Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Riding the bus in Buenos Aires - One big coin-trick

A classic colectivo by Chevrolet
Prepay travel cards like London’s Oyster Card are still not really in full swing in Buenos Aires. The Monedero Card was introduced a few years back as a way to travel on the city’s underground (SUBTE), but so far the vast majority of the buses which trudge around the streets will still only accept coins for tickets.

That is set to change with the launch of the new Sube (Get on) card which will ensure that all buses offer an alternative to using coins to ‘get on’.

The system is being designed and implemented by Siemens Argentina on behalf of the transport ministry of the national government. It will enable train, underground and bus users to just jump on and swipe. But it’s not without its enemies.

The bus companies have pulled out all the stops to block the implementation of the system. 

  1. The system will be transparent with takings automatically and centrally recorded by El Banco de La Nación Argentina.
  2. The bus companies will lose control of the black market trade in coins that it is claimed they reign over.
Buses in Argentina are known as colectivos and their history in Buenos Aires is a bright and colourful one.During the early years of the twentieth century, the two million inhabitants of Argentina's capital were already used to seeing cars on the streets and by 1913 were riding Latin America’s first underground railway, Linea A which runs below Avenida de Mayo. 

Taxis too were whizzing around but in the 1920s a new form of transport blossomed. Those who couldn’t afford the taxi tariffs could ‘collectively’ pull together and ride what aptly came to be known as colectivos.

Early colectivos in the 1920s
The first colectivos were small buses made from the chassis of cars and vans. As their prominence grew, they began to run pre-defined routes at lower prices than the city’s trams and ‘real’ buses. Each line was operated by different entrepreneurs and to make themselves more visible, the colectivos were painted with bright and dazzling colours. They soon became the main form of transport.

By the 1950s models by Mercedes-Benz and Chevrolet became the standard colectivos and continued to be so until the early 1990s when they were finally replaced by modern bus-looking vehicles. (Though many of the traditional ones still operate in locations outside of the Capital).

One thing that never changed however, is that each number colectivo is run by individual private companies. There are close to one hundred different companies operating in Buenos Aires and though the prices of tickets (boletos) are set and subsidised by the state, making travel cheap for the consumer, the companies are profit-making businesses; and they can conduct themselves as honestly or dishonestly as they choose.

In 1995 as a means to prevent robberies on the buses and to leave the driver to concentrate exclusively on driving, coin-only ticket machines were introduced on colectivos. This means that the only way to pay for your ticket on a Buenos Aires bus is with loose change. The machines were successful in reducing the number of driver robberies (though the occasional driver does still lose a finger as desperate thieves attempt to force him to open the machine he has no access to), but as commuters hoard coins to ensure they always have the change to board their bus, the city is consistently hit with coin shortages and a black market flourishes. It is argued that bus companies take advantage of this opportunity, purposefully withholding coins in an effort to widen city shortages. They then sell the coins back into the market at more than their face value; adding a little something extra to their income.

The bus companies deny this of course and point to the fact that they often provide ticket sellers at popular stops, from whom tickets can be purchased with banknotes.

But for bus travellers throughout Buenos Aires, coins are a most valuable commodity. Whether you're holding on to the shrapnel you've got, making purchases planned on how many coins you'll get as change, queuing for hours at a bank or buying eight 1peso coins with a ten peso banknote on the dark market; getting the coins to travel can be a constant struggle and the coin-only ticket machines mean it's the bus companies who have what you need. Demand is high and they control the supply. 

Today's colourful 152 runs from Olivos to Boca
With the new Sube card potentially eliminating the necessity for coins altogether, it is understandable why they seem to be so against it. This time though, it appears the city's politicians have shunned business and sided with the consumers; and the Sube card will make their everyday travel a whole lot simpler. 


  1. Can you imagine your mother on one of those things? Mine would go flying out the windscreen at the first red light.

    (Systema Unico de Boleto Electronico)

  2. The drivers can hurtle around the streets quite erratically. There was another death last week as a bus rounded a corner and ran over a 30 year old woman crossing on a green man.

    And you're right, when the bus is packed and you're standing up, it can be tough to keep your balance.

  3. Thoroughly enjoy reading these well researched and written articles on life in Buenos Aires. Excellent work!

  4. Hi Simon, I totally agree with Kari. Remember me from English class at Siemens? very interesting your blog, continue writing this type of things, it really amazes me how you've captured argetina essence. Bye!

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