EVERY weekday morning, Zarhay Infante leaves home in the Caracas dormitory town of Guarenas shortly after 5am. If the journey goes well, she reaches her office in the capital, some 30km (19 miles) away, around three-and-a-half hours later. “Three years ago, when I started doing this,” Ms Infante says, “I could get to Caracas in 45 minutes on the motorway. But it gets worse every day.”
This road congestion is tribute to an economic growth which, thanks to the rise in the oil price, has averaged around 9% a year since 2004. But it is also a failure of public policy. Caracas, a city of some 2m, is crammed into a narrow valley flanked by mountains. Many of the 3m people living in the surrounding suburbs commute to the capital each day. No new major roads have been built in the Caracas conurbation since the 1970s, while in that time the number of cars in the area has risen from 200,000 to over 1.4m. In the five years from 2002 to 2007, around a quarter of a million private vehicles were added, including 70,000 in 2006 alone. The city has become gridlocked, with rush-hours replaced by semi-permanent congestion. Travelling a mere five or six blocks can take an hour, especially when it rains.
The left-wing government of President Hugo Chávez subsidises car use by keeping the price of petrol at just 4 cents a litre (a level that rivals that of Gulf states such as Kuwait). Most public transport is chaotic, antiquated and inadequate. The government has completed one suburban railway line and a third metro line (both were inaugurated ahead of a presidential election in 2006 whilst in fact the lines were still unfinished).
But the new lines have done precious little to ease the problem. Buses, metro and trains are all run by different bodies, which have never learnt to co-ordinate their schedules. Passengers typically have to change several times to reach their destination. In an agreement signed in 2007 by Ken Livingstone, then London’s mayor, some of his officials began to advise Mr Chávez’s government on urban transport in return for fuel subsidies from Venezuela for London’s buses. This scheme was cancelled by London’s new Conservative mayor, Boris Johnson, but Mr Livingstone last month agreed to work for Mr Chávez as a consultant.
Congestion is a drag on the economy. According to one economist, cutting 30 minutes from average journey times would save up to $3 billion a year. But neither the government nor the chavista mayor of metropolitan Caracas has come up with a plan to tackle congestion. Last year, the opposition mayors of two Caracas districts banned car owners from using their cars one day a week. Traffic eased somewhat, and the ban proved popular, if controversial. But then the courts ruled it unconstitutional. And Venezuela’s polarised politics has made co-ordinated action impossible.
Mr Chávez’s latest idea is to add an upper deck to the city’s motorways (as Andrés Manuel López Obrador, another left-winger, did when mayor of Mexico City). Experts from Shandong, a province in the north-east of China, were asked to produce a feasibility study, and the government now proposes to start work. But without other measures, an extra motorway deck will merely place yet more strain on already saturated access roads. According to the Venezuelan Society of Transport and Road Engineers, the metropolitan area urgently needs at least 100km of new roads, including the completion of a ring-road—first mooted in the 1970s.
Reversing three decades of neglect will take years, as well as political will. Meanwhile, some Venezuelans try to adapt. “I waste six hours every day in traffic jams,” says Dalila Solórzano, who commutes from Guatire, to the east of Caracas. “I try to make use of the time by listening to recorded English classes.” She seems bound to become fluent.