Who is your city really building trains for?

In my last city the train was horrible

In the last city I lived (Brisbane, Australia), I preferred not to use the public train system for intra city transit. I had to walk through a bad couple of blocks to get to the station nearest to my house, and to me, the station platforms weren’t an inviting place to wait between train arrivals. They were often grimey, poorly lit, and it didn’t seem like there was much security around if you were on the platform after business hours. If the stations seemed dirty and a little dangerous, the train carriages were even more so. The windows were almost always scratched out with graffiti, and I felt kind of like I was riding a New York subway in the 1980s.


Brisbane 2012, or NYC 1982?

Nevermind that they only came every 20 minutes or so, and the zone-based ticketing system seemed to me to be unfairly structured against those who lived in poorer outer suburbs. And it’s not just time to wait and the price system. Brisbane trains have a problem with their network and city coverage; basically, where they go. In NYC, Paris, London, and other places with metro systems, the lines worm across each other. In Brisbane they all lead in to the city and out. 

The trains in my new home of Santiago are much better.

In Santiago, Chile, where I live now, the system is much nicer. While Santiago has a metro system, and Brisbane has commuter rail, they are both train-based public transportation for the purpose of this comparison.


Santiago metro stations also double as museums.

The stations in Santiago are beautifully decorated and easy to navigate. The train carriages are spacious, with less seating and no carpet on the floor, which makes them seem cleaner. They also come every couple of minutes, so even if you walk onto the platform as a train is pulling away, you don’t have enough time to catch up on your Twitter feed before the next one arrives.  Inside the carriage is so clean you could eat off the floor. Well, maybe not, but I’ve seen a lot of people sit on the floor.


Inside a metro car in Santiago.

Obviously, I’m impressed. But I’m new enough here that the novelty of walking 20 minutes to the station from my house hasn’t worn off, so I don’t mind yet. I’m also lucky enough to live in a suburb that has a train line running along two sides of it.

I assumed trains would provide the most benefit to people like Nancy

I live with my boyfriend and his parents in Las Condes, one of the wealthier areas of Santiago. Because of the social system here, it’s pretty normal for households like the one I’m staying in to have a maid, or nana, who comes from a poorer neighbourhood every day and cleans the house.


Nancy and Me

It took some time for me to get used to this, and I still feel bad for leaving my clothes out for her to iron.  Santiago is a very class segmented city, and which suburb you were born in really impacts how people treat you, and what sort of employment you’re likely to take up (An article worth checking out that gets into this much further is here).

I initially thought that the metro would be good for nanas who have to travel across the city to get to the wealthier neighbourhoods where they work, because of another thing that the Santiago public transport system does right: flat fares. While the prices do differ between rush hour schedule and normal schedule (670 pesos to 610 pesos, the difference being the equivalent of around 12 cents), you pay the same price no matter how far you go, including two transfers.

These flat fare tickets are much more of a progressive scheme than the concentric ticketing going on in Brisbane. Ticketing schemes like Brisbane’s make it more expensive and difficult for people living in disadvantaged suburbs to travel to the city to work in potentially higher paying jobs. Or at least have the aspiration to work in higher paying jobs. When you decrease the ease of mobility it encourages people to work jobs in certain areas that aren’t expensive to travel to. This restriction, though it may be self-imposed, decreases opportunity available to an individual, which in turn decreases their aspiration for what they can do or achieve.


Brisbane’s concentric public transport fare zones.

According to a report by the Australian Bureau of Statistics on socio-economic indexes, the most disadvantaged Brisbane suburb in 2008 was Inala. To travel from Inala to the CBD today would cost $7.90 for a single adult ticket each way ($5.43 if using a go card). To travel from Santiago’s poorest suburb, La Pintana, to the CBD? Around $1.30.

But Nancy don’t use the metro in Santiago

While all this is great, I found out that Nancy doesn’t actually use the metro when coming to work. Instead, each day she catches three buses to get to our apartment, and two buses to get back to her house. This is what the buses in Santiago look like:


This is the first bus Nancy takes in the morning

The black line in the map below is the bus route Nancy has to take to get from her house to mine, with current metro lines marked in as well. The bus icons indicate where she makes exchanges. Nancy tells me that the trip takes anywhere between 1 hour and 45 minutes to 2 hours and 15 minutes.

