OK, so Chicken buses may not be all that interesting if you´re not in Central America, but I do need to tell you just a little more about this fascinating part of Central American culture. The economic model is worthy of being a Harvard Business Review case study.
One of the intriguing parts of the Chicken Bus is how fast they drive, even through towns, how brief the stops are and how many people are packed into a single bus. When you understand the economic model, this all becomes understandable. (OK, so now you know I´m a little slow at Econ – you have probably figured out the reasons by now).
These buses drive so fast that by USA standards, a speeding ticket for reckless driving would be in order. In many cities in Guatemala, walking on the side of the street is a norm because the of the condition of or due to the narrow sidewalks. If a Chicken Bus comes whizzing by, you better take care because they stop for nothing.
Doormen (or helpers?)
The driver hires a helper who not only solicits riders but he also helps riders to hustle onto the bus and he helps to assure that you get onto the right bus. In Antigua, we often heard the doorman yelling ¨Guate, Guate, Guate, Guate¨ which means ¨Guatemala City, Guatemala …..¨. As soon as the last rider is on, the bus is already flying down the street with the doorman running to jump on. Or possibly he is still climbing up the ladder on the rear of the bus, loading goods onto the roof as the bus takes off. On one of our rides we were surprised that all of a sudden the doorman came in through the back door of the bus. He quickly collected the fares before the next stop when he had to be outside the bus hustling more customers.
No matter how many people have been packed into a city bus in any large city in the US or maybe even Japan, that´s nothing compared to how people are packed into a Chicken Bus. There is absolutely no limit to the number of persons who are packed in. I think the saying is ¨this is Guatemala – there´s always room for 5 or 10 more¨. The bus we were on several days ago had an aisle that was honestly, no more than 8¨wide. While each seat really only is wide enough for 2-1/2 persons, there could be 4 or 5 in a seat. And butts from the right and the left seat touch in such a narrow aisle! You get the picture.
I´m not sure if the economics of Chicken Buses is the key factor in all cases, but it´s a good guess. In the case of Guatemala City and Antigua, we learned that the driver of the bus must pay the bus owner $800 Quetzales per day (that´s a little more than $100) no matter how many passengers or even if the bus breaks down. The rest is his to keep. I´m thinking the driver has to pay for gas as well and of course he pays his helper. From the bus company, there is great pressure to make more runs and to stay on schedule while making sure that they get every possible passenger on board. Given the state of wages for an average worker in Guatemala, I´m thinking that the margin isn´t too great, so it´s possible that the driver could even lose money on a given day.
Of note, my references to ¨he¨were not intended to be sexist – thus far we´ve not seen any women in any public transportation jobs; not any women taxi drivers, tuk-tuk drivers or bus drivers.
So that´s it for Chicken Buses.