Approximately 80% of Salvadorans use the bus system, and out of our scholarship families that number rises to more than 90%. While the inconveniences of public transportation in countries like the United States are often related to scheduling, proximity of stops, and transit times, the difficulties in El Salvador are more grave: crime, violence, and sexual harassment.
Owning and maintaining a car, including paying for gas to get through San Salvador’s daily traffic jams is simply out of reach for most families when compared to paying $0.20-25 cents for a ride in the city. With that being said, taking several buses a day to get across town and back home could cost at least $1 a day—or 12.5% of minimum wage. Within our scholarship families that regularly use public transportation, average spending was about $27 a month.
Despite government subsidies, low fares mean that the conditions on most buses are less than desirable. A typical bus in the system is a school bus from the United States that was deemed to no longer be fit for circulation and was then brought down and repurposed in El Salvador to fit more passengers. Although the government owns the bus routes and permissions to operate on those routes, these are sold to private individuals to provide services, creating fierce competition for passengers. Bus drivers are not required to receive accreditation beyond an appropriate driver’s license and a short course, and many are reckless and disrespectful of basic traffic laws. An imbalance of supply and demand during peak hours leads to severe overcrowding of buses.
Compounding these uncomfortable and dangerous conditions is the vulnerability of the public transportation system to crime and violence. Users pay their fares in cash, making bus drivers easy targets for armed robberies. El Salvador’s main gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha and the 18th Street gang, have institutionalized such robberies into established extortion payments due weekly or monthly, costing the industry an estimated $34 million a year. Related problems also cost bus drivers their lives, with 70 employees killed on the job in 2014, and a similar number last year.
For passengers, armed robberies and pickpocketing is not uncommon, and an estimated 28% of all robberies and thefts occur on buses or at bus stops. Given El Salvador’s gang problem, it is also not uncommon for gang members to identify young men transiting through their territory who come from rival areas – whether gang members or not, this could lead to kidnapping and disappearance. For women, overcrowding also creates the kinds of conditions that lead to sexual harassment. For the average Salvadoran, the dangers are real and significant.
In addition to using the bus for basic transportation, some of our scholarship parents also work as informal vendors who use the buses as a place of employment, selling candy, nuts, or other small items. One of the women in our Women’s Empowerment Project previously worked selling items on the buses, but was able to receive vocational training through the project to work as a hair stylist, a far less demanding and dangerous occupation.
Taking the bus in El Salvador is an everyday, commonplace activity. On some routes outside the city, it can even be an enjoyable experience, with air-conditioning and television screens to project movies. It is nevertheless a sort of Russian roulette, especially in urban areas, that takes a psychological toll and is a reminder of one’s vulnerability to the many difficulties of life in this country.
Check out our infographic on public transporatation in El Salvador below, and come back next week for another installment in this three-month series.