A generation ago, economists and scientists imagined that developing nations would avoid this dilemma. Developing countries, they predicted, would invest in cutting-edge technology and then use that climate-friendly technology to leapfrog over wealthy nations’ castoffs, the same way cell phones have helped them bypass the telecommunications infrastructure. But unlike cell phones, new buses are very expensive and old ones last a long time, so the transition can take a generation or more.
The good news is that buses with cleaner engines are in the pipeline and when they eventually arrive in developing countries, it will make a dramatic difference. The 2007 EPA standards require new buses (with the use of low-sulfur diesel fuel) to be 90% cleaner than the buses they replace. For cash-strapped schools that can’t afford a new fleet of buses immediately, there’s the option of outfitting existing buses with newer engines prior to replacing them, and installing particulate traps to reduce particle emissions. But the cost to retrofit a bus ranges from $5,000 to $8,000 per bus, according to Monahan. The Environmental Defense Fund says, “Every dollar spent on retrofitting a diesel school bus is worth at least $12 in health benefits (such as avoided emergency room visits)—a very smart investment.” Still, the exhaust-cleaning technology doesn’t work without low-sulfur fuel. That requires better petroleum-refining technology that isn’t necessarily available in developing countries.
Solutions to the problem of the chicken buses are as varied as the decorations on the buses themselves. “The answer,” says Kamakaté, “isn’t to stop the trade in used buses, but to make used vehicles as clean as they can be.” While waiting for cleaner buses to hit the secondhand market, countries such as Costa Rica are imposing age limits on imported vehicles. “They gain the benefit of lower-cost, but incrementally cleaner, vehicles,” she says. Countries can set standards for emissions and road-worthiness, safety and cleaner air, too. Still, says Kamakaté, “There’s not much regulatory activity in the importing countries.” After 30 years of civil war in Guatemala, for example, “the need for mobility and cheap vehicles is the top priority.”
Another option has gained a toehold in Guatemala City with TransMetro, the first bus-based rapid transit system in Central America. Aimee Gauthier, senior program director at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, says the new system incorporates both greater efficiency and smarter use of the fleet. Phase One of the project, covering 11 kilometers (6.8 miles), has 65 new buses and works somewhat like a rail line, with dedicated lanes and prepaid fares, which means less idling. Its greater efficiency has reduced travel times by 20%, as well as significantly reducing air pollution and traffic accidents. Up to 145,000 passengers per day ride the system. TransMetro has reduced the travel times from one hour and 15 minutes to 18 minutes for express service, and it’s estimated that by the end of 2008 more than 50 million people will have taken the service.The transit system is part of a larger vision by Mayor Alvaro Arzü to create “A City for Living” focused on sustainable development.
With five active volcanoes shooting carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide into the air, and much local cooking done over wood fires, the air in much of Guatemala is already polluted. But as newer buses arrive, they bring hope that their internal machinery will begin to match the exterior beauty of Carmencita, Esmeralda and Norma.