IT SEEMED like an innovative, and potentially lifesaving, idea in a city renowned for its reckless driving where virtually no motorist stops at crosswalks. Painting angled stripes of pastel yellows, blues and reds over the zebra crossings in Lima’s financial district seemed to be working, too. By all accounts, the “artistic intervention” had caught drivers’ attention and many vehicles were, finally, respecting pedestrians’ right-of-way.
But all that came to an abrupt halt in June, when with no prior announcement the mayor of the Peruvian capital, Luis Castañeda, had the colorful crosswalks abruptly painted over in the dead of night. His office subsequently claimed that the colors contravened Peru’s traffic code and were causing “confusion” and “risks” for pedestrians and motorists.
According to his critics, the move was just the latest in a litany of spiteful and inept actions by Castañeda that have not just failed to improve public well-being in Lima, but have frequently made living conditions even harsher for many residents in one of Latin America’s largest and most chaotic cities.
Nicknamed “the mute” for his secretive governing style and dislike of public statements, the mayor has an outdated, one-size-fits-all approach to Lima’s untamed traffic, critics say. That includes smothering the city’s few green areas with vast, expensive cement bypasses and widening roads without technical studies, thus simply displacing bottlenecks while adding extra lanes of snarled congestion.
Mariana Alegre, of Lima Como Vamos, a nonprofit campaigning to make the city more sustainable, questions Castañeda’s motives in painting over the crosswalk when, as she believes, his administration has done nothing to promote road safety.
“The mayor is offering no solutions to Lima’s problems,” she says. “He has no vision for the city and no criteria for how to run it.”
One of Castañeda’s most outspoken critics is Manuel Velarde, head of San Isidro, one of the most upmarket of the capital’s 43 districts, and the man who ordered the multicolored pedestrian crossings. “The city has been designed in the wrong way. The model is one that is stuck in the mid-20th century,” says Velarde, who cycles to work – an unusual act of bravery and, arguably, masochism, from an elected official in Lima’s mean streets. “Castañeda is trapped in this mentality where the car represents modernity. In Lima what it really represents is pollution, noise and traffic. We have forgotten about the people.”
The problem could hardly be more urgent. Currently, three quarters of Lima’s 10 million residents travel around the city on public transportation, sandwiched like sardines in Lima’s aging fleet of “combis” – creaking, smoke-belching minivans which race each other dangerously for fares, ramping up Peru’s already high road accident mortality rate.
Almost unique in Latin America, the system is a legacy of the 1990 “Fujishock,” when populist right-wing President Alberto Fujimori deregulated public transportation as part of a radical free market emergency economic package, effectively allowing anyone with a vehicle to pick up passengers.
Today that reform has been overlaid by a network of concessions, awarded by the Castañeda administration in an opaque bidding process, for hundreds of different routes across the city. The concession owners, who make millions in profits, then subcontract out the routes.
This system offers no incentives for owners to invest in their vehicles and ensure they are roadworthy and safe, Alegre says, nevermind comfortable or clean. She describes it as “perverse.”
Meanwhile, law enforcement has allowed the combi owners and drivers to get away with frequent, often serious driving violations, with many companies owing hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid traffic fines.
That all comes against a national backdrop of what some experts regard as possibly the worst driving in the Western hemisphere.
Jumping red lights, zigzagging randomly across lanes, blocking junctions, reversing back down freeway exits, driving at night without lights and using the hard shoulder – and sometimes even the sidewalk – to pass are all routine here. The problem is well illustrated by a video posted to Facebook in July and picked up by local media – one of the kind frequently posted by exasperated Lima residents.
“Driving in Lima is a terrible experience,” says Roger Zavaleta, an attorney who says he typically spends two hours per day commuting to his office only four miles from home. “Lima’s roads are an example of impunity. The mayor should be playing a leading role in making the city more livable. Instead, he’s doing the opposite.”
A lack of good data makes it hard to know just how dangerous Peru’s roads really are.
According to the country’s official statistical agency, there were 2,696 deaths, out of a population of 31 million, from traffic accidents in 2016. But David Fairlie, a traffic engineer from Lima now based in Atlanta, says the real figure is probably twice as high.
“In Peru, they only count those dead at the scene,” he says. “In the United States, they track victims for six months after the accident.”
The agency’s figures also omit data about how far Peruvians travel by road, which is usually much less than Americans and a vital element in number-crunching that can inform public policy. Taking miles traveled into account, Fairlie estimates that road users are roughly 13 times more likely to die in accidents in Peru than in the U.S.
Yet Castañeda, who did not respond to requests for comment but has previously described Velarde as a “parasite,” has proven more interested in removing any traces of his political rivals’ policies than improving road safety in Lima.
The career public functionary, who served as Lima’s mayor from 2003 to 2010 before his current term started in 2015, had a series of murals, commissioned from Peruvian and international artists by his predecessor Susana Villarán, painted over in yellow, his party colors.
He even froze work on a series of pedestrian bridges, initiated by her, over a freeway to the city’s Pacific beaches, leaving them rusting and abandoned for years while beachgoers have limited safe options to get to the ocean. And the mayor also reversed a much-needed shakeup of the combi system started by Villarán.
But more than anything else Castañeda’s trademark policy has been his “obras,” literally “public works” – massively expensive bypasses, tunnels, bridges and the widening of roads, which he has used to justify his public silences, saying they are better than “words.”
In one proposed $60 million project in San Isidro, Castañeda, who has a 54 percent disapproval rating, according to one recent poll, wants to widen the leafy Aramburu boulevard from two lanes to three. According to Fairlie, the project, which Velarde is attempting to block in the courts, would actually create more traffic and delays by simply displacing bottlenecks further along the thoroughfare rather than strategically managing traffic.
Fairlie says that simply modernizing Aramburu’s traffic lights, including making them interactive so they can read vehicle volumes, would have vastly better results at a fraction of the cost.
That would include the average vehicle being delayed for just 17 seconds rather than the current 236, or 309 if there are three lanes, according to his calculations. If Castañeda gets his way, fuel consumption at the series of intersections would rise from 8,253 liters per hour to 10,425. Under Fairlie’s proposal, consumption would fall to 1,375.
Mario Candia, a Peruvian traffic engineer who co-authored the U.S. Highway Safety Manual before returning to consult in his Andean homeland, says that Lima’s problems epitomize the entire nation.
“It’s very easy to explain,” Candia says. “Officials in the municipalities and even in the Ministry of Transport and Communications lack the technical qualifications. There is also a lot of corruption. Even police information about accidents is collected in a highly informal way, often just on scraps of paper, and it is not computerized. That is no way to make public policy.”
Velarde is now running to replace Castañeda, who has termed out, as mayor of the entire city in the October municipal elections. He’s campaigning on a platform that would, he says, “drastically” change Lima’s model from one that privileges private vehicles to one that promotes public spaces and favors pedestrians, cyclists and a modern public transportation system.
A career lawyer before entering politics, Velarde has yet to register significant support in a crowded electoral field. But with the approval rating of the best-placed candidates hovering in the mid-teens, and given the notorious volatility of the Peruvian electorate, he could yet mount a serious challenge.
If he does, it will be because he is virtually the only candidate with a strong, clear message regarding what 48 percent of voters, according to this recent poll, believe should be a top priority for Lima’s next mayor: traffic and public transportation. His challenge, however, will be in overcoming widespread voter apathy and the failure of local media to talk about the root causes of Lima’s traffic woes, rather than just sensationally covering the latest fatal crash.