View Nancy’s Route in a larger map

Nancy’s route to work is shown in black

The buses in Santiago aren’t nearly as inviting as the metro, and it’s not just that the metro is necessarily prettier than the buses, it’s also more sensible to use them in terms of congestion - Nancy often complains of having to be late to work due to traffic conditions. One of the big pluses for trains is the separation from the rest of the transit system.

The reason Nancy catches buses instead of the metro is because the metro line doesn’t reach out as far as the suburb where she lives yet. So, as she says, she doesn’t have an alternative. Of course, were she to take the metro, Nancy would still have to make the 20 minute walk from the station to our apartment, so perhaps a bus is preferable for that reason too, but the point is that it’s not really an option for her. The bus and metro systems are integrated for the most part, and both use the bip! card for electronic ticketing. (It’s called a bip! because that’s the noise it makes when you press it against a card reader.)

But for some reason, changing from bus to train incurs a one-sided fee, strangely not charged when changing from train to bus. This fee can be seen as a disincentive, albeit a small one, and I’m not sure why they don’t just do away with it. It could be part of Santiago’s “Arsenal of Exclusion”, one of the almost invisible but intentional things which urban planners use to keep neighbourhoods separate (I recommend listening to the 99% Invisible podcast on the topic for a better understanding). When New York City changed their buses to link to their subway, they saw a massive increase in cross usage. This cross usage is something poorer residents of Santiago would benefit from, without the subtle barrier of a small fare increase.


Santiago transport’s bip! card (actually, this one belongs to me)

I wondered whether Nancy’s experience was the exception or the rule

Here’s a map I made of current metro lines and Santiago suburbs, broken down into quartiles of median household income (using 2009 figures). There are 32 municipalities, or suburbs, of Santiago, so each quartile is made up of eight suburbs. The pink areas make up the first quartile (lowest median income), the green areas make up the second quartile, the yellow the third, and the orange the fourth quartile (highest median income):

View HID STGO 2012 in a larger map

The location of the metro in comparison to Nancy

I put my house in as the girl icon (right near the red metro line), and Nancy’s suburb in as the star with the arrow (because the woman is a star). There is no metro stop anywhere near her. As a matter of fact, of all the suburbs in the same quartile as Nancy, only three of the eight have a metro line going through or on the side of them. Of the upper quartile, where I live, six suburbs have metro access.  So it’s the rule.  The poorest neighbourhoods in Santiago don’t have access to the metro.

Does the expansion of the metro into it’s area change it’s wealth?

We have a natural experiment to test this question.  The metro lines have been expanding over the past decade. New lines were constructed and extra stops added to the current lines. A lot of construction was completed in 2005 and 2006. The map below shows the additions made to lines over this time (including the introduction of Lines 4 and 4a), along with the median income quartiles as they were in 2006. 

View HID STGO 2006 in a larger map

Metro lines with grey shows work performed in 2005-2006

So what happened to the suburbs that had line extensions?

I took a look at some historical figures of income by suburb, and mapped them against line expansions to see if there was anything interesting going on. I also looked at previously ‘poor’ areas that had the metro lines built through them recently, and tried to find out if getting a metro seemed to make residents richer.  

Of the 11 suburbs that had a new or improved line run through them, the very richest generally saw a slight decrease in their median income, followed by an even sharper increase in 2009. One rich suburb did see the opposite happen (an increase then a slight decrease), but it still remained within the highest income bracket.

The poorer households generally saw an increase in their average income, and then another increase, albeit a slightly lower percentage increase than the first. Of the three suburbs in the absolute poorest quartile, one suburb saw its average income between 2006 and 2009 increase enough to allow it to cross over into the second poorest quartile.

Is this a lasting effect?

One other area worth noting is Puente Alto. Not technically a suburb of Santiago (it’s part of the neighbouring Cordillera Province), Puente Alto was included in the line extensions of 2005-2006, and the introduction of the blue Line 4 saw the terminus constructed in its plaza. If you look on one of the maps, it’s the only non-coloured area with a metro line. Puente Alto’s median income levels were on-par with those in the second-poorest quartile of Santiago suburbs before the line extension, but in 2006 income levels rose sharply, and would have seen Puente Alto in the second-richest group of suburbs.

However, in 2009 income levels were almost back to what they were before the extensions (they were slightly higher, but not by a lot). So while the building of more lines could be perceived as bringing money to this poor area, holding onto that momentum has been a problem for Puente Alto.

