I have been living in Buenos Aires for 4 months now, and trying to figure out how the city worked, from the transportation point of view (among others!). I won’t pretend that I achieved that, of course, but observing and reading local researchers’ papers brought me some interesting insights. I will try to present them here briefly, and there will certainly be follow-ups.


Highway, urban part (situation map >>>, view direction North)


This post will have 3 parts:

  • A short qualitative overview on the city’s context
  • Some complementary figures and details on the offer and the modal split
  • And finally some ideas on the involved mechanisms


The context in two words

The city and the networks

3 million people live in the Municipality of Buenos Aires (Ciudad Autonoma de Buenos Aires, or CABA), and 13 millions in its agglomeration (RMBA). CABA is circled by a the motorway ring, recognizable on the map with its straight segments, collecting the heavy access traffic. The streets grid is quite regular and organized in wide avenues and secondary streets, mainly. Heavy congestions can be observed during the peak hours, when the air can litterally taste like exhaust smoke. Except some Metrobus (BRT) infrastructures, the public busses share the streets with the traffic and their efficience suffers from the jams.

The busses play the main role in the public transport service. More than 100 lines are operated by different private contractors and constitute a complex system – approximately 90% of the road infrastructure is used by the bus routes, but there is no general plan / overview or stations location (two main apps allow to find the different routes – Omnilineas and the city’s tool, only for CABA). The busses circulate generally 24/7 but without timetable and mainly without any frequency indication.

The city is also served by 6 underground lines and a regional train network. The underground serves partly the very central area (the stations and their influence zones are represented in orange on the map below). The frequencies and travel times are good, but the system is saturated in the (extended) peak hours and inexisting in the evenings (end of service between 9 and 10.30 pm; besides that, the line B isn’t operated from Saturday noon to Monday morning).

The railway network serves numerous stations (in pink on the map below) and is operated through a complex radial network finishing in several urban stations. The service is very cheap but extremely saturated on work days, generally slow and offering poor connections with the underground, in terms of interfaces design and legibility. It is also inexisting in the evenings.


Railway and underground stations in the Buenos Aires agglomeration (RMBA); ill. Tamara Bozovic



The pedestrian and bike infrastructure are being developed – the bike especially is presented as a success story: 130 km of bike lanes have been built between 2009 and 2013, and resulted in a part of regular users booming from 0.5% to 3% during the same period (figures: Governmeng of the City of Buenos Aires). 130 km appears as an important figure but results in a relatively sparse and not optomally connected network, covering mainly the City’s central area.

It is encouraging to see that the pedestrian infrastructure is getting improved. In the center, a few streets became pedestrian and the concept is to be extended, while on some crossings, New-York style redesigns have been carried out (more space for the pedestrians through inexpensive, small-scale interventions). These interventions are mainly realised in the center, apparently without a systematic needs analysis. Numerous problematic points remain, and the accessibility for the mobility impaired is still very insufficient.

The overall impression is that the car infrastructure predominates. The public transport system and the soft modes infrastructures haven’t accompanied the growth of the city and of its transportation needs, and offer now limited (and saturated, for the public transport) services. Bike and pedestrian infrastructure are being improved.


Figures and details

Traffic, public transport and pedestrians, modal split and evolution

Modal split: According to the City’s figures (september 2014 presentation), 5 millions of people travel daily within the city limits, the car representing 33%  of the motorized trips. The busses constitute the main public transport service (75% of the public transport trips). 2.95 million motorized trips are made between the city and its suburbs – 40% by car, 60% by public transport. We couldn’t find the corresponding figures for the pedestrian and cyclist flows.

Globally, le car traffic represented 51% of all the trips in 2007, against for instance 33% in Sao Paolo (CAF, Observatorio de Movilidad urbana, 2012) or 6% in Hong Kong (lsecities.net). The car flows accessing the city through the highways have increased since the 2001 crisis, with a stabilization in the last years.


The numbers of yearly car registrations is still increasing since the 2001 crisis. We represent the figures indexed in relation to the 2002 values, representing the historical low following the crisis. To illustrate the impact of the latter, we include the evolution of the brut domestic savings[1] – the registrations increase is higher than the savings one, probably illustrating the importance of the ownership of a vehicle and/or replacements of vehicles sold during the crisis.


The air pollution is important – WHO’s 2013 data [2] indicate 16 micrograms per cubic metre, way higher than the 10 micrograms per cubic metre defined “reasonable” limit (this value doesn’t of course represent a safe level, because the particles accumulate in the lungs or cross the pulmonary membranes to reach the blood, depending on their size, and thus represent a health issue no matter what concentration).

The public transport flows evolve more slowly – we represent them here indexed on the 2002 values, along with the car flows accessing the city through the highways.


