06 June 2008

Mass Transit Woe

Once again, M(an)y Thanks to Janine Mendes-Franco for posting Jenius on Global Voices. This time it was in the Elections blog. Always an honor.

Is it possible for Us to develop an effective mass transit system? We do have a high population density (1,000+ persons per square mile) on a land mass that's barely 3,600 miles in area. We have a main hub (San Juan) whose population more than doubles by day, as roughly 800,000 people move into and through it on weekdays. And We have an elevated train/bus system in place with a population that has relatively low income per capita to pay for ever-rising expenses, such as gas and acquiring heavily-taxed new cars. 

But We have more roads per square mile than any place in the U.S. of part of A.

So We're doomed. Because those roads are proof positive of two things:

1) Not enough centralized destinations to increase population density, and...
2) An ingrained culture of getting there at leisure.

The only places where mass transit works are where population density is enormous (Tokyo, New York City, Central London), traffic is slow and/or expensive (same cities) or where incomes are too low to buy and service cars (Mexico City.) San Juan's lack of urban planning has created a city where hundreds of thousands of people need to gather (work, services, entertainment), but in a scatter-shot way. So you get a relatively high density (close to 11,000 persons per square mile), but they must move in too many disparate directions.

The two solutions would have been to build up (as in height) so as to concentrate more people in smaller areas or plan for a hybrid "long distance/short shuttle" system that reached out to extend San Juan's "reach" while cutting down walking distances to most locations to under 8 minutes. The first solution is engineering; the second is social engineering.

The local Urban Train/Metro Bus systems fails to become a true mass transit option for many reasons, but the two basic ones are that it continues to force people to drive into San Juan for access (so you might as well keep on driving) and it truly covers only 35-40% of the final destinations passengers may have. Yes, it does "pass through" about 75% of the City, but when you have to walk 20 minutes to reach an office or store, you aren't close enough to use mass transit: You're better off using a car.

The old público system, "public cars" that drove set routes between outlying areas in towns and between towns worked well when cars were uncommon. On an Island where the average family owns 1.9 cars, this system is obsolete. Taxis are tourism-oriented in San Juan, thus they are expensive. Over the rest of the Island, taxis are públicos with a higher price; that's not a mass transit solution, either.

To create a mass transit system for San Juan would require tearing up most of the City's current structure and dropping a train/shuttle hybrid network in its place. That network would have to reach out about 10-12 miles from San Juan, so that commuters can drive quickly to access points and get into the City easily, while still being able to ride to within a short walk of their destination. (And if you think I'm harping too much on proximity, you're wrong and I'm right. When was the last time you walked 10 minutes through an urban area to get somewhere?)

Combine a high numbers of cars, a high number of paved miles and a high population density and you have a formula for gridlock. Toss in rising gas prices, increased taxes and government gouging in the form of penny-ante bureaucracy and you have a formula for road-based rage.

It's going to happen. If this Island's so-called leadership was stupid enough to let truckers block most of San Juan's traffic for one day over a mere dispute over license fees, imagine what will happen when truckers and cab drivers and private citizens fed up with feeling helpless while trapped in their vehicles for hours a day decide they want to make themselves heard?

Carmaggedon is too harsh a word...but it won't be far from the mark.

The Jenius Has Spoken.


The Insider said...


As a Canadian living on the island, I can provide you with a subjective case study from the perspective of an outsider.

The First 28 Days - The Illusion
After the first 28 days, the feeling of loving the hot sun and laid back lifestyle, or the surprise of seeing the locals cruise by and wave at police while drinking Medalla in plain view, starts to subside.

28 Days Later - The Signs
28 days later it's far beyond time to get back to real life, and you wonder why it doesn't seem to be that way for the others who frequently enjoy made up holidays, take off at noon on Friday (or Thursday), and who apparently don't venture out as frequently in the rain. Odd.

28 Weeks Later - The Epiphany
28 weeks later, the days of lounging in the warm water with a cold one, are either distant memories or much more frequent for those inclined to succumb and get medicated rather than complain... and the image of the island starts to become a little like a mixture of that mental image we all have of absolute Paradise blended with a heaping scoop of "MadMax" and perhaps some Bacardi or Finlandia.

Pot Holes, Stop Signs, & Never Ending Upheaval
The roads here, in general, are seemingly terrible. Rough, unfilled pot holes, and repair projects that seem to take forever, not to mention some streets that make you think the budget for stop or yield sides ran out about 5 years ago. I really dislike having to drive into the ditch or up a grassy embankment in order to pass an oncoming car when I take the kids to their *private* school, i.e. a renovated house run by a Director who frequently leaves the grade 8s unattended, with activities like watching "Alien versus Predator", rather than Academics and certainly nothing about life (unless she thinks memorizing New Testament quotes is sufficient).