Here’s a map of how the lines and income quartiles changed from 2006 to 2009 (Remember, the pink areas make up the lowest median income quartile, the green areas make up the second quartile, the yellow the third, and the orange the fourth, or highest median income quartile.)  I put it in .gif form, so you can see how the suburbs around the metro lines have changed. Watch it for awhile and you see the pattern:


Change in income quartile from 2006-2006 and metro lines

The overarching pattern for income in suburbs being newly serviced by metro line stations is that basically, the rich got a little poorer and then much richer, and the poor got a little richer and then a little bit more richer, with some exceptions.

Can we really say the metro caused this change?

Of course, there were increases in incomes in those suburbs that didn’t have line extensions, so it’s hard to definitively tie income growth exclusively to metro expansion. Also, in 2003 Chile was beginning to recover from an economic slump, and the increases in 2006 incomes across poorer households could just be reflecting this relief from income poverty.  

We cannot be totally sure if the change is correlation or causation.  That said, infrastructure like these metro expansions create jobs and allow poorer people to travel to jobs, so the contribution of projects like this to Chile’s recovery from an economic slump, and the benefit of a metro system to poorer suburbs in general is silly to ignore.

So what’s happening in the future of Santiago?

Even more new work is planned, including two new lines. Here’s a map I made of the upcoming work with the 2009 median income quartiles:

View HID STGO 2017 in a larger map

The future metro lines with the current neighbourhood incomes

The purple Line 6 and brown Line 3 are expected to be completed in 2016 and 2017 (Please note, these are just an estimation of where the stations will be; They aren’t marked in Google Maps yet. You can check back in five years and see how off I was). I left the markers in for both mine and Nancy’s houses, so you can compare to the first map, showing where the lines are today.

As you can see, most of the new tracks go through already affluent suburbs. Apart from Line 6, which links one more of the lowest income suburbs into the metro system, the majority of the planned work still won’t allow travel between the poorer suburbs and the richer ones easily, so nanas will still have to catch the bus. 

Why isn’t Santiago building the metro into poor, urban fringe areas?

It could simply be because the current lines would be hard to connect and there is no specific bias. However, discovering the decision making process behind station placement is difficult. The best justification for adding a new metro stop I’ve been able to find is “passenger demand”.  However, in Santiago, the more densely populated areas are the poorer outer suburbs. So if you were trying to connect as many people to the metro system, it would make more sense to build stations there.

Perhaps focusing so much of the metro lines in the richer areas may have been an effort to stop people using their cars. Nancy agrees, thinking that it’s “to decongest the highest traffic areas within the city”.  If this is the case, it’s not working; people still use their cars, and there doesn’t seem to be a big rush to sell them. My boyfriend’s parents actually bought a second car (a cheaper one they use to drive into the city, in case it gets scratched when they park, or stolen). So the metro has not as yet positively influenced their behaviour in this respect. In fact, they rarely even catch it. You can’t imagine the nightmare that is Friday afternoon traffic.

So while the design of Santiago’s metro stops, carriages, and services are by themselves excellent, the wider placement of lines and stations in regards to access for lower-income suburbs needs improvement. Is there a lesson? Maybe. The metro system works well when people use it, and people do use it, but I think the aim of future planning should be to get more people incorporating it into their routine, and the right people.

What lessons can we learn from Santiago?

The metro is an effective way to travel across city; it doesn’t block up traffic, it’s fast, and it’s clean.  It seems that the addition of a metro to an area might be an effective tool to improve the economic outcome of areas, though there is the chance that the effect will not last or simply displace the poorest people to other areas.

But it’s worth the change.  Future line expansions should be designed to give poorer people the opportunity to travel across the city easily. Better employment opportunities are available with greater mobility, and linking suburbs will bring down some of the social class barriers that are a big problem for Chileans.

The lessons here also translate very well to almost any city, especially those with a large class differentiation. The lessons are even more relevant to areas where the richer are more central and the poorer less so. If Chile can address its problem of social exclusion with its metro system design, it will become a model for success that other cities around the world can follow.

- Charlie - Guest Post


With editorial assistance from Tristan and Tom.


For those interested, Charlie got all her information about suburb income levels from this site (it’s in Spanish, but if you want to check it out, click on a comuna and then check out point 2.4): The source only lists median income levels, not the mean, and it would be interesting to be able to compare mean and median income levels, were both sets of figures available.

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