For many people unfamiliar with Chilean micros (tiny, public-private microbuses, the most popular form of transportation in Chilean cities), they might appear overwhelming. It is not uncommon to see bus drivers racing at Formula One speeds, smoking cigarettes and sorting coins handed to them by riders into trays, all while cumbia villera music blasts at deafening decibel levels. However, for the elderly residents of Valparaíso, these micros serve as a lifeline, connecting working-class individuals from the poverty-stricken hills (cerros) to the city center.
Cars are too expensive, Ubers avoid the steep trek up the unforgiving hills and public four-person taxis (colectivos) are rare. Micros are the reliable mode of transport that the people can depend on and its intentional focus on serving older porteños (Valparaíso natives) helps to alleviate elderly poverty in Chile. The Borgen Project conducted an interview with Aracelli Urquieta Marambio, a beneficiary of the micro’s transformative benefits, to delve deeper into the matter.
Elderly Poverty in Chile’s Valparaíso Region and Gentrification
Chile’s millennial generation currently enjoys the benefits of a 21st-century copper and lithium boom, leading to increased investment, development and improved quality of life. In fact, Chile has now become the second wealthiest country in South America in terms of GDP per capita. However, for the older Chileans who are no longer earning incomes, a different reality unfolds. Many of them experienced the ruthless 17-year dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990) during their prime working years and now face financial struggles as Chile becomes increasingly more expensive to live in. The pensions the elderly receive are not high enough to keep up with the runaway inflation, which the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated. This has resulted in a significant 38% rise in elderly poverty in Chile between 2017 and 2021.
Nowhere is the process of gentrification more apparent than in the coastal city of Valparaíso, a historically working-class city that has witnessed an influx of international tourists and affluent “cuico” (upper-class) Chileans after receiving UNESCO’s World Heritage Site designation in 2003. This has had a tangible impact on the elderly population of Valparaíso, with the region having the highest (6.3%) percentage of people aged 75 or older.
This rapidly changing environment is evolving too quickly for the elderly residents, many of whom have called “The Jewel of the Pacific” their home for more than 50 years, just like Aracelli Urquieta. For her, Valparaíso is unrecognizable compared to what it was just 15 years ago. However, amid the changes, her trips on the micros in the port city have remained a calming constant in her life.
Making the Micros a Safe Space for the Impoverished Elderly
Recognizing that owning cars is simply not feasible for most Valparaíso natives, especially for senior citizens who rely on pensions earned during times when inflation rates were significantly lower, Valparaíso’s municipal government made a decision during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 to introduce a 60% discount on micro fares for the elderly.
Aracelli Urquieta, in her interview, praised this discount as a heaven-sent help for those with low-paying pensions. She emphasized the convenience of only paying 40% of the actual fare, greatly benefiting the grandparents of Valparaíso. She also highlighted the micro’s advantages, enabling the elderly to run errands for their working children during the day. Additionally, in her own case, the micros have been invaluable in aiding her with the care of her mother and aunt.
In combination with informal rules reserving the best seats for seniors, this senior discount has turned the micros, which are already predominantly used by the elderly, into a significant tool in reducing elderly poverty in Chile. When asked why so many older people prefer micros over other transport options, Urquieta provided insights: rideshares and colectivos (taxis) are too low to the ground for easy boarding, making micros more comfortable and community-oriented, which is why many elderly passengers prefer them.
Mass transit systems, especially buses, serve as vital community spaces, reducing poverty and allowing independence and mobility not only for Chile’s elderly but for senior citizens worldwide. Microbuses offer better accessibility for the elderly compared to car-centric infrastructure designed for young professionals and daily commuters. Urban transportation worldwide should prioritize the most vulnerable groups by considering affordability and accessibility.
– Ethan Clark
Photo: Courtesy of Ethan Clark