December 21, 2013
When getting there is never half the fun
On the frequent occasions that the daily ordeal of the suburban commuter is transformed into a living nightmare by irresponsible strikes, extreme weather conditions or an accident, the usual press approach is to highlight the human side of the suffering — this is certainly valid enough because people are at the heart of this story but perhaps it is also worth bringing attention to how much this hurts economic productivity and leads to a dysfunctional society. If there are approximately five jobs for every six people in the Federal Capital as against one for every three in Greater Buenos Aires, it stands to reason that working in the former and living in the latter is an extremely common combination — in fact it accounts for nearly a half of this city’s workforce and continues to rise. If suburban rail commuting continues to deteriorate due to strike problems (both because of the recent estrangement between the Cristina Fernández de Kirchner administration and much of organized labour in general and due to the running battle between the Interior and Transport Ministry and the train-drivers’ union resentful of being held responsible for recent accidents in particular) and because of a decade of giving priority to subsidized train fares over railway modernization, it thus makes a difference to the country as well as to individual lives — if suburban commuters are increasingly taking two hours to travel distances averaging 10-15 kilometres, efficiency also suffers.
While it is extremely logical to view the exasperating train-drivers as a labour problem while laying the increasingly inhuman travel conditions at the door of the Interior and Transport Ministry, a more holistic approach is also needed. The conditions of rail travel form part of a lack of infrastructural investment across the board — in the case of transport in particular the rising fuel import bill crowds out the funds available for investment. The artificial boundary between this city and Greater Buenos Aires (as evidenced in the dramatically differing proportions of people working and living downtown and in the suburbs or in the contrast between overcrowded shantytowns or low-income neighbourhoods and empty housing downtown) also complicates all problems — with a more integrated transport system, people would have to change their buses and/or combine them with trains a lot less.
Perhaps the greater protagonism of mayors in this election campaign will bring more attention to the municipal aspects — at all events these issues deserve to figure more prominently in electoral platforms.