity and with a higher cost per passenger.

            I agree with you, but the problem is upon us and nothing was done to prevent it. There is no magic transit system nor magic highway that you can just drop in.

            Now, given that the problem is upon us, AND that you have to implement a solution not for today, but for when that solution is completed, would highways be the way to go or superficial transit or light trains or underground trains? That is the full spectrum, from low carrying capacity to high carrying capacity. My guess is that we will need more of the later. Unless a serious plan (Extorres) in implemented to reduces Caracas population, I see no other way to design our city with low footprint, high carrying capacity solutions.

          • And why wouldn’t a transit system be used? If it takes you where you want to go as fast as a car for less money.

            Again, there is no “one solution fits all” and not all cities should do without highways, but cities with a high density have other options!

          • You’re right in that more highways=more congestion. It’s funny because when roads are bad people actually stay off them precisely because they’re so congested. Once they improve people get on and any time saved by building a better road is negated by the congestion. However, highways within cities has been commonly accepted as a solution in the US since at least the 1960s. It was practically an accepted fact from the 1920s-1950s that highways were only for linking cities and that grid/ring roads were better but that idea was challenged and in some cities has worked. Read ‘The Big Roads’, quite a fascinating look at how highways evolved in the US. However, congestion will exist as long as a.) there are no alternatives to private cars and b.) there is a reason to enter the city.

        • Caracas needs less cars, it’s ridiculous the amount of cars in the city. I relocated to Barcelona (Spain) 9 years ago and never needed a car, in Caracas I had a car since I was 16 years old. Caracas needs better public transportation and of course better personal safety (the two need to go along for that to work out).

    • Because of the gas subsidy, many people still drives around in mammoth gas guzzlers from the 70’s and 80’s, including the private buses that serve as public transportation, as there is no control or regulation on the gas emissions of these cars, the government is also subsidizing air pollution. I agree about the irony that public transportation remains fragmented. I’ve heard that the Ledezma implemented-bus system Transmetrópoli was working very well, its a private-public mechanism I thinl.

  2. It’s nice you had traffic time to get to talk to the guy about his children, and that the street vendors got to make some income. 😉

  3. Juan: Nicely balanced writing with easy-to-digest economic terms. I laughed at your US content: “It’s as if all traffic going from Baltimore to Boston had to go through Times Square.” Perfect photo, if yours. (Though I would have sharpened it and reduced the contrast a little.) The long lens shortened the perspective, heightening the problem. In sum, well done.

  4. You omitted the worst, the two most hellish parts of the Caracas and Venezuela traffic experience. To sum it up, whether on a private or public means of transportation, you are a sitting duck:

    -First, for any natural disaster, particularly those caused by sudden heavy weather and surprise! nonexistent infrastructure and maintenance. Landslides, mudslides, flash floods, “quebradas” (creeks) overflowing, pits when the highway collapses, falling trees and lampposts, etc. etc.

    -Second and more scary even, ubiquitous criminality and violence. Even when moving or waiting at a traffic light you are prey, the least you can expect is a motorizado trying to snatch your things (including those you have on as jewelry!) on the run, the worst is death at the hands of trigger-happy psychopaths. But locked in traffic, you and your fellows are the ideal prey for almost any enterprising band of thugs.

    • As a former resident of Libertador, I was advised on a number of occasions never to stop at night. Faced with this proposition, I very wisely left the driving up to the experts. I’ve driven in some of the cities you mention, but driving in Caracas is an art unto itself: you’ve gotta be good, or crazy, or both.

      • OK, but I think the picture would not really be complete without a short and sober description of these hazards. They can make the experience nerve wracking instead of merely tedious.

        Did I mention the common motorcyclists, “motorizados”? They cause a lot of stress and not a little risk. From threats to profanity to broken side-view mirrors to kicked-in doors to highway funerals to impromptu attempted lynchings…

        • The perennial motorcyclist-motorist confrontation has no borders. As a motorcyclist there have been times when I’ve wanted to lynch motorists who throw their two tons of steel at me without seeing me (or seeing me and just not caring). Then when I drive I want to run over retarded motorcyclists that I almost end up running over due to their own carelessness. I guess the moral of the story is that third-world traffic sucks no matter what you’re driving/riding.

          • Today, traffic in Venezuela is pure madness. In Venezuela, even the simplest traffic altercation can degenerate into fistfights, lynchings or shootings. Of course a sociopath in a car is dangerous, like a sociopath on a motorcycle. Only in Venezuela do the motorcyclists gotten to circulate over the marking between middle lane and fast lane on the highways, the most dangerous place for everyone. In other countries, and only above a certain displacement, they are allowed the shoulder lane, for safety’s sake.

  5. I fully agree with the proposition that tolls are a good idea in urban areas. Even without the massive subsidies you mention, the price of gas does not factor in the external costs borne by the general public for the use of cars: pollution, noise, congestion, loss of time, global warming, not to mention the cost to the world of the implicit financial support of basket-case petro-dictatorships and their nefarious pursuits (Pa’Lante!) built into every daily commute in a car. Don’t get me wrong, cars are indispensable, but the cost of car travel may be set too low. More public transport is needed, and it needs to be a viable (i.e. convenient, safe and reasonably attractive) alternative.

  6. JC, There is a counterintuitive idea about traffic that may be related to the highway discussion.

    Let’s say we have a highway with X number of cars coming in, that want to take a certain exit. Building a new lane or a new highway to lower the density of cars does not get people home any faster because there is still a bottleneck with a rate of flow of Y at the exit, for example, possibly limited by the cycles of a traffic signal.

    X or Y does not change by spreading the cars out. Y is your rate determining step and X is what determines how long Y will be at its limit.

    One of my proposals to the traffic chieftain of Caracas was about maximizing flow by simply getting each traffic light to count the number of vehicles that had gone through in each direction during a complete cycle and adjusting the total cycle time and the proportions of time in each direction to maximize flow. The key was to get as many cars *through* as quickly as possible, thus preventing congestion for as long as possible, and also dissipating congestion as quickly as possible.

    So the use of the measure of cars per kilometers of roads in deciding for new roads is very misleading.

  7. There are other issues that have not been discussed here:

    1 – Many people who work in Caracas live in he “suburbs” of Guarenas – Guatire (40 kms to the east – using the Gran Mariscal de Ayacucho Highway – GMA), in the Tuy Valleys (55 kms to the south – using the Regional del Centro Highway – ARC) and in the Altos Mirandinos (35 kms to the west – using the Carretera Panamericana) . Due to cheap gas and expensive housing in Caracas, there are thousands of commuters using these highways – probably 250,000 – 300,000 summing the three. Many of these commutes start at 4:00 – 4:30 am and are one of the reasons for the huge traffic in the city.

    2 – The truck traffic driving through the city is real; there is no alternate bypass although there is a highway being built between ARC – Santa Teresa and the GMA highway, “La Verota”.

    Mass transit inside the city will not solve these two issues, creating alternate employment outside Caracas and finishing the highway bypass will.


  8. In Barquisimeto, probably like everywhere else, there are there are four commutes. It’s ridiculous! Each one is bumper to bumper and a waste of gasoline. If lunch were less than two hours, there would be no time for lunch.


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