Planning in Lima: Should transport planning be guiding metropolitan planning?

By Ana Maria Fernandez-Maldonado

In July 2013, Discovery Channel released an episode of its show “Don’t drive here”, dedicated to Lima’s traffic issues, in a series that also included Delhi, Mexico City, Manila, Bangkok and Ulaanbaatar. The makers of the show stated “…Lima, Peru – (which) just MIGHT be our best show of the series. Lots of laughs, lots of harrowing moments and you might be surprised how packed and colourful Lima is.”
The show had a profound impact on the local press and social networks. Many were worried about the image of Lima that the program broadcasts, which might be damaging the government-led campaign to attract tourism improving Peru’s image. Nevertheless, most people recognize that the program adequately shows the reality of Lima’s traffic: different types of vehicles and people competing for mobility, where the right of way is determined by whoever gets there first (see figure 1). The program also portrays the recklessness of the public transport drivers, and their notorious disregard for traffic rules. This chaos results in a large number of accidents, so the program recommends: “if you care for your life, don’t drive here”.

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Figure 1. Street scene from “Don’t drive here’, showing vehicles, pedestrians and street vendors competing for space in the streets of Lima.

A good question here is: how could the situation get so far? Many reasons are behind this, beginning with the neglect of successive national and local governments. Informal public transportation has thrived during the two decades-long absence of a massive transit system in a city of more than 8 million people. The recklessness of the informal micro-bus drivers is explained by the perverse functioning of the transport system that induces them to fiercely compete for passengers (Bielich, 2009). The roads are packed because the number of vehicles has doubled during the last eight years, while the oversupply of public transport and taxis is outstanding. To give an idea of the excess: there are more than 230,000 taxis circulating in Lima, (only 90,000 of which are licensed) while New York has 13,000 taxis.
Since most of Lima’s residents and visitors are confronted with this situation on a daily basis, traffic-related issues are perceived as one of Lima’s most pressing problems. The resulting pollution, excessive noise, loss of time in transportation, insecurity, excessive number of accidents, etc., are frequently appearing on the media. Bloggers, journalists and commentators regularly complain about the lack of planning and “demand” it from the government.
While powerful groups continuously attempt to undermine its legitimacy, the metropolitan government has made the transport reform an important part of its policy. It is currently trying to deal with the situation through the gradual implementation of an integrated mass transit system and the regulation of the existing public transport (see for example, Stiglich, 2011). But to reverse decades of transport informality and the drivers’ culture, not to mention the dealings of the powerful transport mafias, will require much more than infrastructure provision and regulation.
Traffic in Lima is indeed intolerable, but the situation in other aspects of urban life in Lima, as, for example, housing and water provision, is not less critical and urgent. Paraphrasing Don’t drive here, Teresa Cabrera (2013), a young researcher from DESCO NGO has written “Don’t live here” (see figure 2), where she clearly states the correlation between traffic issues and housing issues in the other cities visited by the Don’t drive here program.

Figure 2: Photo of Lima in “No viva aquí” Source:

Figure 2: Photo of Lima in “No viva aquí” Source:

Peru has, after Nicaragua and Bolivia, the largest housing deficit in Latin America, very much concentrated in Lima. This, combined with no affordable housing alternatives for the poor, feeds up the continuous formation and growth of informal settlements in peripheral areas. The necessary connection of these neighbourhoods to the basic urban networks is a long, expensive and complicated affair, that puts a great strain on the quality of life of their residents. It also constitutes a huge diseconomy, for it is calculated that it is necessary to invest up to 7,5 times the cost of a regular development scheme to retrofit them into standard neighbourhoods (Bouillon, 2012). Informal developments are also unsustainable in social terms, due to the resulting socio-spatial segregation, as well as in environmental terms, due to the large consumption of land they imply. Lima’s housing sustainability issues are, however, less present in the media because they do not affect all residents, only the poor.

