Puerto Rican Road Culture

We just got back from 2 weeks in Puerto Rico. We spent time in the capital, San Juan, and on the east coast in Fajardo. This was our experience during our stay.

Biking

When our taxi driver first pulled up in front of our condo he stopped in the bike lane. But not only that – he did so on the wrong side of the street – against traffic. This was not cool.

We had a bike lane on one side of the street where we stayed in Condado. It was 4-5 feet wide but was mostly gutter. It ran directly against the curb in places and in the door lane in other spots. It also had right turning traffic cross through it in several places to make dedicated turns. Cars were frequently parked in the lane despite a heavy police presence with the police themselves often setting a bad precedent, parking their motorcycles half in the bike lane, half on the sidewalk. In fact, the poor sidewalk condition contributed to a large number of pedestrians, especially people out running, using the bike lane. There was heavy runner traffic in the lanes at night.

The other side of the street had a sharrows but most people riding rode dangerously close to the right curb and cars passed far too close for my comfort. We did find a bi-directional protected bike lane  while walking to Old San Juan but it looked short & disconnected from any major route system.

There were a lot of bike fix-it stations in Condado and I was amazed at the amount of (mostly empty) bike parking! While we did see some people riding, it was far fewer than I would expect with such flat terrain and sunny weather.

We ran into some die-hard riders up in the hills on our way to Fajardo. We rented a car & took the scenic route through the rainforest. They were climbing massive hills with no shoulder on these extremely narrow and windy roads. While on the east coast we saw several groups out riding along major arterials. They were on the shoulders, which also served as bus stops, of roads with 3-4 lanes in each direction and speeds of 45 mph and up. The shoulders were in very poor condition with a lot of gravel, sand, and glass.

We didn’t rent bikes on our trip. They were priced at $20-30/day and since we were typically traveling short distances, the cost didn’t make sense for us.

Walking

We walked a lot on our trip. According to our phones we walked anywhere from 5-10 miles per day, from walking to the beach to trekking through the rainforest.

The sidewalks in Condado were frequently blocked by parked cars. They were crumbling and had massive grates on them that were rusted and dented. Some of the grates had large holes, an easy place to twist an ankle. The tree boxes were too large – taking a 3 foot sidewalk down to 1 foot every 50-100 yards. This made the sidewalks congested and it was difficult to hold a conversation.

One morning, after waiting an hour for the bus, we decided to walk to Old San Juan instead. It was hot – even at 10 am there was no shade from the trees as palms don’t offer much in the way of foliage. We followed a bus-only road, hoping to flag one down along the way. There was a lot of glass on the sidewalks and the only shade was from the low-slung concrete walls topped with barbed wire. We didn’t see anyone else out walking, despite it being New Years Day.

The streets of Old San Juan offer far more charm than those of Condado, paved with shiny blue cobblestones that almost look like water. The sidewalks here are extremely narrow with very high curbs and few curb ramps. It was difficult to squeeze by the vast amount of tourists. Often we were forced off the sidewalk and into the parked cars pressed against the curb.

Where were the crosswalks? There were very few painted crosswalks so people just crossed where they wanted. People driving stopped for those crossing and then slowly accelerated after they finished crossing to the other side. This was my favorite take-away of the street culture. It was so refreshing not to hear revving engines or squealing brakes.

It was much more difficult to walk in Fajardo. It’s highly suburban with grater distances between places. It also lacks sidewalks in many places, forcing you to walk right in the road as there are no shoulders. There were large, uncovered gutters to channel the rain away. These were often filled with fetid water and debris. Many people left bags of trash strewn across the sidewalk or gutter.

Riding the Bus

To save some money and hassle we didn’t rent a car for most of our stay. While we were in Condado we relied on walking or riding the bus.

There was a bus stop right outside of our condo building that ran to Old San Juan. The first morning we took it we waited about 10 minutes before it arrived. We asked the bus driver where to get off and he was very helpful. There aren’t published bus schedules so we were pleased that we didn’t have to wait.

The bus drops off at the depot, which is nice because it’s in a central location by the giant looming cruise ships, so you can’t miss it when you want to return. It’s also the stop of the free trolley that runs through the old city, although we decided to walk during our visit.

When we returned in the afternoon the bus was just about to leave & we hopped on, paid our $0.75 and were good to go. We noticed, however that there weren’t any pull cords or stop buttons, we had to get up and ask the driver to stop when we wanted to get off.

The second day we took the bus to Old San Juan was New Years Day. We saw the bus service the stop in the other direction – so we knew they were running. We waited an hour at the stop with another family before deciding to walk. We walked for 20-30 minutes along the bus-only road before a different bus came along. We flagged it down and ran to hop on, riding for about 5-10 minutes before reaching the depot. The bus only road made for quick travel among the congested streets.

On our way back we watched as the driver of our bus pulled into the depot – scraping the back of his bus against a concrete barrier. He then pulled around another bus – hitting on of his back windows against their side mirror, cracking the glass of the window and shattering the mirror. Needless to say we were concerned, but it was hot and we were tired and he told us to get on in the lovely air conditioning. A few minutes after leaving the depot we hit a large bump and ‘BANG’ the cracked window shattered. Luckily no one was sitting near it. People started praying. The driver then pulled a hard left across oncoming traffic and sped along into the bus lanes. He blew through 3 stop signs along the way. As we approached a hard red light he slammed on the brakes to avoid rear-ending the car stopped at the light. People actually fell out of their seats. At this point we just wanted to get off the bus alive, and thankfully we made it back in one piece. Later we joked that a car with a missing bumped had met the driver of the A21 earlier.

Overall

We had a fantastic time. There are definitely concepts I’d love to see more of here, like patience with pedestrians crossing the street, and narrow roads that promoted slower speeds. I’ll keep my sidewalks though and continue to push for better bike infrastructure.

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