I couldn’t write about transportation in San Juan without mentioning the city’s legendary car congestion. The historic, dense, walled city of Old San Juan is jammed with cars and has apparently no pedestrian-only streets.
A lot has already been said about this. It turns out that Streetsblog editor Aaron Naparstek found Old San Juan to be very car-dependent in 2005, and in 2008 Deputy Editor Brad Aaron found the same thing. I just have a few things to add.
Several sources mentioned that the city has one of the highest per-capita rates of car ownership in the world; this page gives the most complete statistics I could find – 617 per thousand people, which is apparently still below San Francisco.
Old San Juan was so congested that almost every street had a line of cars creeping along it. Driving was almost as slow as walking. I was surprised that people would put up with something so inconvenient. By comparison, the Colonial Zone of Santo Domingo is very comfortable for pedestrians, with a mile-long pedestrian-only street.
The high amount of car use has clearly been encouraged by several large multi-level parking garages that line the southern coast of the small island that holds Old San Juan and the Puerta de Tierra district that houses many of the territory’s administrative buildings. There are similar structures all over the city. The multiple large expressways running through the dense downtown areas can’t help anything, either. They cut the neighborhoods of the Santurce district off from each other.
Old San Juan may be compact, but it still takes a while to get around, in part because so much of the street space is devoted to cars. This leaves just a narrow strip of sidewalk on each side, which we usually found to be crowded with other tourists. All of the buses stop at the main bus station outside the old main gate, and the only transit that goes further into the city are the free “trolleys.”
No, these are not the actual trolleys that used to run through San Juan, but the transvestite buses that are sadly so typical in historical districts. They kept the uncomfortable wooden seats, of course, but the ride is as bumpy as a bus. What’s worst is that whatever agency runs them seems uninterested in actually doing a good job. We waited for at least fifteen minutes before one showed up, and it was full. Fortunately, there was another one bunched behind it, but that one had only enough seats for us, meaning that we were crowded together with other tourists for the interminable stop-and-go through the narrow streets.