Metropolitan Lima has to deal with “the legacy of inequality and negligence” in urban affairs (Martine and McGranahan, 2012) that characterizes Latin American countries. Metropolitan planning is framed within a formalistic and normative planning system. Local governments pass many legal norms, ordinances and strict building codes, but there is very little concrete results of the achievement of the proposed aims and objectives (Garcia, 2009). This is accompanied by political and administrative fragmentation, lack of sectoral coordination, and the imposition of policies stemming from the national level over local decisions. There is a tradition of presidents that act as mayors of Lima that dates back to the 19th century and is explained by the Peruvian centralism (Riofrío, 2010). More importantly, the imposition of national over local decision-making greatly increased in the 1990s, due to the alienation of the municipal districts’ autonomy during the Fujimori administration (Crot, 2012).
These problems have been associated to the weakness and low legitimacy of institutions that characterize the Peruvian context. This worsened during “the progressive decomposition of Peruvian democratic institutions (that occurred) between the presidential inauguration of Alberto Fujimori in July 1990 and the announcement of his leave on 16 September 2000.” (Crot, 2002:244). A World Bank report (2001) dealing with the institutional roots of poor governance in Peru during that period mentioned, among other issues, the institutional disorder created by a confusing administrative structure that weakened transparency and accountability, incoherent policy-making, and weak checks and balances on both central and local government levels.
The consequence of such poor governance has been a serious neglect for urban planning, with serious negative effects on the city life. Evidently, it is not possible to make coherent urban plans within incoherent institutional settings (Neuman, 2012). “While the districts regained their autonomy after Alejandro Toledo’s election in 2001, the ten previous years of uncoordinated spatial policies and nonexistent metropolitan agenda have frustrated urban planning and become engraved onto the city’s territorial organization.” (Crot, 2006, p.244).
Unsurprisingly, compared to other Latin American cities, Lima appears below average in most Latin American cities’ rankings. For example, in the McKinsey Global Institute report on global competitiveness (Cadena et al., 2011), Lima is the only large Latin American city that ranks below average in all four key indicators: economic performance, social conditions, sustainable urban resource use and finance and governance (see figure 3).

Figure 3. Key performance indicators in selected Latin American cities. The benchmark is the average of New York, Toronto, Singapore and Helsinki. Source: Cadena et al., 2011.

Figure 3. Key performance indicators in selected Latin American cities. The benchmark is the average of New York, Toronto, Singapore and Helsinki. Source: Cadena et al., 2011.

In the Latin American Green City Index (The Economist Intelligence Unit and Siemens, 2010) that measured energy and CO2, transport, water, air quality, land use and buildings, waste, sanitation and environmental governance, among 17 Latin American cities, Lima ranks well-below average (see figure 4).

Figure 4. Overall results of sixteen cities in the Latin American Green City Index. Source: The Economist Intelligence Unit and Siemens, 2010.

Figure 4. Overall results of sixteen cities in the Latin American Green City Index. Source: The Economist Intelligence Unit and Siemens, 2010.

In this difficult planning context, the recent approval of the Plan Regional de Desarrollo Concertado de Lima 2012-2025 (Lima’s Participative Regional Development Plan) elaborated in consultation with a large number of organisations of the civil society (Municipalidad Metropolitana de Lima, 2013), is a very auspicious development. The Plan regional is a framework to guide Lima’s future development, but it lacks a spatial vision or a shared image of place, something considered indispensable to “guide the planning process and the development of the territory; … (and to) shape the entire institution of governance in which planning is situated” (Neuman, 2012: 139). The corresponding “urban plan” should come in the future, for which the mayor has recently appointed a Consultation Board with eleven planners that will be in charge of its elaboration (Ortiz de Zevallos, 2013).

