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Camino de Cruces National Park a high-crime area
Panama City's traffic jam
article and photos by Luis Menéndez G.
"Time is money," a popular phrase says... and in Panama City, the time spent in traffic jams increases every year. It began a long time ago with thick traffic jams at peak hours along the main avenues. Nowadays the congestion has neither specific hours nor roads. Panama City has grown and in its adolescence has begun to suffer the same headaches of the megacities all around the world. In Bangkok, for example, congestion fritters away 35 percent of the city's economic output per year and the typical driver spends 44 days a year stuck in jams. In Panama, if you spend 1.5 hours per day commuting from home to office and vice versa, it will represent 15 days a year of your valuable time. Also, the worldwide average of car speed is between 30 to 55 kph1 due to traffic jams.
Why does this happen? We could say that there is not a single source but many: urban sprawl, public transportation, the number of cars, miles of paved roads, commuting patterns and other causes.
Panama City's urban sprawl
Since colonial times, Panama City has been a commercial center; it attracts migrants from the countryside looking for better services and job opportunities. Usually people settle in the outskirts of the metropolitan area, many miles away from downtown. That's for a good reason: farther out, the houses cost less. Today, the city is spreading mainly toward the west (Arraijan and La Chorrera) and east (Tocumen, Pacora and Chepo). Growth toward the north is still highly limited by the Panama Canal's watershed.
So every morning, hundred of thousands of people come downtown to work or study and leave out as sunset approaches: these are the peak hours. This travel pattern puts strong pressure on the city's capacity to deal with such a high volume of vehicles.
According to the Urban Development Plan for the Metropolitan Areas of the Pacific and the Atlantic,2 an exhaustive study done in 1997 with funding from the InterAmerican Development Bank (IDB) for the government of Panama, the strategy that should be followed for the expansion of the metropolitan area of Panama City for the next 20 years is to create "urban nodes" or "employment nodes" in the east and west areas, as a way to decentralize the downtown. This nodes are expected to be attractive to migrating and already settled people, because the availability of jobs, services and infrastructures. The idea is to diminish that daily flow of people to downtown; that way, people would live closer to the development centers and could avoid traveling long distances.
For this scheme, new roads and the improvement of the current ones will be needed to join those nodes with the residential areas (which are expected to be nearby), in a reticulated, multifunctional street system. Planning and design of the new streets should include lines for pedestrian and bicycle circulation, and plenty of green areas for a parallel tree corridor.3
Public transportation --- the "diablos rojos"
Panama City's public transportation is based on a fleet of buses traditionally called diablos rojos --- red devils --- and taxis. The former are generally painted red and decorated in a folkloric style, usually with paintings of famous actresses, sport stars or even politicians, and often with common phrases. Their diabolic nickname seems to be well deserved The drivers are the subjects of complaints about bad manners with the passengers, disorderly and rude driving, accidents, pollution and deaths. In 2003 the red devils (two percent of all vehicles) caused 14 percent (1662) of all traffic accidents in the country.4
For decades, this traditional bus and taxi transportation system grew without a real plan. Government just assigned quotas to private entrepreneurs, without asking for quality service in return. The owners have had no incentive for efficiency and so have not changed their way of operation over the years. Now this model has collapsed and presents several problems, like the following:5
There is a strong competition in the streets among the drivers for that "extra" coin. Races ("regatas") between buses are very frequent. That competition for the passengers, the "extra coin" war, is a stimulus for the drivers to disobey transit rules (stopping in any place, no respect for traffic lights and signs, etc.).
The vehicles are not tailored for public transportation in the tropics. Second-hand school buses bought in USA are used. They have small doors, windows and seats designed for school children in temperate climates.
As a means to control payment, the units only have one door to go in; the rear one (if there is one) is sealed. This significantly increases the embarkation/disembarkation time.
The buses are uncomfortable (music at high volume, noise, poor ventilation, lack of security, traffic jams, etc.) and slow, so there is no incentive for people to use them. Anybody with money enough to afford other types of transportation (taxi or a car) will do it.
As a consequence, there is a surplus of taxis in the city; these cars roam continuously during the whole day.
The public transportation syndicates have considerable political power --- several deputies in the National Assembly --- and every time the central government tries to implement measures that affect them, strikes and demonstrations follow.
Lack of scheduled maintenance to the units generates severe environmental problems, like air pollution (exhaust fumes) and noise. As a consequence, a property's location along a street used by buses decreases its value.
But what can be done to improve the public transportation in Panama City?
