Saturday, December 29, 2012

Comparative Amenities: Buenos Aires v. Santiago

Every year, the international consulting company Mercer publishes a survey that ranks cities of the world according to their quality of life and infrastructure. The 2012 survey covers some 221 cities around and, while the entire document is only available for a hefty price, some of the publicly released information deserves a look.

Invariably, the highest rated cities are in Europe, with a handful in North America (such as Vancouver) and Asia (such as Hong Kong and Singapore). I won’t go over the standards in detail, but eight US cities rank in the top 50 for quality of living (Honolulu is highest at No. 28), and nine for infrastructure (Atlanta is highest at No. 13). For quality of life, the world’s worst is Baghdad, while the worst for infrastructure is Port-au-Prince.
In South America, my chosen region, Mercer is less impressed than it is in Europe, Asia and North America. For quality of life, Montevideo (No. 77) ranks highest, with Buenos Aires (No. 81) and Santiago de Chile (No. 91) the next best. For infrastructure, Buenos Aires (No. 83) is tops, while Santiago (No. 89) and Montevideo (No. 96) lag behind.

That said, I have to question some of Mercer’s conclusions, or at least consider them to be oversimplifications. I spend a great deal of time in both Buenos Aires and Santiago, rather less in Montevideo, and one of the categories in the infrastructure survey is public transportation. Certainly, compared with most North American cities, both Buenos Aires and Santiago are far ahead in frequency – city buses operate 24/7 – and lower in cost.

In fairness, though, Santiago long ago outstripped Buenos Aires in quality of its public transportation, especially with the Chilean capital’s expanding and immaculate Metro system (pictured above). As Buenos Aires struggles to add stations to the continent’s oldest underground rail system, Santiago’s service is growing at the speed of light, relatively speaking at least, and now more than doubles the mileage of its trans-Andean counterpart.
Buenos Aires’s Subte also suffers from extensive vandalism, especially as the system has become a political football between the federal and city governments. With graffiti that saturates some cars and stations (as pictured above and below), sometimes even covering the windows so that passengers find it impossible to see out as their stop approaches, the Subte is simply a mess. On the Santiago Metro, by contrast, I have never seen even a hint of graffiti.
Recently, the Buenos Aires daily La Nación published a summary of urban problems that would suggest that Mercer’s survey overlooked many more issues: the deteriorating inter-urban rail system that killed 52 Argentines and injured 700 in a February crash; collapsing balconies that killed citizens on the sidewalks below; frequent power outages; floods that inundated city streets because the drainage system is inadequate; and overflowing garbage on the sidewalks (as pictured below).
With the definitive Subte transfer to the city, that problem may ease – already, authorities are closing Línea A for the summer to replace its picturesque but aging wooden cars, but even then, cleaning up damage from vandals on the rest of the system will take some time. On balance, I can’t see how Buenos Aires manages to finish ahead of Santiago on any infrastructure survey. I’ll have more to say about this, especially with regard to public transport, in the near future.

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