Combi Culture: The Chaotic World of Lima Public Transit

Among the world’s major cities, Lima is a rarity: It’s a metropolis the size of Chicago with no real public transportation system to speak of. That means no public trams, subways or buses in a place where only a tiny fraction of people own cars. Lima shares company with the third world likes of Kinshasa, Congo; Lagos, Nigeria; and Dhaka, Bangladesh in this hapless distinction.

So how does one get around in this city, you ask? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the combi “system” of Lima.

"Todo Arequipa!" A cobrador lures pedestrians into a combi in the Miraflores district of Lima.

You won’t go far in this town without a quick introduction to “combi culture.” Scores of old beat-up microbuses — mostly late-model Toyota HiAces and Nissan Urvans — race down major roadways, abruptly stopping at intersections to pick up new victims… ahem… passengers. These are the combis, and they’re everywhere; you’ll never have to wait more than two or three minutes for one to come by. 

The vehicles vary in size and quality, but all are manned by two-person teams: the driver and his trusty sidekick, the cobrador. The driver of course drives… wildly (he’ll often take off while you’re still boarding). Meanwhile, the cobrador lures passengers on board through shouts, cajoling and all other means necessary save for violent coercion. All in all, the system is mass chaos, but somehow it works.

Locals and tourists alike don’t seem to know whether to love the combis or hate them.  They’re at once noisy, heavily polluting, incredibly efficient, extremely dangerous and exhilarating. There’s no doubt you’ll get where you want to go cheaply and fast, but you’ll have to endure toxic fumes from poorly maintained engines and risk a potentially cataclysmic accident to get there.

And what’s interesting about all this is that it highlights a central debate in modern policy making. For Milton Friedman, free market types, it’s a major success story. Combis are extremely cheap and move people around efficiently, afterall. But for an environmentalist or urban planner, they’re a prime example of what not to do.

So how did Lima find itself with this anarchic system? The story is one of half-starts and could-have-beens, with lots of juicy bits of intrigue thrown in.  It’s worth telling in full here.

Tragedy in Four Acts: The History of Lima Transit

A comparison of Plaza 2 de Mayo in Lima, 1927 and 2010.

At the turn of the 20th Century, Lima looked nothing like it does today. The city was packed tightly around a central square with smaller towns like the port city of Callao and the resort town of Barranco surrounding it. Around 1904, urban planners got the idea to connect these far flung cities, building the city’s first electrified tram system. As the city sprawled out over the decades, it eventually engulfed these cities, giving Lima a ready-made urban transit system that could move people from one end to the other.

The tram system held fast for decades, until bankruptcy shut it down in 1965. That same year, plans were drawn up for a subway network, putting Lima in line with other major world cities that were building underground rail at the time. But the plans never materialized. Three years later, a military coup overthrew the government and dismissed the project, leaving Lima’s commuters to two decades of a haphazard and unreliable city bus system.

Street cars near the Plaza de Armas, Lima, circa 1960. (Photo by Life Magazine)

Finally, in 1986, it looked like change was afoot. The newly elected president Alan Garcia ordered the construction of a system of elevated electric trains. He only managed to get one line completed before Peru descended into economic chaos and he was booted from office.

In 1991, when the new president Alberto Fujimori took office, Peru was in turmoil. The country’s economy had all but collapsed into a hyperinflationary spiral. Corruption was rampant. Foreign creditors were knocking at the country’s door. Fujimori, taking the advice of the International Monetary Fund, opted to prescribe a harsh remedy: he sold off the state. By 1996, he had privatized more than 26 government agencies, including the country’s ailing national bus system.

The remedy put Peru on a more solid footing, but Fujimori had a new problem — what to do about the hundreds of thousands of newly unemployed government workers. His solution was brash and, admittedly, inspired. He opened up the country to the importation of hundreds of microbuses and taxis. The newly-unemployed government employees — many of whom held advanced degrees in fields like economics and public policy — snapped up the new buses and went into the transport business. Today Limeños like to brag that they have the most highly educated bus drivers in the world.

Former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori, the brainchild of Lima's combi system. Currently imprisoned on corruption charges.

Ultimately, Fujimori’s quick fix solved two problems: rampant unemployment and the city’s lack of public transit. The plan went over well… at first.

Fast forward 15 years. Fujimori is in prison on corruption charges, but the combi culture he created lives on. Today, the same old combis from the mid-90’s are still here. Rather than buy new, combi owners jerry-rig quick fixes — making today’s combis notoriously unreliable, even dangerous. Breakdowns are common. Exhaust fumes dwarf any known emissions standards. And growing car ownership puts combis in direct competition for road space with private vehicles.

Something has to give, right? The city of Lima agrees. It’s currently in the process of building and expanding a new system of transport called the Metropolitano. The system runs like a rail system, but uses buses instead of trams. So far, the two open lines have been insanely popular. Plans are for the system to connect the whole city. Only time will tell if this actually happens, or if economic crisis/military intervention/corruption kill these plans once more.

I’ll leave you with a first-hand look at a combi ride in the Miraflores district of Lima. Don’t try this at home, kids.

Special thanks to Jair Zuta La Rosa for his insights and information on the wild history of Lima transit.

2 thoughts on “Combi Culture: The Chaotic World of Lima Public Transit

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