Stuck in traffic

CARACAS — Jesus Vargas leaves his home in the Caracas suburb of Charallave each day at 4 a.m. The reason: the three-plus hours it takes him to make the 34-kilometer journey to the offices of the taxi firm in central Caracas where he works.

Like many workers in this city, Vargas, 24, spends almost as much time commuting as working.

Caracas is one of the most congested cities in Latin America and the issue of traffic is such a hot topic that it has become a political battleground between the government and politicians from opposition parties.

The government has mounted several projects to improve the city’s creaking infrastructure. An efficient but overloaded Metro system is being widened, but progress is painfully slow. Similarly, plans to build a system of buses leaving from the main bus terminal at La Bandera are far from complete. A cable car bringing people down from the hills above Caracas is undergoing testing, but has already been delayed by more than six months.

Meanwhile, opposition mayors and governors — some of whom beat government candidates in the last regional elections in November — say the government is deliberately blocking their proposals to improve automobile circulation in the city.

In February of this year, Henrique Capriles Radonsky, the newly elected governor of the state of Miranda — which comprises about half of the city of Caracas — launched a traffic calming measure known as Pico y Placa (“Peak and Plate”) on one of the main arterial routes into the center of the city. The idea behind the scheme, which has had some success in other Latin American countries such as Colombia and Brazil, was to restrict cars with certain license plates from circulating on specific days.

But the plan met resistance from the government, which ruled it “unconstitutional,” saying that only the government could apply such laws and that it restricted people’s right to freedom of movement.

Capriles says the government was trying to “sabotage” his plan. “What's unconstitutional about it? In no other country in the world do cars have constitutional rights. The right of movement like all the constitutional rights are rights for human beings not for cars.”

He ploughed on with the initiative all the same but on a voluntary basis: Drivers would not be forced to adhere and no fines would be issued if they did not.

Statistics provided by Capriles' office corroborated his claims of success, despite the fact that the plan is voluntary. Drivers appear to have respected the plan. The volume of traffic has decreased by 9 percent, while average driving time has been cut by 30 minutes, from 83 to 53 minutes. Meanwhile, use of public transport has increased by 9 percent as people look for alternative ways to travel into work.

Critics say Pico y Placa is a scheme that favors the rich because they can afford more than one car and thus bypass the system.

But Capriles points out that the real aim is to free up roads. “Pico y Placa is a measure that benefits the majority because it is a timetable for restricting the use of cars,” he said. “For what? To improve the mobility of public transport.

“It’s a social measure. It's not a measure that favors the rich. Why won't the government permit it? Because I am proposing it. If the government had proposed it, Pico y Placa would be operating.”

What is clear from other Pico y Placa schemes across Latin America is that it needs to be combined with an efficient integrated public transport system, said Tomas de la Barra, founder of the Carcacas-based urban design consultancy firm Modelistica, which has done studies on transport solutions for the mayor of Caracas.

According to de la Barra, what's surprising about the traffic problem is that it's not simply the result of too many cars. Polls his firm has carried out show that only 38 percent of carraquenos (Caracas residents) own a car — a rate far below other urban centers in Latin America.

But Caracas faces geographic challenges. Set in a narrow valley, wedged between mountains, the city's road capacity is limited. For de la Barra, the solution is improving public transportation (not widening roads) — something that may require cooperation between the two sides.

“[Traffic] is a theme from which people suffer a lot daily,” he explained. “It's something that's high in people's agenda and so it has become a political question ... Unfortunately, a unified solution has not transpired for the whole city.”

Meanwhile, the unpredictability of traffic means that Jesus Vargas often arrives at work up to an hour early. He uses the time to drink a coffee, he said. Others sleep at their desks or in their cars. He has considered moving into the center of the city, but property prices here are at a premium and he cannot afford it.

His hope is that some kind of solution to Caracas’ crippling congestion will transpire.

Read more about traffic and transportation:

Cairo choking on its own traffic

Poland's long road to better infrastructure

Cruising the cobblestones