How bad it is to ride a chicken bus?
When someone says chicken bus, it comes to our mind a third hand old bus overcrowded with poor people having animals and stuff carried everywhere. That may be true to some extent but one also thinks of unreliable time schedules, lots of brake downs, no organisation at all and unthinkable travel times.
After our last months in Central America we may accept the first part, probably in a softer way, it’s not always overcrowded, we rarely see animals and after a while you get used to travel on them and even enjoy. Where we are absolutely wrong is the second part, and it would be fairer to apply that description to the London bus system. How many times I was waiting for a bus that did not come, and then an hour later two or three came together as if they had drunk in a pub together before hitting the road again. And how many times do you lose a bus by half of a second? 😯
No, in Central America you see so many buses everywhere that you sometimes wonder how they organize themselves, but they do, in their own way they do. For the last months we rarely waited more than 20 minutes for a bus, which I believe is a good reference for any developed country. Central America has no railroad system anymore and no affordable flights has there is a duopoly (TACA and COPA), so bus is the only real option for most of the population. There are national lines in all countries that cross them from north to south, there are inner-cities bus lines that take you to all neighbourhoods and there are plenty of rural lines that will take you to small villages everywhere.
The price is unsurprisingly low as we pay roughly one dollar per 100 km which is very cheap compared with the costs we are used to and also with the service provided that I’ll show in the next lines. In Portugal for example it costs 74 dollars (source: renex.pt) to cross the country (400 Km), here the same distance would cost 4 dollars, crazy because it’s much more exciting to do in a chicken bus. 😆
Lets analyse it from a logistician point of view
I’m an Industrial Engineer with a Logistics specialisation, I’m technically a Logistics Engineer, so this subject has fascinated me since the beginning of our trip. I’ve tried to understand how this transport industry has worked and specially with so many companies. Just to give an idea, from Esteli to Managua in Nicaragua there are 23 operators available, most of them just have one bus but still, it’s a highly competitive market. How can it be profitable to everyone? How can they have enough customers to support them?
I’ve been thinking about this and I believe I’ve got the answer for it. Unfortunately it’s an unproven theory as we don’t have time for empiric studies, but you as our reader will decide if it does sound reasonable or not.
The answer for me are the Logistics Optimisers, the locally called ‘Ayudantes’ as we already talked about them before in this article. They are the supporting staff of the driver that will help him in everything but driving. 😀
When you study Logistics there are some buzz sentences that always come to your mind: “Optimised transport occupation“, “Short lay overs” , “Efficient usage of space” “Customised service“. The LOs (logistics optimisers) do all of this and even cover other areas of business science, such as:” Demand creators” , “Public Relations” , “Financial Managers“. To add to all this technical skills they also need to have the physical and mental attributes to climb moving objects, throw and carry heavy materials and endure aggressive comments. Set up a recruitment process with these demands and you won’t find many people in the world with all the skills. Surprisingly Central America has thousands of people with those characteristics, this society fabricates the perfect worker for this kind of job. It would be interesting to do a sociological study for the characteristics of Latin American people explaining why they have the right personality skills for this job but that’s not the scope of this article, here we are focusing on the business results of this job roles.
Let’s analise the buzz words:
“Demand creators” : Imagine you are walking on the street, and you were thinking on going somewhere, then someone two streets away comes running to you shouting that destination, what do you do? You take the bus you were not expecting to do right away. The LOs are always jumping out of the bus running around the streets asking every one of all ages if they want to go to their destination. The bus when inside a city goes slowly so the LOs have time to explore all the possibilities. The most pragmatic demand creation I’ve ever seen. And you will NEVER lose a bus by half a second like it happens in Europe so many times.
“Optimised Transport Occupation” : There is a rule that when travelling for a while in this region we understood: Never ask when the bus starts because the answer is normally based on how much desperate you look. It can go from 5 minutes to 30, but the reality is that it will leave when the bus is full or the LO thinks its full enough. What about that for optimizing the occupation? Imagine a container waiting for a full load, or a flight waiting for enough passengers, how much more efficient they would be. Nobody gets really upset because everyone does the same, so it doesn’t matter what they say anyway. Once I asked two boat operators what time they would leave and we chose the one that told us in half the time. Needless to say our boat left after the competitor.
“Efficient usage of space” : Imagine yourself standing in an overcrowded bus (not like the London tube, I mean already with your nose in someone’s neck) and then comes the LO: – Can you push forward on your right side, there’s some space there. After that he manages to squeeze someone else inside the bus and he goes hanging from the outside. In a proper filled bus by a LO not even a cat can cross it between our legs. I would love to know the record number people a LO achieved in a bus.
“Short Lay Overs” : this is the cherry of the cake, the most demanding characteristic and probably the main reason for the efficiency of the system. Short Lay overs? Sometimes there is no lay over as the bus does not stop for someone to get inside. The LO sees someone who wants to board the bus, jumps and runs to him, grabs his harm and throws him inside the bus, with the amazing skill of perfect timing because he screamed to the bus driver to start moving half a second before the person actually reaches the bus. At least three times the bus was already moving when I had to jump inside already being grabbed by the LO. And if you move slowly they will scream at you making you look like a chicken and making you move if you want to get inside the bus. A bus trip may stop 500 times that it still feels like a continuous drive.
“Customized Service” – this skill is even harder that serving tables when you have to memorize all the different orders. (using paper is cheating in this comparison) A LO has to take your luggage (a chicken, a bicycle or even a heavy rock) and accommodate it on top of the bus already moving, he has to charge you for the money while you are already comfortable sitting, he has to remember your destination and scream to the bus driver to stop and then remember your luggage and take it out for you. I’m sorry but this kind of service reminds me 5 star hotels and nothing less.
“Public Relations” : the LOs are the face of the company for better or worse, and with the above descriptions you can imagine that the worse can get really bad. They have to be calm enough to control all kind of situations, nothing is more complicated that managing customers complains, from the different prices charged, from the lost of luggage somewhere in the bus, from the squeezing and missed stop. But they do it and look happy and experienced with any kind of complain no matter what.
“Financial Managers” : all the money goes through the LOs, they control everything and not just they have to know all the prices by heart, remember there are no bus stops it’s when you want, but they are creative to get extra income, such as charging extra for luggage carrying or taking a heavy bulk. Sometimes it works sometimes it doesn’t but I’m sure they make much more than the expected income for any trip.
“Acrobat and Heavy Load” : it never stops to amaze me every time I look outside and I see a leg hanging out of the bus roof, jumping to a lower deck and opening the back door (all buses have a working back door) to jump inside like it just a stroll in the park. Not just a LO is an acrobat he also has to do it risking is life, I can only imagine the work insurance he would have in UK to be able to do those stunts. Taking heavy loads of anything you can imagine to the top of a bus is descriptive enough to understand the heavy load duty involved in this work.
Are you ready for this?
After all this description don’t you think they are the miracle workers? Don’t you think that an army of these people will make any industry thrive? Some of the bigger buses have more than one LO, but it’s because they need it, they work as a team and the workload requires it.
The general stereotype that a Central American has about themselves is that they are lazy workers and that’s a big problem of the society, but in my opinion they are wrong, what they need is to learn from the army of LOs and expand to the rest of the working force.
Would you accept the job I’ve just described? Do consider yourself capable of doing this job? Email us to apply for a job and send your CV with acrobatic pictures! 🙂