By: Joel Epstein
You know those glossy throw away magazines you find on the nightstand in your San Juan hotel room? You know the ones; with the puff piece about the local casinos and ads for Ruth’s Chris Steak House and Fogo de Chão. Well this piece isn’t about those places. It’s about San Juan’s Tren Urbano, a key feature of San Juan’s transportation network and effort to make San Juan a more environmentally sustainable and liveable city.
Though relatively few visitors to the Puerto Rican capital ride the train, it is hard to miss in Río Piedras, Hato Rey, Guaynabo and Bayamón as you sit in traffic in your rental car or coach bus to and from your hotel. Which is sad because the mostly above ground train is fast, safe and clean and inexpensive to ride.
While the Tren Urbano does not extend to the airport, the fully automated system is a welcome addition to the region’s transportation landscape. Opened in December 2004, the 10.7-mile (17.2 km) fully-automated single line rapid transit system carried 9,000 weekday riders during the second quarter of 2022.
With sixteen stations, Tren Urbano also connects to San Juan’s Autoridad Metropolitana de Autobuses (AMA) Metropolitan Bus Authority buses with the train’s stations serving as hubs for buses, colectivos and scooter and bike riders. To get from Viejo San Juan to the Estación Sagrado Corazón in Santurce, I walked to Terminal Covadonga and took the E10 bus. The T3 and T9 buses also run between the bus terminal and Sagrado Corazón.
If you arrive by ocean liner to the San Juan Cruise Port Terminal you can’t miss Terminal Covadonga which is across the street. You can’t miss it, but thousands do, as few cruise ship passengers seem to know anything about the public bus system in San Juan.
Perhaps if the transit authority charged $10 or more per ride instead of 75 cents (35 cents for seniors), more cruise ship passengers would take the bus. The T3 and T9 buses also run from Terminal Covadonga to Sagrado Corazón.
To get a sense of San Juan’s transit system and to visit several places I had never been before, I went with recommendations from Rodolfo Romañach, a 20 something CPA and sometime Tren Urbano rider from Cupey who works in Hato Rey. A $5 Tren Urbano day pass did the trick and let me get on and off the train as often as I wanted. Riders buy their MetroCard-like fare cards at easy to use bilingual vending machines at the station.
Both Romañach and Alejandra Jiménez, Attorney and Program Manager at CDVCA’s Unlock Capital Puerto Rico Investment Readiness Program, said Tren Urbano is less attractive to them than driving because of Puerto Rico’s tropical climate and the fact that the trains don’t take them door to door. According to Jiménez, cars are the preferred means of transportation for most Puerto Ricans including the poor. Adds Romañach, the trains and buses are more popular with students and the elderly, who may not own a car or no longer drive.
Of course these observations might be made as well about transit in much of the rest of the U.S. With low expectations I was pleasantly surprised by both San Juan’s buses and Tren Urbano, the first in the Caribbean.
Transit remains one of the best ways for urban areas to cost effectively combat climate change and create more liveable cities while sparing riders the misery of lives wasted stuck in traffic.
Critically dependent on tourism, San Juan and Puerto Rico are missing an opportunity in not better promoting the region as a transit-oriented destination with good to very good transit options.
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With its buses and trains, públicos (colectivos or dollar vans) and growing bike and scooter culture solving the first, last mile problem, the next step for San Juan should be making it a more liveable city by banning private cars from Viejo San Juan, a proposal that has been out there for a dozen or so years. The Spanish colonial gem will be even more dazzling once the Alcaldía de San Juan takes that critical step.
My first trip on the train was from Sagrado Corazón to Plaza del Mercado in downtown Río Piedras.
Verdict: Clean, quiet, excellent ride and practically empty at 10 in the morning.
The market in Río Piedras is a short walk from the train through an area that looks to be earmarked for urban renewal.
According to Rodolfo Romañach, the malls, the bane of so many Main Streets in the United States, have killed the downtown, leaving the buildings a canvas for artists as well as graffiti taggers of lesser talent.
The small market is a colorful place to grab a delicious batido from Miss Batida and a plate of lechon from Lechonera Junior.
Fortified, and better educated after a lesson in frituras Borinqueñas from Miss Batida, I headed back to the train for the ride to the end of the line in Bayamón.
Back on the now somewhat busier train, once out of the underground Río Piedras station, the elevated portions of the line offer excellent views of greater San Juan. In downtown Bayamón, my new go-to for a cortadito is Café 2150, a small café and coffee roaster, a couple of blocks from the train station. After a walk around town and back on the train to Sagrado Corazón, it was one more stop for me at the Universidad de Puerto Rico, Río Piedras (Estación de Tren Urbano Universidad).
Though I am long since done with school, I always like to visit university campuses that are as pretty as this one.
While not everyone may be as enthusiastic about San Juan’s Tren Urbano and regional bus system as I am, I found San Juan better transit wise than many cities I travel to and have worked in across the continental U.S. With buses and trains that ferry riders to the business center in Hato Rey, the airport and the University as well as tourist destinations including Viejo San Juan, Calle Loiza, La Placita de Santurce and Downtown Cupey, a family friendly open air venue where you can grab a local beer and listen to live music, take that Tallahassee! Downtown Cupey also had me with its origin story as the former site of Concretos del Norte (a concrete company). Talk about a higher adaptive reuse!
Yours in transit,
Joel Epstein is a New Yorker and an advocate for public transit, livable cities and public space.
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