Engines Off

In a city where millions rely on them, three out of every four buses in Caracas are out of order. Here we ponder Venezuela’s bus-less dystopia – coming soon to a city near you.

I’m standing by one of the doors, four stations from my destination. It’s 4:16 p.m. on a Wednesday, and the subway is filling with people heading home for the evening. Everyone ignores the guy touting his Bs.100 candies in the middle of the car, even as he squeezes through the packed bodies.

Mira, caramelos de fruta, de menta, de coco, a 100 bolívares,” he marches, reciting this phrase with monochrome precision. Sometimes he adds a “mi gente” in an attempt to connect with potential customers.

And he’s not alone. Both hawkers and beggars have become much more common sights.

In fact, this weekend I saw three people selling various goods along with four beggars, in the same wagon, at the same time. Nothing stops them from cruising the trains selling trinkets or just straight-up begging. Not even rush hour.

Nevertheless, the subway is still relatively functional and clean. Escalators are broken in nearly every station, but trains arrive regularly, albeit with technical issues along the rails. I make the four-station trip from La California to Altamira in about fifteen minutes.

Besides, hawkers are not unique El Metro; they’ve been getting into buses for decades, and they’ve always been the least of anyone’s concerns when travelling in Caracas. Public transportation in the capital has been a serious issue for years, but now the state of affairs is nearing outright breakdown.

A complete shutdown of public transport would push the crisis down the sinkhole for millions of citizens.

Some places in the capital have always been difficult to get to, because there aren’t many buses covering the route, or because of the route itself (especially in the slums). Now, the deteriorating situation is spreading to surrounding cities. It doesn’t matter where you are or your destination, it’s always hard to get a bus.

That’s because fewer and fewer are roadworthy. Government-imposed controls have put a chokehold on every industry and service, crippling imports and causing shortages of everything that keeps a bus on the road: spare parts, tires, engine oil, everything. Inflation has done the rest, guaranteeing prohibitive prices for everything in stock.

In an interview with César Miguel Rondón last week, Hugo Ocando, head of the Association of Drivers of Western Caracas, said that 75% of their vehicles are out of order. The State-imposed bus fare is Bs. 280 (about $0.07 at Dicom rate), but even though people are finding it harder to pay for the ride and many drivers are charging whatever they want, the amount is actually way below what drivers need to cover the maintenance, which they must purchase at black market rates.

Ocando said that no change in bus fare will solve the issue, since people won’t be able to pay and inflation devours any adjustment. He also said that, according to their estimates, if this goes on, they’ll have to stop working entirely in three months.

“We work tirelessly to get people to their homes in the slums, to their jobs, to the subway, to their schools… The subway can’t take everyone, and it won’t go into the slums.”

This is a dire prospect. With all the issues Venezuelans face everyday, a complete shutdown of public transport would push the crisis down the sinkhole for millions of citizens.

No change in bus fare will solve the issue, since people won’t be able to pay and inflation devours any adjustment.

I live in Guarenas, a suburb to the east of Caracas. Most of the people here work or study in the capital. They have to make the trip back and forth every day of the week; some of us on weekends too. Years ago, the government started building what was supposed to be an expansion of the subway to reach Guarenas, but they never delivered. Therefore, folks still use anarchic buses to move between cities.

The buses I use charge Bs.1,600 per ride during weekdays, and Bs. 1,800 on weekends. If I had to go to Caracas every day, I’d have to pay Bs. 78,400 each month, all in cash, which is really hard to obtain these days. That’s a 57% chunk off the current minimum wage (Bs. 136,544), and that’s disregarding any extra buses a person might need to get to their jobs or homes, or the time wasted while waiting a ride. Back in 2014, I spent an average of five hours a day just standing in line.

All things considered, Guarenas is fine compared to other places. People who live in Valles del Tuy or Guatire must get up at 3 a.m. to arrive in Caracas before 7 a.m., and leave their jobs at 5 p.m. with little hope of getting home before 8 p.m. I’d rather not know what they have to pay monthly.

Soon it won’t matter. Not where we live, nor hawkers, nor failing roads. None of us will get anywhere when there are no buses in the Caracas metro area. While there are other means of transportation, like cabs, shared por puesto cars, or the Metrobús system, they will never be sufficient to satisfy demand.

The economic and social implications of such a scenario are too catastrophic for me to fathom.