Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Strikes and transport

Recently my town experienced a general strike by bus drivers, who were incensed at an unfair law.  The mayor's office, taking the cue of a university study, decided that the best way to fight congestion and pollution in the city would be to subject public transit vehicles to restrictions as to the days they could circulate.  In my town, as in many others in Colombia, "public" transit is actually run by private companies.  Each company runs buses along certain routes.  The model has thus far worked fairly well--you never wait long for a bus, you pay less than a dollar for a ride, and you can get just about anywhere in the city without transferring.  And because of the private nature of the bus companies, you can be sure that the mayor's claim of an "oversupply" of public transit (the first time I'd ever heard such an argument) was total nonsense, at least as far as economic logic was concerned.  I likewise never heard any public transit users, myself included, complaining about the generally short wait for any bus to come along.

But this wasn't good enough for the mayor's office or the university study, and presumably neither for the bourgeois urban elites that seem to be behind most of the stupidest, regressive urban decrees whose only raison d'etre seems to be to make Colombian cities look less like Third World cities with a large underclass, and more like polished European burgs.  (Such laws have long tried to phase out the use of horse-drawn recycling carts in Bogota and many other cities).  So our town made a rule that buses with a given license plate number would be prohibited from circulating one or two days a week.  This rule did not apply to taxis or private drivers, which meant that it would have targeted only the means of transport that serves the poor, and it wouldn't have taken the biggest contributors to congestion off the streets (just think about it--one small bus takes up about the same space as a car, but it carries a lot more people).

So the bus drivers protested, demanding that the one-day-a-week restrictions affect everyone equally, taxis and private cars as well as buses.  They paralyzed traffic for a few days, and eventually won out.  The mayor wisely and fairly decreed that the driving restriction should affect everyone.  For me, this was a well-directed protest; the drivers weren't asking to avoid making sacrifices and contributing their share to improving life in the city (and I must admit that the streets are much less congested now since the measure took effect).  They were just demanding that we all make the same sacrifices.

This is very different from a series of protests by taxi and bus drivers a few years ago.  That time the protests were over the high price of gasoline, which the Colombian government taxes heavily.  This protest reminded me of the worst currents in modern US politics--a small group, or even the entire polity, demanding measures that favor them in the short term but that harm us all in the end.  In my eyes, the Colombian government does well to keep gas expensive, and its policies must have something to do with the fact that every Colombian city and town I've been to is very well-served by public transport.  So in this case, the government was enacting a wise policy (that the US would do well to imitate), but short-sighted individuals were protesting against it, refusing to make sacrifices to benefit us all.

Aside from whether I agree or not with the specific cause, I do lament the general use of de facto popular force to achieve political ends in Colombia.  Very often the response of people here who feel unjustly treated is to take to the streets and alter the functioning of everyday life.  Recently employees at the National University shut down operations for almost a month as they requested a pay raise.  Their cause was just, but the means they used meant that a group of about 500 people prevented tens of thousands of students from attending classes (many of whom live in Bogota apartments that their parents from the provinces must make a big sacrifice to pay for), sunk numerous scientific experiments when researchers couldn't access their labs to maintain animals and microbe cultures, and generally wrought havoc on the nation's chief center of research and learning.  Student protests shut down the university I work at at least once every semester.  In the case of the gas price protest a few years ago, all of my city was blocked off.  No one could get in or out, because the taxis had blocked all the roads.  In all of these cases, a minority held hostage the general population in order to achieve their goal.  While such actions are usually the only viable means that the protesters see available to them in the face of an unfair assault on their rights, they end up becoming little dictators themselves, using force to subjugate everyone around them to their agenda.

In the case of the (unsuccessful) gas price protest a few years ago, the only upside was an odd, interesting ghost town feel to my city.  Since cars couldn't circulate, the streets were devoid of their general racket, and pedestrians walked in the middle of the street without worry.  It was a vision of a post-car world, and reminded me of scenes I've scene of the Montgomery bus boycott.  Everyone on foot, a sense of a shared situation, a solidarity to it all.  Caro was happy not to have buses zooming around, and while I understand the sentiment, I realize that noisy, unpleasant buses are an integral part of a sustainable, pedestrian-friendly city.

No comments:

Post a Comment