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!)