Note: That's a personal aside. I don't have any direct experience with the other schools - although I'm sure you do. :)

1 Mile - 3 Long Years
And why has it taken over 3 years to NOT FINISH the short entrance road into Cabo Rojo pueblo? I might be completely disillusioned as I don't come from a background in construction or civil engineering, but this seems like a 90 day project. What the heck is going on? :)

"I'm scared, Fif. It's that rat circus out there, I'm beginning to enjoy it. Look, any longer out on that road and I'm one of them, a terminal psychotic, except that I've got this bronze badge that says that I'm one of the good guys." - MadMax

Home Buying & Motion Sickness
You know, you might find it odd that one of the leading criteria for our new home selection process is whether or not I get "motion sickness" on the drive there. It's true. Sure, I'm inclined to get sick in cars. But the view from Google Earth of roads like that look like either a bowl of spaghetti or a ball of twine severely molested by a kitty jacked up on the nip.

Avoid the Spaghetti - Stay Home
I'm really glad that working at home and out of control gas prices give me both the ability and and excuse, respectively, to stay off the roads as much as possible.

Off Centered Tiles & The $7 Fill Up
On "homes". That seems to be one thing that gets done quickly. I can see it in the "tile work". ;) So, it's not hard to imagine there's a huge inventory (12,000) available on the market that the government 25k/10k incentives are hoping to help move soon. But gas prices are definitely reducing the monthly cash flow available for the average family to put against a mortgage. It was really sad when I pumped after a well dressed guy in his mid to late 40s, driving a nice SUV, who pumped $7.

San Juan - The Ultimate Urban Jungle
San Juan. It's beyond the concept of the "urban jungle". Yuck. I can live without seeing Old San Juan again, as long as I don't have to drive there. I'd love to be able to move my mother in law to the West Coast, so that I don't have to return unless I need the cheaper airfare available when departing San Juan airport. I'm not sure she's willing to give up her career to help spare my motion sickness just yet though. ;)

The San Juan Train - "From Good to Great"
To be fair, I just recently rode the train. Refreshing. I agree that I wish it covered more area. My wife and I had the same conversation as what you are now highlighting. We thought it was great, but (a) how do you get to a station, and (b) how do you get from your destination station to your *final destination*. Luckily "Centro Medico" has it's own stop.

You said:

"To create a mass transit system for San Juan would require tearing up most of the City's current structure and dropping a train/shuttle hybrid network in its place."

The Never Ending Story
Geesh. How long will that take (mental image: 1 mile road to Cabo Rojo pueblo, 2005-2008, not completed)?

Parking Lot Trolls Play Musical Cars
You also noted your focus on walk time. And "you" are correct. I figure this out every time I go to the Mayaguez mall and see people parked all over the lot (in the front) waiting for someone to leave, rather than park near the back and use their freaking *piernas*.

It's Broke. Just Buy a New One
Maybe the Saudi's have the right idea. Last year while attending a week long seminar at MIT, I was fortunate to meet some interesting young business men from Saudi Arabia. One of the coolest things they mentioned was that they were involved with building a "New City" in Saudi Arabic. Basically, rather than mess around with upgrading old infrastructure, they picked a spot in the desert, and planned out building a brand new technologically advanced new city. Of course, they can afford it... they sell us gas.

Voodoo Child Creates New Land - Sans MadMax
Maybe we need the assistance of Jimi Hendrix, to stand up next to a mountain and chop it down with the edge of his hand. :) That way we might have some flatland and instead of fixing San Juan, we can build a new city called "Sans MadMax". And yes, "sans" is French for "without".

I Get To Escape
Now, with that said, I'm going to go back to my telecommuting (aka laptop) while I watch CNN on my big screen.

P.S. Think outsourcing. Puerto Rico should find a US State or Canadian province that does a really great job at managing the various agencies, and then outsource. Hey - why not give another state/province a management contract? "State Consulting"? DMV, Vital Statistics, Census, taxation, welfare, *transportation*, you name it. Yes - I'm very pessimistic that any big changes are going to occur here before I've long since left you all to deal with it alone. ;) Correction: I'm not *dealing* with it. I'm just complaining and trying to step over it, rather than right in it.

Ana Oquendo said...

"Oh, God"

I would so badly like to move to Canada... I can't even comprehend why would you be willing to move here. (Oh, I'm just half kidding)

IMHO, this is one of the best comments I've ever read...

The Insider said...

Canada might be a little too cold. How about this. :)

Davsot said...

SkyscraperCity Puerto Rico: http://www.skyscrapercity.com/forumdisplay.php?f=945

Great article. If you like infrastructure thought you would like that forum. Mayagüez is receiving almost $10 million in funding for some "mass transportation system". Hooray!