What I Did On My Summer Vacation: Long For Public Transportation

Thanks to fabulous pinch-hitting from Kathryn, Noah, and Ben during a crazy week on Capitol Hill, I got to spend most of my week snorkeling and hiking my way through Puerto Rico. It was about as idyllic as I could have wished for – except for one glaring problem. From my perspective as a tourist, it seems Puerto Rico is in desperate need of a functioning public transportation system.

My friend almost missed her flight because of this traffic jam. Photo: Tanya Snyder.

My friend and I were strongly and unanimously advised to rent a car – that there was no other way to get around. Even more puzzling, we got the same advice about Vieques, a lightly-developed island off the mainland that’s just 21 miles long and 5 miles wide, more than half of which is a nature preserve.

We asked about renting bikes there and were told, well, that was technically possible, but it’s hilly, you know, and hot. And besides, the bike rental was on the wrong side of the island for us.

Rather than leave one rental car parked at the ferry port on the mainland and then rent another one to move around the tiny island of Vieques, as we were instructed, we decided to take our chances on the “público” van service we’d heard about. But it turns out those run according to the ferry schedule. When there’s no ferry, there’s no público, and getting between the two main towns on Vieques – less than five miles apart – was challenging. We had to be rescued a few times by the woman in the souvenir stand, who called her friend to drive us, and our restaurant server who was going our way, but we had to wait till the end of her shift.

An empty bus in downtown San Juan. Photo: Tanya Snyder

A simple, reliable system of shuttles between the island’s two towns and a few of the more popular beaches – along with a taxi service willing to go to more remote wildlife areas – would eliminate the need for every tourist on this tiny island to cram another car onto its roads.

Back on the mainland, meanwhile, I was shocked to discover that there’s no direct bus service between the airport and Old San Juan. I got lucky with a quick transfer, but according to other passengers, it’s not uncommon to wait almost an hour for each leg. And the only taxis I saw were big white vans that charge exorbitant rates. No wonder we got stuck in a panic-inducing traffic jam on our way back to the airport.

The few bicycles we did see out on the roads nearly gave us heart attacks. The roads are not bike-friendly.

In the El Yunque rainforest, Route 191 has been closed for years due to landslides. The community south of the road closure considers itself “abandoned” by the government – even posting signs, in English and Spanish, trying to shame the government for not fixing the road. Indeed, we had to drive a long and circuitous route from our hike in the northern part of the forest to our eco-lodge in the southern part. Though I’m always somewhat gratified when a road is returned to nature, it was disturbing to learn that even Puerto Rico’s attention to basic road maintenance is lacking.

Only after I came back did I learn about the Tren Urbano, the new urban train service. No one ever mentioned it, and indeed, its ridership is disappointingly low and it doesn’t serve key areas like Old San Juan and the airport.

The Tren Urbano is a Federal Transit Administration project, funded under IS-TEA. While the island’s status as a territory of the United States makes for some confusing politics, Puerto Rico is under the purview of the FHWA, though I’m not clear whether it’s treated like a state. We saw some stimulus billboards advertising federal funds for infrastructure projects.

I’m glad to hear there’s some talk of pedestrianizing Old San Juan and returning mass transit to the city, including plans for bus rapid transit. I’m just hoping it happens in time for my next trip! I’ve never been so grateful to be back in the warm embrace of D.C.’s metro system after a trip. Even the 15-minute wait for a yellow line train was a pleasure. (Which is not to say I’m enjoying this cold rainy pseudo-springtime – I’d trade that in for a Caribbean sunburn anytime!)

  • MAT

    If Puerto Rico were a State, it would easily be the poorest. Its economy is in a shambles given the combination of pharmaceutical factory closures, military base closures, unfair competition from neighboring islands (I’m looking in your direction, Virgin Islands) and the recession decimating tourism. You can’t expact PR to be able to make major transit investments. The Tren Urbano was a start, but sadly doesn’t go where people want to go. An extension to Condado and then an east-west line connecting Viejo San Juan with Isla Verde/SJU would do wonders for their economy, but if we can’t get Congressional support for transit expansion on the mainland, imagine their opinion of expansion in Puerto Rico.

  • guest

    Well first of all Im glad that besides the transportation issue, you had a good time in PR. As for the transit issue in San Juan, you have to take into consideration that besides the Old City and the Santurce area, most of SJ developed during the 1950’s and 1960, ie when the automobile was consider as the no brainer choice to solve our transportation needs. As such its unfair to compare DC with SJ since DC started its Metro back in the early 70’s. SJ is much similar to other car oriented cities such as Houston, Miami or LA. Many puertoricans, specially in academia have realized that being a small island with few areas suitable for development that it was kinda foolish to follow the US suburban pattern of development. Nonetheless a car oriented city is what we have and any transformation will take time and money.

    Phase I of the Tren Urbano was a start but I have to agree, the route where it was built is not the most suitable. Even though it goes through important activity centers such as the University of PR, the PR Medical Center and the Banking District of Hato Rey, the route was build along some underdevelop or undevelop land with the hopes that the train would spur high – density development, however the government did not forsee the real estate bust that would come in later years.

    Even though the TU has not been the suceess that it was thought it would be, various authorities (from both political main parties as they alternate power) are still proposing and planing transit solutions for SJ.

    There is a proposed tram that would connect the last station of the Tren Urbano (Sagrado Corazón) with the Convention Center (the only place with current development in SJ) and then onwards to Old San Juan. Also the municipality of Carolina in the eastern section of the City has a newly establish bus system that is even more reliable than the main AMA buses, and they also have design a intra – municipal tram. Sadly these two projects are relying on federal funds which may not come.

    Amazingly the PR government has decided to put its money where its mouth is and has begun the construction a BRT comutter bus lane that will conect a park and drive facility in the suburb town of Toa Baja with the western most station of Tren Urbano in Bayamon. Though I think that Park and Ride is a sub-optimal solution and that the BRT should make its terminus in Sagrado Corazon, right in the heart of SJ, at least is a start.

    As for walkability there are two main projects right in the Islet of San Juan, one sponsored by the city (north waterfront) and the other by the commonwealth (south waterfront). You may find more info here http://www.planetizen.com/node/45271 and here http://bahiaurbana.com/

    Of course as most redevelopment projects go there are charges of urban gentrification (more the Municipal plan, the commonwealth’s plan is on abandoned or sub-utilize piers)

    As for areas outside San Juan, you must remember that regardless of the comparabel small size of the island (we are a huge island on the eyes of the lesser antilles), transit relys on density. Besides some other major cities in the Island (Ponce, Mayaguez, etc) I dont think that there is enough density to make transit a viable operation.

    One final tought, hopefully you will come back soon to PR but If on your next trip you decide to visit another island in the Caribbean you will find tha same car dependency, because we were all influenced by what was known as the Florida model. When ever you can seach up on Google earth a photo of Saint Thomas USVI, or Saint Bart’s, Anguilla or even french Guadaloupe so you can see the high level of urban sprawl. With urban spawl is near imposible to establish a transit system.

    BTW in case you are wondering, yes I Am an urban planner

  • Madison parker

    Last summer, my girlfriends and I went on the most relaxing vacation in the Florida Keys. We found an incredible rental in the awesome Ocean Reef Community in Key Largo. Elaine knew Bob from Swenson & Ecuyer Realty and he found us this perfect condo right on the breathtaking Marina. Bob and his team provided excellent concierge service, that catered to our every needs. We did everything… scuba diving, tennis, sailing, golfing, etc.. The experience was amazing! You should check them out at http://www.swensonrealty.com or call 3053673600.

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