This is a story from the Miami Herald about the old private bus system in Panama. As a Libertarian, I would normally applaud a private bus system, but with the Diablo Rojo's I am glad to see them go the way of the dinosaurs. If you have ever driven the streets of Panama City, you know that the most dangerous hazard on the road are these private buses, who's drivers race down the street with abandon in order to get to the bus stop first and get the fares. If the government did its job of traffic control and safety checks we would not have such problems, but when the police can be bribed and the private bus "Union" can cause chaos when they stop working, a private system does not work.
Each year many people die in traffic accidents due to the negligence of the drivers and this last month, their fate was sealed when a bus (not a red devil) caught fire and killed 18 people. Now the authorities have been brought to task to make sure all the buses are in safety compliance. A new badly needed bus system is on order for next year and we can only hope the the police do their job to control the drivers of these new behemoths. With the $300 million dollar price tag of the new system, I think it would have been cheaper to stay private and enforce the laws.
Panama City's colorful school buses on road to extinction
BY SKY GILBAR
Special to The Miami Herald
PANAMA CITY, Panama - The gleaming glass and steel towers in the upscale Marbella district could be in downtown Miami, until an army of old American Bluebird school buses, covered in stridently colorful murals, barrel down the streets.
Nearly 2,000 such colorful buses known as diablos rojos, or ''Red Devils,'' now roam the capital, many with paintings of religious icons, pop culture heroes and usually salty street expressions.
But the largely independent buses will be replaced by a $300 million municipal bus system next year, and many fear that this traditional form of urban art, along with the artists who create it, may disappear forever.
The decorated buses first appeared in 1911. By the late 1960s, used buses from the U.S.-run Canal Zone appeared on the streets, each with a different owner wanting to show off with increasingly intricate artistic designs and murals.
The Red Devils usually pack custom horns, oversized mufflers and display a mixture of hand-painted and brightly colored designs and adornments both inside and out.
Bumpers generally carry catchy phrases from the Panamanian streets, and the rears are almost always reserved for the faces of political figures, folk heroes, family members or pop stars, from Harry Potter to Daddy Yankee.
''This city expresses its culture and beliefs through outlets like the bus painting, much in the way murals do for other cities -- except these ones happen to move,'' said Raul Leis, a sociologist who studies Panama City's urban art.
''Unlike the rich tradition of . . . folk festivals, and artisanal craft work found in the interior of the country, there is very little outlet for popular culture born here in the street,'' Leis said.
Like graffiti artists around the world, Panama's bus painters are largely dismissed as creators of clandestine or popular art.
''Ironically, More people are exposed to this art than art they'll ever see in a museum'' said Lies, ``but it is generally not considered something worth strongly supporting by the government.''
Nonetheless, many city dwellers seem to appreciate the art on the colorfully painted buses.
''We like the buses with the big mufflers and nice designs,'' said taxi driver Gregorio Magallón. ``If we see an old, unpainted bus . . . coming, we'll wait for a prettier bus to come by because we want to be seen in the nice rides.''
One of Panama's few master bus painters, Rolando González, makes a living transforming used American buses into decorative city transport at a body shop.
''When I was 12, I liked to draw and started doing graffiti around the neighborhood,'' recalls González, 32. 'One day, this guy notices my paintings and says, `Come by my auto shop, I want you to paint for me, and I'll buy you whatever supplies you need.' ''
Many of the used U.S. buses shipped in from places like Miami start out in mostly faded school-bus yellow with the names of school districts still showing on their sides, and transforming them into art presents a formidable challenge. A decorative paint job can cost the bus owner about $400 for simple lines and blocks, but murals can cost thousands. The finished look is a collaboration of the owner's desires and the painter's artistic imagination.
The artists are worried about the future as fuel costs, competition and advertisements on buses have caused a decline in clients. But the hardest hit is likely to come from the centrally planned bus system -- expected to begin next month.
A long-standing government desire to modernize public transportation and ease traffic problems is now on track, pushed by a recent string of accidents. Just last month, a poorly maintained bus exploded in Panama City, setting off a fire that trapped and killed 18 people.
The government's plans call for an initial system of three fixed routes that cover more than 30 miles in the city center on routes currently handled by the Red Devils.
With the first route projected to open mid-2007, the Red Devils will steadily disappear from most of the city streets.
Andrés Salazar, a 51-year-old painter with more than 30 years of experience painting buses, loves his craft but doesn't expect it to survive the phaseout of the old buses.
''I told my son I don't want him to take over from me,'' said Salazar, whose 18-year-old son, also named Andrés, is studying graphic design at a Panama City university.
''I grew up helping my dad paint buses, but we know the business is dying, so I want to do something different,'' said the younger Salazar.