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Across the Equator

South American Adventures

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Driving in Lima
losmorris
Lima has a population of 9-12 million people, depending on whether you count the Pueblo Jovenes (young villages) that are essentially squatter shanty towns built on the dry and dusty hills surrounding the city. About half are very poor, and the next 30% just get by. Most do not have vehicles and instead use Peru’s version of public transportation (which is actually privatized and very competitive). Mass transit consists of a whole lot of old minivans ("combis") or old buses – average age of a vehicle in Lima is 17 years old - which run up and down the main highways and roads, competing for passengers, and generally making life miserable for anyone sharing the road. Roads are also clogged with taxis – again mostly pretty old vehicles and smog producers. While the local press asserts that there are at least twice as many taxis as necessary in Lima it seems to be considered a reasonably good business. One of the taxi drivers we regularly use wants to buy our Toyota when we leave so that he can get his brother into the business. Stay tuned on that one.
So, since traffic is the single biggest complaint of ex-pats it is worth sharing some reflections on what the challenges are. I must give some credit to former classmate Russ, from whom I borrowed some ideas that he had expressed so well:

• Lane lines – a waste of paint:
o Lines on the road are treated as a suggestion. The number of actual lanes is a function more of the volume of traffic and increases tremendously at rush hour. The traffic lanes are narrower here than in Denver, for example, so the squeezing in of additional vehicles results in hairs breadth spaces between vehicles and tremendous slowing down of traffic. We have brushed side view mirrors with cars right next to us in traffic.
o Arrows are painted on roads to signify if they are one-way. However, changes happen with some frequency (one road near our local grocery has changed 3 times in the last year from one-way in one direction, to one-way in the other direction, to two way). As a result the painting on the road can be quite confusing after a while with arrows pointing both ways on the pavement.

• Size Matters
o We have a Toyota Corolla which is a pretty good sized car and pretty common here. However, we are a distinct disadvantage in trying to see around the hundreds of buses and combis. During the Fujimori era there was a big push to increase vehicle ownership and the introduction of “tikos”. Not sure what the origin of the name is but they are really tiny cabs that look tinny and very breakable. They make up for their small size by being pretty aggressive but very, very slow.
o The most difficult vehicles to cope with are the old school buses, who generally take up more than one lane, and turn whenever they want to. The height of their back bumper is about eye-level in the car which adds to the fear factor.

• Turning left
o Generally the left lane can turn left or go straight on most Lima streets. The convention is if you are going to turn left (as expected) you don't signal.
o Often, the car in the right hand lane will also turn left. In this case, the driver may or may not signal. If crossing from the far right hand lane (so cutting across 2 lanes) the driver may also signal and wave madly – or they may just cut across 2 (or more) lanes. Hence, when leaving an intersection after the light turns green, folks go pretty slowly in anticipation of being cut off.
o The left turning lane usually fills up with at least 4 cars abreast to go into 2 available lanes. The convention seems to be that whoever is slightly ahead – inches matter - goes first...but size matters.
o The driver in the left lane does not always turn left but may instead go straight running the risk of ramming or being rammed by the right lane drivers cutting across to make a left turn.

• Turning right
o See “turning left” above; again lane conventions are at best just recommendations, not rules to actually be followed.

• Pollution
o Since the average age of vehicles is pretty old and maintenance seems to be iffy, there is a tremendous amount of pollution coming out of the tail pipes. We have noticed though that quite a few apparently newish vehicles spout black smoke as well. Not sure if this is because of removing something from the car or truck or whether standards here are just that much lower.
o Because of the high fuel cost here a large number of vehicles – especially taxis – have converted to natural gas. The gas tank is placed in the truck and special natural gas service stations provide fill ups. One sort of frightening difference is that when they are refueled everyone needs to get out of the vehicle. We know this because we were in a natural gas taxi once that that needed to stop en route to re-fuel.

• Entertainment
o At most major corners, we are regularly approached by people begging (generally old women or young women with babies in their arms), street vendors, or street entertainers (generally kids).
o Our favorite “beggar” is the young boy on crutches. He looks appropriately sad when in begging mode but once traffic speeds up he stops using the crutches and scrambles to his next spot to take up business when traffic stops again. The curious thing is that we take the same route frequently enough to have seen this miracle occur quite a lot – perhaps others have too and the fiction has been uncovered?
o Some vendors are approved by municipalities, and wear vests, most are free-lance. Articles for sale range from stuffed animals, toy cars (we bought a bunch around Christmas time), to books and CDs. I often work in my Sudoku book to distract me from the traffic and the guy who sells those books has Richard pegged as a potential buyer (yes, he has succumbed).
o Street entertainment is generally kids doing juggling and gymnastic feats – with varying degrees of skill.

• Watching your car
o There is no guarantee that if you park your car on the street that all of it will be there when you return. This gives rise to an industry of people who offer to watch your car. The "street price" for this "service" is 2 soles. To be clear, this is parking in a public area.
o Another service that these enterprising folks offer is to help you park and depart the parking space by standing in the street and stopping traffic for you – this actually comes in handy in many cases.
o In the shopping malls there is an additional service – car washing. As I have mentioned before, Lima is in a very dry desert with dust everywhere. Without a weekly washing cars get very dusty so this is actually a pretty valuable service. The rate is about 5-6 soles (<$2.00) for a regular cleaning and 15 soles for a full wax while you shop.

• Types of cars on the road:
o Cars and trucks here are mostly Japanese and Korean. Nissan and Toyota dominate the market.
o Peugeot is a very popular car here. VW is popular - mainly the VW beetle which has now not been manufactured for some years.


In conclusion - driving here is challenging, irritating, but kind of fun. It requires full attention at all times with thrill of victory and the agony of defeat regular features of the daily commute. The best approach is cautious aggression - aggression so that you actually move through traffic, but caution to allow you to get home in one piece.

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