It’s 4.44 a.m. and I am awake with my hot chocolate. This, for me, is quite a normal time to be awake and up. But that’s just my body clock – that loves getting up hours before dawn to welcome the day! I love the quiet morning – no interruptions – just to sit and write.
Most Panamanians, however, have a waking time similar to this – with alarm clocks and a commute that I do not envy! One friend tells me she leaves home before 5.50 a.m., otherwise she will be stuck in traffic for 2 hours. If she leaves before then, it only takes 30 minutes. So, she gets to work at 6.30 a.m. every morning! But it’s better to be at work than stuck in traffic for hours!
Another lady in my office leaves home (Chorrera) every day before 5.20, so that she has a “hope” of getting on the unlicensed buses (known here as bus pirata), because at least then she can come with air-conditioning and sitting down. All in order to get to the office before 8.00 a.m. Most people that live in Chorrera are awake at 4.00 a.m. to get to work by 8.00 – to me that is simply unimaginable!
It’s quite normal for a Panamanian to spend 4 to 5 hours a day stuck in traffic on their way to and from work! Imagine the quality of life they could have if they could recover 3-4 hours a day!
While it’s true that the Metro train runs from Los Andes to Albrook Mall in 20 minutes, that’s only a partial solution to Panama’s commuting problem! Panama has built suburbs in three directions:
- Los Andes / Milla 8 / San Miguelito
- Tocumen / Pacora / 24 de diciembre
- Arraijan (pop. 300,000) / Chorrera (pop 200,00)
Of these three areas, the current metro line only services the first of these. The second metro line – under construction but “almost finished” will cover Tocumen, 24 de diciembre & Pacora – but will not actually go to the airport! So, for now, we can forget about the option of coming into the airport and just catching the metro home! Once again, I see no plans for any parking at the final station.
And the third line of the metro – that will take care of commuters from Chorrera & Arraijan, is still in planning phases – with the largest part of the plan being the bridge across the Canal for the train & more traffic. Chorrera and Arraijan used to be in the same Province as Panama City – until the populations grew so much, that the west side of the bridge was divided off into a new province: Panamá Oeste. Chorrera is now the capital of that province! But it doesn’t “act” like a provincial capital in many ways. It continues in its role of sleeping & housing satellite for Panama City.
As Ursula Kiener stated earlier this year in a tweet – building 20 bridges across the Canal isn’t going to solve the problem – the issue lies with having Chorrera & Arraijan simply as dormitory cities. We need to start developing the rest of the country and creating jobs there.
Construir 20 puentes sobre el canal no va a solucionar el problema del tráfico. La solución que deberían pensar es desarrollar el resto del país y crear trabajos, empezando por las ciudades dormitorias en Panamá Este y Oeste.
— Ursula Kiener (@UrsulaKiener) July 11, 2018
But even if I look at New Zealand – and their commuting problem for Auckland’s central business district – is it really all that different? Twelve KM from New Lynn to CBD in about an hour – which is half the distance that commutes have from Tocumen or a third from Chorrera (34km) into Panama City’s CBD.
Panama attempts to solve the commuting issue by having all of the lanes of the Interamerican highway coming INTO town from 4.00 to 8.00 a.m. – meaning that if you want to go out of Panama City, you take the Puente Centenario!
Basic culture – driving:
And that’s without even talking about the traffic in downtown Panama City! Unfortunately, Panamanians do not appear to have learned the basics of how to handle intersections – exacerbating the traffic jams and frustration for other drivers.
What’s worse — you watch the traffic cops telling drivers to pull up over the intersection while they wait in line… doing nothing to help in the education of drivers who are respecting an intersection.
Pet peeve # 2 – Panamanians do not seem to have learnt the correct way to use a roundabout! Panama would be a slice closer to Utopia, if every driver would just follow the simple etiquette and rules for using a roundabout.
Part of the solution lies in a complete education of Panamanians regarding regard to the driving rules – not driving on the shoulder and creating a third lane when there are only two, not driving down a one-way street the wrong way to avoid the queue in the other street, and respect for fellow drivers. Everyone is heading the same direction – getting to work.
