Coasters, Combis and Chaos: Public Transportation in Lima

Combi and Coaster minibuses in Lima. Photo by Flickr user Solangel Giannopoulou. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Combi and Coaster minibuses in Lima. Photo by Flickr user Solangel Giannopoulou. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The city of Lima is home to 8,693,387 residents as of January 2014, according to the Peruvian National Institute of Statistics and Informatics (INEI by its name in Spanish). By late June, the total population in all 43 of the capital's districts is expected to hit 8,755,262, representing 28.4 percent of the country's 30.8 million people.

With such a populated city, public transportation is a must, but Lima's public transportation system is insufficient and disorganized. The current set-up is a crowded mix of old and modern, served by the city-owned Metropolitano bus rapid transit system, only a few years old, and older, privately run minibuses such as Toyota Coasters and the notoriously aggressive smaller vehicles known as “combis.”

The government faces the mighty challenge of reforming transportation. Columbia University urban planning doctorate student Matteo Stiglich explained on his blog Lugares comunes [es] in October 2012:

La reforma del sistema de transporte público que está implementando la Municipalidad de Lima es necesaria y, si es que logra ser ejecutada como está siendo planeada, puede convertirse en uno de los mayores logros de la presente gestión.

En primer lugar, la reforma corre el riesgo de convertirse en una mayor regulación del transporte no-privado (transporte público y taxis) sin tocar a los principales generadores de congestión vehicular: los autos privados.

[…] La reforma del transporte, tanto en el discurso como en la práctica, no considera el hecho de que el tráfico privado sea el principal causante per cápita de la congestión. Si menos gente viajara en auto privado y más en transporte público (incluyendo colectivos), los tiempos de viaje de todos, en promedio, se reducirían.

The reform to the public transportation system embraced by Lima government is by all means necessary and if they manage to carry it out as planned, it might become one of main achievements by the current administration.

In the first place, the reform runs the risk of becoming more regulation for non-private transportation (public transportation and taxis) without addressing the main generators of traffic jams: private vehicles.

[…] The transportation reform, as much in discourse as in practice, doesn't consider the fact that private traffic might be the main cause per capita of traffic jams. If less people used their cars and used public transportation instead (including shared buses), average travel time would be reduced for everybody.

The blog Munay described what a ride is like [es] in one of Lima's coasters:

Nos encontramos en un espacio reducido y la única situación que deseamos controlar es la de encontrar un asiento. Estamos alertas ante cualquier movimiento y todos se abalanzan ante la inesperada desocupación de un espacio, que lamentablemente no será para ti si es que no estás alerta. Es una lucha constante.

We find ourselves in a reduced space and the only situation we want to control is finding a seat. We keep an eye out for any movement, and everybody leaps after an unexpected vacancy that unfortunately won't be for you if you are not paying attention. It's a constant struggle.

In a survey conducted [es] between April 4 and 8, 2014, 47 percent of Lima residents [es] consider public transportation as awful and another 36 percent think of it as just fair. Seventy-five percent think the city government hasn't done anything [es] to improve service.

On Twitter, opinions vary:

To the next combi collector that tells me, “So, you coming?”, I'm going to pull out his tongue with rusty pliers.

Combis are usually manned by two people: the driver and the collector, who takes passengers’ payment and announces the route by shouting it out loud.

Other tweets mentioned the high rate of car accidents caused by these vehicles:

At age 40, it's some miracle that I'm still alive with so many killer combis on the go. :/

A public transportation combi was responsible for a new car accident in Metropolitan Lima roads.

A combi owing S/.38.000 (US$13,600) in fines crashed with a truck, with the result of 13 injured passengers.

Well-known journalist Beto Ortiz tweeted:

In Lima, it's the same to use a combi or drive your own car. You'll be stuck un traffic anyway. You travel 10 km/h. 50 minutes from J.Prado to Larcomar!

But maybe it's cartoonist Andrés Edery [es] who best depicted the situation:

- Where you see a “reckless race to get a passenger”, we see “free competition”.
– These are the rules of the market.

Start the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.