“There’s a Chevrolet for everyone, ” read an advertisement at one of the many car dealships that are popping up in downtown Quito. My immediate thought after reading that was, “Good Lord I hope not….” Don’t get me wrong – I don’t have anything against Chevrolet, nor do I really know that much about the company. But what I do know is that never in my life have I seen more traffic (and I’m from Chicago… the land of endless construction) than what I’ve witnessed over the past few days in metro-Quito. On my way home that same day while sitting in more traffic, I saw an advertisment that said “Compra Petro-Ecuador” (Buy Ecuadorian petroleum), and later that night I watched a public service advertisement practically beg Ecuadorians to vote AGAINST drilling for oil in the Yasuni National Forest. Now Ecuador, I know you need to dream big… but how you ‘gonna put every one of your 14 million citizens in a Chevy, ask them to buy Ecuadorian gasoline (which is in limited supply as it is), and all the while cease drilling for more oil in your precious forests?? Looks like Ecuador is about to (if they haven’t already) find themselves in a sticky situation. Let’s dive in a bit deeper…
4 years ago when I was studying here, it took about 15-20 minutes to get from my town of Cumbaya to Quito – a distance of about 10 miles. Not bad, right? Today, on my way to Quito, it took 15 minutes to move less than… wait for it… a QUARTER MILE! Is this for real?? Needless to say I was incredibly late for my appointment, even according to Latin time. Traffic is pretty standard in most big cities, and I get that. But Ecuador’s population has only grown by less than 2% in the past 10 years, and mostly in rural areas. So how is it that all this traffic came about (not to mention, increased greenhouse gas emissions less than 50 miles from the edge of the world’s lungs…aka the Amazon rainforest)?
Well, as is happening in a lot of emerging markets that have experienced economic growth from oil exportation, consumerism is the new fashion drug. If you can afford a car, or at least the loan payments that Ecuadorian banks will gladly offer you at criminal interest rates, then you mostly have a car or two. Public transportation? Forget it… Why ride with those of a lower economic status when you can turn a blind eye to the have-nots and relax in an air conditioned car (when its sunny and 65 outside) listening to American one hit wonders from the 80’s? No, no, no… you would not be caught dead on a public bus. As my host brother relayed to me this morning, having a nice car for everyone who drives in your family is a status symbol. For instance, if you have two children both of driving age who go to the same university, they’ll probably each take their own cars to school. (I know this happens in the US as well, and I don’t agree with it there, either).
Now the busses in Ecuador aren’t exactly the nicest vehicles you’ve ever seen. They can be very crowded and loud. But they’re cheap ($0.25 a ride), get you pretty much everywhere you need to go, and yesterday got me to my appointment sooner than any car could have since most busses have their own lane.
In Ecuador’s defense, they did try to implement a program called “Pico y Placa.” This program basically dictates which days your car can ciruclate in Quito during rush hour (pico), based on the last number on your license plate (placa). In theory, it sounds good. But in practice, instead of taking the bus on certain days of the week, those who could afford it just bought another car or two making sure the license plates allowed them to drive all days.
Some of you might be asking why they just don’t widen the roads? While this is definitely an option in certain places, and its being done. But Quito rests in the middle of the Andes mountains, with the surrounding metro area below in the valley. To get up to Quito is to take a series of switchbacks…. and when was the last time you saw a 6-lane switchback up a mountain?
The worse thing of all of this is that because of all the traffic, it takes the the city busses that go between the valley and Quito a longer time to complete each route. And because each bus now can’t pick up as many passengers in a day as it used to, there are talks of raising bus fares to compensate for the loss in profits. The majority of people who ride the bus are of the lowest economic class in Quito. A fare increase for them means a decrease in the little expendable income they have for themselves and their families. This alone is one of the many factors that assists in widening the gap between the rich and the poor in Ecuador.
While there is a solution to this traffic problem, it’s not a simple one. I’ll most certainly be thinking about it on my way to Coca (in the Amazon!) tomorrow morning. The next time you’ll hear from me I’ll probably be writing from my hammock overlooking the Napo river. As always, sending muchos besos y abrazos!