The options in Panama at the moment are limited:
- Buses, including metro buses & “piratas” – referring to the unlicensed buses that run daily (who when they are deemed illegal actually protest and block the roads)
- Metro system – line 1 – running North-South – only available at the moment from San Isidro to Albrook Mall
- Taxis – which used to be relatively safe and comfortable – are now often not air-conditioned and people are concerned about their safety
- Uber & other apps – a better option, as long as you have a credit card for payment, since they are phasing out cash payments (although in today’s headlines – this is being extended again)
I don’t know anyone in Panama that would cycle to work – especially since upon arriving at work they would need somewhere to shower. The heat & humidity of the tropics does not make this a cool morning ride to work – and the fumes from the traffic are asphyxiating! Not to mention the complete lack of cycle-friendly cars that would push you off the road in their angst to get to work “on time”.
Uber & taxis are certainly not options for a long commute – such as from Chorrera or Pacora, because they would break a hole in your pocket if you did that daily!
And so commuters are left only with walking (fine for short distances as long as there isn’t a tropical downpour), buses or their private vehicles.
Car-pooling or ride sharing
Car-pooling would seem like one obvious solutions to Panama’s public transport crisis more than one person travels in a car, and prevents the need for others to have to drive themselves. Ride-sharing reduces each person’s travel costs such as: fuel costs, tolls, and the stress of driving.
While to me it may seem crazy – Panama prohibits carpooling or ride-sharing to work – unless you’ve registered for it! The taxis and public transport didn’t want people to be able to do this, because they said that the driver would charge others for the ride (i.e. gas money) and that was taking money out of the pocket of public transport.
Would you LOOK at the transport problem that Panama has?
And you want to legislate carpooling & ride-sharing so that it’s done properly???
While every other country simply has a rule that there are carpooling lanes (i.e. if there are two or more people in a car they get a special fast lane) – Panama is sitting here complaining about the traffic problem without really solving it!
Parking for at Metro Stations
One of my pet peeves is the LACK of parking at the final metro stations – I’m talking Pacora (when they finish line 2), San Isidro (out past Los Andes) and whatever the plans are for the last station in Chorrera. I understand that there is no parking at the station on Vía España or even San Miguelito’s “La Gran Estación”.
But I don’t understand the lack of planning of not ending the final station with a car park, so people can drive to the station, leave their car and hop on the train! So you don’t want to have security looking after the cars? Put a sign up – “leave cars at your own risk”.
But the reality of Panama’s situation – especially in a country where it rains 8-10 months of the year – people need a way to get from their home to the train station. How do we expect commuters to get from their homes (often in suburbs and gated communities) to the train station to start the commute? They are not going to pay a taxi and most likely not going to walk 3 km to the train station!
While I agree that it would be fabulous if some of the companies and jobs were available in Chorrera, rather than everyone commuting into Panama City – I don’t realistically see that happening within the short term.
Headquarters for multinationals are already “out of town” – in the sense that they are not central business district – either in Panama Pacifico, ciudad del Saber or Costa del Este. Processing zones are constantly being developed in Don Bosco, Tocumen and Transistmica – areas which are highly industrial and strategically located for logistics between Colon and the airport.
But Panama needs to find that perfect mix between investing more heavily in public transport (buses, not just the metro) and offering commuters options of how to get from their homes onto the public transport network. They need to make sure that walking to a bus stop is actually an option, not an obstacle course. I am constantly amazed at how sidewalks simply “end”, leaving you in the middle of an overgrown or muddy patch of mire.
There has been a lot of criticism these last two years about how the walking infrastructure (foot paths & walkways) has taken away what little parking there was in the central business district. Not to mention the horrendous flooding that badly planned and executed works have caused! The current river flowing down Vía Argentina each time it rains has become a sad parody of wake-boarding!
That aside – if we really want to improve the quality of life for Panamanians – we need to accept that public transport is what will provide that. This means more trains & a metro system that allows people to get home within 30-40 minutes, rather than 2 hours, more buses (especially shorter routes that go through neighbourhoods) and taxis or Uber.
If we are going to go with more public transport – Panama needs bus stops that actually keep the water out when it’s raining – not tiny little roofs for a spring shower! And the public foot paths need to be walkable – rather than dangerous obstacle courses!
Building more roads (corredores or bridges across the Canal) will not solve the problem – this requires a change of culture & expectations. And this means – the solution will take a generation to re-educate!
So – when do we start?