The use of the bicycles has been developed notably through the development of a bike lanes network that started in 2009. 130 km have been built until now. This figure can seem important, but for a city of the size of Buenos Aires, the result is a sparse network with some notable connection problems. However, the bike lanes did constitute an important change, making the bike visible, in first place, and constituting a first answer to the consultation that had been led before the works started and that showed that the safety on the road was the #1 factor of the non-use of bicycles. The negative aspects include dangerous crossings (right- or left-turns in conflict with the lanes, important traffic speeds and low attention), tricky pavement defects and containers being installed sometimes on the lanes.


Explanations, ideas

Policies and urban development / transports relationship

What elements led Buenos Aires on a significantly different path than the one taken by other metropoles who achieved a control on their traffic flows? A few well-documented papers have been published on the subject, and in particular Cuestiones territoriales en la región metropolitana de Buenos Aires (2010, [3]) and Movilidad y Pobreza: Una prioridad para el Area Metropolitana de Buenos Aires (2012, [4]). A rather thrilling mechanisms interaction appears. Thrilling and of course complex, that is why I will just try to synthetise some main ideas:

Disconnection between urban development and transportation planning

Buenos Aires’ conurbation’s expansion has been tentacular mainly in the second half of the 20th century, some authors even talking of an ‘oil slick effect’. Former agricultural areas have become low density suburbs. The highways network was an important background for this development. Thus, it was naturally oriented towards the use of cars, and meant an increase of the distances for the city’s “local” food supplies.


Buenos Aires’ expansion map though the 20th century; Guillermo Tello, Instituto Superior de Ubranismo, Territorio y Ambiento, UBA


Unlike most of the counrty’s regions, Buenos Aires’ conurbation does have a land use regulation. However, it reveals to have weaknesses that have allowed developments that didn’t correspond to the initial idea. The most visible (and impacting) examples are the private, gated neighbourhoods, huge luxury residential areas accessible by car and connected to the highways. These developments have an imortant share in the traffic increase and participate also to the fragmentation of the territory and the agglomeration sprawl, at the expense of the rural or artisanal areas and the existing mixed centralities. (Sonia Vidal-Koppmann, La reestructuración de las áreas metropolitanas en America Latina, in: [3]). Some pictures found on the internet:


Since 1998, a preliminary study is mendatory for big gated neighbourhoods (“big” being > 4 ha / > 16 ha for projects within / outside of the urban area). The required study is expected to provide mainly informations on the urban design and the landscape design. The transport question is to be analysed only in terms of automobile traffic impacts (Sonia Vidal-Koppmann, La reestructuración de las áreas metropolitanas en America Latina, in: [3]). It is interesting to observe that large projects planned outside of the conurbation can still be developed without this preliminary analysis, though they are the ones causing the biggest issues in terms of traffic, rural space consumption and urban sprawling.

The authorities’ laisser-faire attitude also made possible for some gated neighbourhoods to be built on ancient indigenous cemetaries (!) – it is notably the case for the prestigious Santa Catalina and Nordelta projects. The corpses have been displaced without the agreement of the native populations, and important protests have taken place, but were not in measure to influence the realization of these projects [5].

Furthermore, the State participated directly in the unsustainable development by deciding and carrying out the Plan Federal de Vivienda, implying 420’000 homes, from which 133’ooo in the greater Buenos Aires area. These developments are non-mixt, residential neighbourhoods for low income populations, with low density and generally with poor public transport connection (Raquel Perahia, Los actores públicos y privados en la región metropolitana de Buenos Aires, in: [3]).

Quartier Santiago de Estero, l'un des développements du Programa Federal de Vivienda. Source: skyscrapercity.com

Santiago de Estero neighbourhood, one of the developments of the Programa Federal de Vivienda. Source: skyscrapercity.com


An other striking example was the development of the high-range business sector Puerto Madero, a “city” located close to the center but developed without extending the subway lines. The “weight” of this very dense development, located 1 to 2 km of the terminals of three subway lines, would have probably justified an offer update in an other city.

Relation between the new neighbourhoods and the road network

The highway network was developed for a large part by private (often foreign) investors. Financial performance was clearly searched, and the network was conceived in coordination with the new gated neighbourhoods, the new malls and the leisure centers, strenghtening the role of the car as the main transportation mode for the middle and upper class (Sonia Vidal-Koppmann, La reestructuración de las áreas metropolitanas en America Latina, in: [3]).

Sonia Vidal-Koppeman also cites Horacio Torres, for whom the highway network was a major factor in the high-revenue neighbourhoods sprawl. He makes the parallel with the former development of poor neighbourhoods along the railways line (source document, spanish).


Social segregation

While the high-end private districts develop (around 500 projects had been realized until 2011), the underprivileged populations find themselves relegated in large parts in the distant suburbs (“third circle”), more than an hour away by train with difficult travel conditions (see above), or in some “villa miserias” located closer to the center. In the 2010 map (below), the segregation appears more pronounced than in the 1974-1991 situation. The important development of high-revenue areas and the concentration of lower revenue populations in the South and the distant North-Western areas are noticeable.


