When I travel, I often find the transit systems of other places interesting, but Santo Domingo’s was really fascinating. Here’s a fairly large (over two million people, the second largest in the Caribbean after Havana), fairly dense (23,000 per square mile) city with low private car ownership (the country as a whole had only 4.4% in 2004). But there are no dedicated lanes for buses, and until this past Monday there was no rail transit. How do they get around?
Hardcore transportation development experts may chuckle, because there are many cities in this situation around the world. I’ve been to both Ciudad Juárez and Bamako, which both have over a million people, more than 10,000 people per square mile and no rail or dedicated bus transit. I didn’t have much opportunity to study the transit system in those cities, but I was in Santo Domingo for over two weeks. Here’s what I saw:
There are essentially six tiers of transport in Santo Domingo: private cars, reserved taxis, full-size buses, carros publicos, guaguas, motoconchos and non-motorized private transport (bicycles and pedestrians). I’ve listed them in approximate order of prestige.
Private cars and reserved taxis work very much like in New York: you have a car, or you call a cab. Similarly with bicycles and pedestrians, although I’ve written about the pedestrian situation in previous posts. Before the subway was built, the transit system was composed of the remaining categories.
Full-size buses are the most similar to buses in the US or Europe. The main operator in our neighborhood was Caribe Tours; they had marked bus stops and only stopped at those. They usually had working air conditioning, but I only rode them once, because I almost always saw them full of people standing. Just inside the door was a turnstile operated by a cashier who could make change; my son was allowed to ride free, but I was asked to lift him over the turnstile. The inside of the bus was clean, relatively new, and well-maintained.
On our second day in Santo Domingo, we went with one of my wife’s colleagues to see if we could ride the subway. My wife’s colleague spoke better Spanish than any of us, so she asked the soldiers guarding the entrance if we could go in. They politely said it was off limits and wouldn’t open until November, so she asked them how we could get to the park we wanted to visit. They explained how to use the guaguas and which route to take, which was a big help and got us off on a good start.
Guaguas are minibuses (sometimes minivans) that operate on fixed routes. The price in June was twenty pesos, about sixty cents US. I never saw one with air conditioning, and in fact the side doors were always open. In addition to the driver they have a cobrador, which literally means “fare collector,” but they also act as conductors and touts. The routes are confusing, so at any bus stop the cobrador will call out the major destinations. People can bring luggage on the guaguas; one time my son and I boarded a bus and came face to face with a chicken sitting on a man’s lap.
The guaguas are operated by independent contractors, and their profits are proportional to the number of fares they collect. Because of this, drivers and cobradores will try to pack as many people into the bus as they possibly can. If there are only a few passengers, the driver will go slow, and the cobrador will jump down at every stop and shout the destinations at everyone nearby. Sometimes they will stop in between official bus stops to try and convince people to ride.
The most common guagua has three or four rows of seats in the back, with two seats on the left and one on the right. When these are full, there are jump seats that fold down in the aisle. This would be crowded enough, but the cobradores insist on squeezing five people into those four seats, no matter how fat, so that they can announce to potential passengers that “hay asientos!” If a passenger in the back seat has to get out, everyone in the jump seats in front has to stand up and move out of the way. There are also various jump seats mounted on the engine well, and then room for standees; if there are too many standees, the cobrador will ride hanging out the side door. Small children are expected to sit on laps whenever seats are scarce.
Because the guaguas can go slow when they’re not full, and spend a lot of time loading and unloading, many people opt for the carros publicos. These are taxis (usually small Japanese sedans) that run on fixed routes. They cost thirty pesos (about ninety cents US), and have no cobradores, but the drivers of these will also try to fit as many people in as possible, to the point of having four or five people across in the back seat and two in the front, sitting on laps whenever possible. The advantage is that they fill up quicker, so they tend to spend less time fishing for passengers, loading and unloading.
The motoconchos have a similar advantage to the carros publicos, with even less room. These are motorcycles (or maybe scooters) that take passengers on the back. I never felt comfortable trying them.
For the first week I saw several minibuses passing by our hotel with doors closed and air conditioning on; they looked so comfortable compared to the guaguas we rode! They occasionally let passengers off at our stop, but never let anyone on. I asked around, but no one could tell me where to get them. Finally I went to the major bus transfer point on the Avenida Duarte, and found the answer. They were medium-distance buses going to and from towns an hour or two away. That’s why they got the air conditioning, and that’s why they couldn’t pick up passengers within the city limits.
In another post, I’ll explain why I think the case of Santo Domingo is relevant for us here in the US.