Santo Domingo

Background, Better Buses, Dominican Republic, Santo Domingo

Transit in Santo Domingo

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?

guagua1aHardcore 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.

Dominican Republic, Santo Domingo, Spanish

Spanish News: Santo Domingo Metro Opens Monday

Máximo Gómez station
Máximo Gómez station. Photo by Orad

La Nación Dominicana: El Metro costará RD$105 millones cada mes, arranca el lunes de forma gratuita, hasta el día de reyes.

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic, December 19.  According to Diandino Peña, the monthly operating cost of the Santo Domingo Metro will come to roughly $3 million US, or $105 million pesos at the current exchange rate.

Mr. Peña, the Director of the Transportation Reform Office (OPRET), also announced that on Monday Metro will begin the long-awaited in-service test of  Rapid Mass Transit Line 1, with full access to passengers at no charge through Epiphany on January 6.  Ten trains will circulate, each with a capacity of  650 passengers, and straphangers will have to wait no more than 5-6 minutes for a train.

Mr. Peña made the announcement alongside Manuel Vásquez, Miguel Ángel Sánchez and Rafael Serrano.  Mr. Vásquez, from Spain, was a consultant on the construction of the Santo Domingo Metro on loan from the Madrid Metro.  Mr. Sánchez will serve as Chief of Operations for the Santo Domingo Metro representing the Spanish side, while Mr. Serrano will fill the same function on the Dominican side.

Mr. Peña explained that once the in-service test with passengers is completed, covering the entire line and all the stations, they will conduct an inspection and evaluation of all of the subsystems and rolling stock in terms of their ability to respond to diverse situations, in the face of a demand that is expected to be higher than originally projected.

Once all the 19 trains are put into service, Mr. Peña said, they will prepare to charge fares by the end of January.  He and his colleagues invited all who are interested in the Metro to visit the sixteen stations on Line 1 during the following hours:

December 22-24, 26-28 and 31; January 2-6 9:00 AM through 7:00 PM
December 25 and January 1 1:00 PM through 7:00 PM
December 29 and 30 7:00 AM through 7:00 PM

On the other side of the operations, Mr. Peña announced that the OPRET will meet with Dominican business owners, including transportation syndicates, to determine who will operate feeder lines to the Metro.  He also assured the audience that the operation of the Metro will not affect electricity consumers nearby, because it is fed by two power lines of 69 and 138 megawatts.

As for the operating cost of the Metro, Mr. Peña explained that at the beginning it was expected to be around three million dollars per month, but eventually it would be lower due to better understanding of the system.

Commentary, Dominican Republic, Santo Domingo

Santo Domingo: Not That Bad for Pedestrians

despacio1I came across a blog post by a fellow named Joan Guerrero complaining about the streets of Santo Domingo and how they’re not very pedestrian friendly. His post received a lot of comments, and a few follow-up posts. While I agree with him that there’s definitely room for improvement, I don’t think the streets of Santo Domingo are as bad as he makes them out to be.

I don’t know exactly what Guerrero is comparing Santo Domingo to – New York City, obviously, and maybe the usual suspects of older, transit-rich, pedestrian-friendly Western Hemisphere cities like Chicago, Montreal and Buenos Aires. Maybe even cities like Paris, London and Amsterdam that have recently put pedestrians at the top of the hierarchy.

But has Guerrero been to very many other cities? Let’s review: deep gutters, broken sidewalks, sidewalks blocked by cars and construction, noise and pollution. The deep gutters seem to be a feature of cities without good drainage; I’ve been told they can also be found in Tijuana. Noise and pollution are facts of life in almost every city, and affect drivers almost as much as pedestrians.

With regard to the quality of sidewalks, just about any city or suburb in the United States outside the Big Old Cities will show similar deterioration. In fact, Southern states like North Carolina and Mississippi passed laws in the 1970s removing the obligation of home and business owners to maintain sidewalks, with the result that outside of small downtown areas, the sidewalks in most towns either are overgrown or were never built in the first place.

Parking on sidewalks is also widespread here in Queens and many other parts of the US. I will confess that in certain sections of Santo Domingo I found sidewalk parking to be much more rampant than anywhere else I’ve ever been, but I think that’s in part because in the US we just built more parking lots. Sidewalk parking was clearly a problem in Bogotá, since former mayor Enrique Peñalosa was almost impeached for it.

None of this is to suggest that the pedestrian environment Santo Domingo is hunky dory, only that the cities that Guerrero compares it to are more the exception in the Western Hemisphere than the rule. Yes, pedestrians in Santo Domingo deserve more respect. So do the pedestrians of Greenville, North Carolina, Champaign, Illinois, Binghamton, New York and Albuquerque, New Mexico – to name a few places I’ve lived.

One of the complaints most strongly voiced by Guerrero and the commenters on his blog is directed at the general disregard that motorists have for pedestrians. That’s worth a blog post all its own, coming soon.

Background, Commentary, Dominican Republic, Santo Domingo

The Problems with Santo Domingo Streets

22580011 “Know what the problem is with these sidewalks, Daddy?” my son said to me. “They have all these holes you have to step over.” Sure enough, the sidewalks of Santo Domingo are full of holes, and my son has to cross them with his short legs. Many of them, I explained, are deep gutters that are needed because the streets don’t have underground sewers to drain stormwater. The previous night a friend of ours had had a difficult time pushing her toddler in a stroller; she not only had to cross all the drainage ditches but all the other places where the pavement is broken. And every time we came across a car parked on the narrow sidewalk, she had to steer the stroller across the gutter into the street and back again.

They are working on drainage here in Santo Domingo de Guzm?n, capital of the Dominican Republic; an entire block of the Avenida Alma Mater is torn up, presumably due to sewer construction. Unfortunately, one night when we were walking on the Malecón, a waterfront boulevard that’s Santo Domingo’s answer to New York’s West Street, the entire crosswalk at Alma Mater was blocked by this construction. My guidebook says that on the weekends some sections of the are opened to pedestrians and cyclists as in Bogotá’s Ciclovía, but last night there was no way to cross the speeding traffic, so we had to backtrack a block to get around the construction.

The worst experience we’ve had so far was at the intersection of Avenida Máximo Gómez and the Avenida Mirador Norte, where the bus dropped us off on the east side of a four-lane road full of traffic speeding off a bridge. To get to the Avenida Mirador Norte, we had to cross the traffic and climb over a two-foot barrier with no traffic signal, not easy to do with a five-year-old.

The other salient features of the pedestrian environment in Santo Domingo are that it’s hot, noisy and polluted. Nothing to be done about the heat, but hopefully the noise and pollution will improve in the future as older, noisier and more polluting vehicles are replaced.

Despite these problems, the streets of Santo Domingo aren’t actually that bad. I’ll tell you why in my next post.