Percentage of households living in the underprivileged “villa miserias”, by sector, 2010; Source: University of Buenos Aires, UBA, OUL-BAM

Typology of the urban areas and geographical location of the high-end and disadvantaged neighbourhoods (gated sectors / “villas miseria”), 1947 – 1991; Source: H.-A. Torres, cartography: V. Brustelein, CNRS


Deterioration of the public transport offer

The low political commitment is also visible through the public transport offer, mainly: feable will to maintain and develop the railway and subway networks (low / lowering speeds, insufficient coverage, saturation), unsufficient conditions at the interfaces and bus offer decided essentially by the private contractors (routes designed to optimize profit, no timetables or frequency management, in general inaccessible to handicapped people). The investments were drastically reduced over time: from 130 argentinian pesos per year and inhabitant at the beginning of the 20th century to 8 from the 50’s on [6]. The beginning of the 20th century was also the great railway era, with an extended and efficient network built mainly by the British investors.

It should be noted that some BRT portions have been realized in the last years, representing however a limited part of the routes and handicapped by the payment system (contactless card, to be presented to the driver while accessing the vehicle).

De facto, public transport has thus become the “poor people’s transport mode”, serving a mostly captive customers. This could probably explain why the high-end, business sector of Puerto Madero, near the center, did not justify the extension of the subway lines.

The low revenue populations living in the distant suburbs are dependent on the public transports for their daily trips and suffer from the poor travel conditions (long travel times, inpredictability, saturation and discomfort in the vehicles and the interfaces).

The cities who developed while controlling their traffic (Hong Kong, Tokyo, Paris …) all count on efficient, high-capacity, interconnected and adapted transport systems. The high capacity is necessary in the context of the important (desired) flows of passengers) and the quality is the condition sine qua non for a generalized use by the different classes (achieving the desired flows on the public transport). Both are of course strongly interconnected.


Lack of space for the soft modes

In a city like Buenos Aires, walking and cycling should be the ideal complement of public transport, and the bike could play an important role for the trips up to 10 km thanks to the very flat topography and the mild weather. Though the use of the bike increased strongly due to the implementation of bike lanes (see above) and despite the pedestrian improvements, mainly in the center, the soft modes suffer from extremely numerous unconfortable or even dangerous situations: narrow, crowded sidewalks, often inaccessible to the disabled, fast traffic and lack of bike infrastructure, right and left turns allowed together with the pedestrian and bike crossings (high speeds, strong pressure on the pedestrians and cyclists, dangerous situations when a bike is in the car’s blind spot), undadapted public transport interfaces (insufficient gauges, complicated routes, unsystematic/lacking signage) …


In conclusion

An important segregation is observed in terms of habitat but also transport modes. Raquel Perahia and Sonia Vidal-Koppmann cite amongs the main problematics [7]:

  • Policies: lack of objectives, clear guidelines and continuity
  • An absence of territorial policies
  • A lack of staff [for the city’s and state’s services] and a low level of competence
  • A low informations exchange between the stakeholders
  • Clientelism 

These elements were notably positive for the private investors, who were able to take advantage of a large freedom of action and thus developed profit-oriented projects that have been (and continue being) harmful to the agglomeration and have played an important role in the actual car addiction. On the other hand, the lack of political will in terms of public transport services and land use led to difficult situation for low-income populations, living mainly far from the center and being dependant on a poor service. For François Ascher, it is necessary to find and implement new instruments in order to achieve a paradigm shift [8], the laisser-faire and the market logic having clearly shown their limits. Establishing coordinated urban development and transport policies and intervening strongly on the public transport performances seem to be necessary future actions, probably to be led by an agglomeration authority to be created.


Notes and references

[1]  Source: The World Bank, cited by: Perspective Monde, University of Sherebrooke

[2] WHO data, cited by InfoBAE (Spanish)

[3] Sonia Vidal-Koppmann and Raquel Perahia (Publication directors); Cuestiones territoriales en la region metropolitana de Buenos Aires. Editions the Architecture Faculty, University of Buenos Aires, and Editorial Nobuko, Buenos Aires 2010, 128 p., ISBN 978-987-584-305-9

[4] Liberali A., Vidal-Koppmann S. and Orduna M. (Publication directors); Movilidad y pobreza. Una prioridad en la agenda metropolitana, Editions CETAM/FADU, Buenos Aires 2012, 384 p. ISBN 978-987-33-2242-6.

[5] http://argentina.indymedia.org/news/2013/02/830579.php (Espagnol)

[6] Un análisis de la inversión en transporte en Buenos Aires, Ing. Roberto Agosta and Ing. Juan Pablo Martínez, within the congress XVI CONGRESO ARGENTINO DE VIALIDAD Y TRÁNSITO (Spanish)

[7] Hacia nuevas políticas de ordenamiento territorial y desarrollo urbano (Spanish), loose translation source: [3]

[8] Los nuevos principios del Urbanismo, Madrid 2004, Alianza Editorial


This post is also available in: French