In the past few years, a couple of alternatives have been discussed: trolley cars or a system of buses with its own exclusive streets (like the "Transmilenium" in Bogota, Colombia or the buses in Curitiba, Brazil).
For any alternative to be successful it has to have a quality level high enough to encourage drivers to leave their cars at home and use the system; it has to be swift and affordable to most people. With this in mind, "Transmilenium Autobuses is the more convenient system for Panama City" former Bogota Bogota Enrique Peñaloza says.6
The Transmilenium bus system (T.Buses) has been extremely successful in Bogota. In a few years it has improved the public transportation dramatically and changed the face of the city. Major achievements include:
A 75 percent reduction in commuting time, because the buses do not waste time in congestion and can keep a steady pace. It's faster to use the T. buses than a private car.
10 percent of car drivers prefer to leave the car at home and use the T. buses.
Real estate property values increase if the land is located along a T. road.
There's a friendly environment inside the T. buses. No more bad manners! Aggressive or defensive behaviors are no longer part of the experience.
Nobody feels ashamed for using the T. buses.
Air pollution has decreased by 30 percent.
The system is profitable.
The city has become more spatially integrated: people travel to points not easily accessible before; there are new areas for inhabitants to enjoy, like parks, wide sidewalks, paths for bicycling, etc.
The implementation of this (or any other) mass transit system in Panama will require wise and long-term planning and the effort on the part of private and official entities. But one thing is sure: we won't be able to indefinitely maintain the obsolete diablo rojo transportation system.
Cars, cars... more cars
In Panama, one of the first things a person buys as soon as he or she can is a car. Bank loans are widely available, so for an employed person, it isn't so difficult to buy an automobile. Also, it is known that traffic volume increases with household income,7 so middle and upper class families tend to have more than one automobile; families where every member has a car are not quite rare. Thus the chances are for the years to come the number of cars will continue to increase.
Source: "Panama en Cifras", page 115 -- Dirección de Estadística y Censo. Contraloría General de la República
More streets, avenues and highways?
In 1998, the north and south corridors were opened to the public. It was a good idea to built highways to connect the densely populated east and northwest areas to downtown. However, in peak hours these roads are heavily congested, especially at the toll booths. In 1968, engineer Dietrich Braess showed that adding new streets to a city's road grid very often makes congestion worse, not better.8 Many researchers agree that there will never be enough streets to speed traffic. "Traffic always rises to exceed capacity to built new pathways," Martin Wachs of the University of California Transportation Center says. This might be the case of Panama, where every month 1,500 brand new cars enter into the system9 while far less than that go out of service. Today, the Republic of Panama has approximately 335 thousand cars, 73 percent of which are in the Panama City metro area.
Let's drive less and walk more!
Panamanians prefer not to walk about town. This is partly because of the tropical weather --- harsh sun in the dry season and downpours in the rainy season. Personal cars allow more freedom, flexible door-to-door transportation, and with them one avoids walking to or from bus stops.
Culture plays a key role too: there is no prestige in using public transportation. "My car" is a measure of a person's success and wealth. Walking is considered the worst option: it means that the person doesn't even can afford a bus or taxi.
Outside of the city, however, people walk more and another healthy, non-polluting way of transportation is frequently used: the bicycle! Very often workplaces, schools and public institutions have bicycle racks outside.
A complete solution won't come quickly or easily. Some immediate measures could be taken, like the "timing" of traffic lights on the main thoroughfares or a rebirth of respect for the rules and courtesies while driving. In the meantime, we, the inhabitants of this city will continue our daily struggle with the traffic!
Typical peak hour car congestion in Nicanor A. de Obarrio Ave.
1. "Transportation's Perennial Problems," Scientific American, pages 56-59, October 1997
2. Plan de Desarrollo Urbano de las Áreas Metropolitanas del Pacífico y del Atlántico. --- Ministerio de Vivienda --- República de Panamá / Dirección General de Desarrollo Urbano (http://www.mivi.gob.pa/urban sprawlo/departamentos/principal.html)
3. Vol.II, chapter 14.3.2 "Transportation"
4. El Panamá América, sunday August 8th. 2004
5. Adapted from "Transmilenio" http://transmilenio.saberdemocratico.net/pages/AntesDeTransmi.htm
6. El Panama America, may 14th. 2002 --- APEDE monthly meeting
7 "The Past and Future of Global Mobility" --- Scientific American, pages 59. October 1997
8. Braess's Paradox - Page 55
9 Asociacion de Distribuidores de Autos de Panamá (ADAP) --- Year 2000: 1750 vehicles monthly / Year 2003: 1416 vehicles monthly.
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Camino de Cruces National Park a high-crime area
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