While the planning debate is almost absent, the debate and visions on transport matters are proliferating. Many civil society initiatives (formed by NGOs, associations, universities, consultancy and private firms) have emerged in the field of transport – Cruzada Vial, Transitemos Foundation, Luz Ambar, Lima Como Vamos – asking the authorities to bring some order to Lima’s traffic. Aspiring mayors are spreading their own vision for the future of transport in Lima (Caretas, 2013). Stating that it is ‘time to confront the chaos’, a group formed by ten local institutions has just submitted a proposal to the metropolitan municipality to improve transport and road security in Lima (El Comercio, 2013). The proposal, elaborated with assistance of academics from the University College London, aspires to be approved by the involved public institutions (Ministry of Transport and two provincial municipalities) to make it a binding document to guide Lima’s urban transport development. Its key objectives: prioritizing public transport; urban regeneration; strategic densification and mixed land use; creating a technical agency for transport planning in Lima and Callao; reducing pollution; using resources rationally; and developing technical skills in transportation and planning.
It is not clear up to what extent is this remarkable “infrastructural turn” in Lima’s urban debate is in fact driven by sustainable development considerations. Transport is at the centre of the public debate because powerful stakeholders have interest in the alleviation of the traffic issues, while politicians see it as a topic that may render fast political dividends. But the equally urgent housing and governance issues have less supportive institutions and less powerful stakeholders. In the current circumstances, it seems that transportation planning would be the cure of all urban evils in Lima, guiding its future development. Transport planning is evidently an important element in the search for a sustainable type of urban development. But it can never substitute a long-term type of spatial planning, that effectively coordinates between the different sectors that intervene in the urban development process without neglecting the most deprived groups. Giving priority to transport issues is another expression of Lima’s serious problems in terms of governance.


Bielich, C. (2009) La guerra del centavo. Una mirada actual al transporte público en Lima Metropolitana. Lima: IEP

Bouillon, C.P. (ed.), (2012) Room for Development. Housing Markets in Latin America and the Caribbean, Inter-American Development Bank. Washington, DC: Palgrave Macmillan.

Cabrera, T. (2013) No viva aquí, In: La (

Cadena, A., Remes, J., Manyika, J., Dobbs, R., Roxburgh, C., Elstrodt, H.P., Chaia, A., Restrepo, A. (2011) Building globally competitive cities: The key to Latin American growth. McKinsey Global Institute.

Caretas (2013) No Te Cruces Aquí, In: Caretas, Agosto 23, 2013.

El Comercio (2013) Instituciones presentaron propuesta para mejorar transporte en la capital, In: El Comercio, jueves 22 de agosto del 2013.

Crot, L. (2002). Pérou 2001: Vers une démocratie sans adjectifs? Cahiers des Amériques Latines, Vol. 38, pp. 141–156.

Garcia, R. (2009). Lima megaciudad y megaproblemas. Quehacer, No. 174, pp. 78–85.

Martine G. and McGranahan, G. (2013) The legacy of inequality and negligence in Brazil’s unfinished urban transition: lessons for other developing regions, International Journal of Urban Sustainable Development, Vol. 5, No.1, pp. 7-24

Riofrio, G. (2010). Alan García, Alcalde de Lima. Perú Hoy. Desarrollo, democracia y otras fantasías. (pp. 71–96). Lima: DESCO.

Stiglich, M. (2011)  El paro de transportistas: parando la reforma del transporte. In: Lugares Comunes. Ciudades, planificación, políticas públicas… (

Municipalidad Metropolitana de Lima (2013) Plan Regional de Desarrollo Concertado de Lima al 2025 (

Neuman, M. (2012) The Image of the Institution. A Cognitive Theory of Institutional Change, Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 78, No. 2, pp. 139-156

Ortiz de Zevallos, A. (2013) Lima tendrá un plan urbano, in Diario 16, Edición Digital Beta 2.0, Martes 25 de Junio del 2013

The Economist  Intelligence Unit and Siemens, A. G. (2010) Latin American Green City Index. Munich: Siemens AG.

World Bank (2001). Peru Institutional Governance Review (No. 22637-PE). World Bank Poverty Reduction and Economic Management Unit.

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