San Juan to Ban Cars, Make "Walkable City"

The oldest city in the Americas bans cars from its colonial streets and outlines a plan to make San Juan more livable. David Soto gives us a look at this ambitious plan.

The city of San Juan has unveiled a plan to make its oldest district, Isleta, livable and walkable. Isleta is a small island connected to mainland Puerto Rico by a series of bridges and a ferry. These are not enough to suit the needs of its citizens. Banning automobiles from Old San Juan and adding a light rail system are the first and most important steps, followed by the revitalization of old neighborhoods, an emphasis on public spaces and walkability and new mixed-use developments. The plan affects Isleta, which is composed of Puerta de Tierra and the more well-known and touristy Old San Juan, and the Convention Center District.

 A new plan for Isleta.

Many have tried, but failed, to pedestrianize Old San Juan. This time however the plan is endorsed by the state permits agency, which means there may be little reason not to move forward with it. Businesses usually oppose the car ban because they think they will cause them to lose customers, but this is simply fear of the unknown. The majority of business in Old San Juan comes from its cruise ship ports. Plus, as the plan tries to explain, the new light rail will actually bring in more customers because roads are up to capacity. Besides, the municipality already filters automobile traffic into Old San Juan allowing only residents to enter, and the rest must park in nearby car parks.

Redevelopment of La Perla is probably the most challenging part of the plan because it is a low-income neighborhood that has been neglected by all forms of governments for decades. Its history as a meat district is rich but its present is poor. Adjacent to the beautifully preserved and maintained Old San Juan, it kind of makes you wonder why it was allowed to become so rundown. The municipality wants to upgrade the neighborhood's infrastructure and modernize its buildings. I predict that even if San Juan becomes successful in improving the living conditions of La Perla's residents, the revitalization strategies could lead to gentrification of the neighborhood unless steps are taken to prevent this. After all, the goal of the plan is to make La Perla a showcase of local culture and food.

 Illustration of La Perla redevelopment.

La Perla redevelopment visualized.

The most important aspect of the plan is its emphasis on promoting other modes of transportation besides the car. It proposes a new 5.3 mile light rail system and a brand new bikeway / pedestrian ring to circle Isleta. The light rail system will serve to reconnect the island with the rest of the city and its metro system, the Tren Urbano. The pedestrian ring will make it easier for locals and tourists alike to get around the traditionally car-centric Isleta while also offering a new perspective of the walled city.

The report argues that the loss of mass transit in the Isleta is at least partially responsible for the massive decrease in population. A graph shows how tramways (streetcars) ignited a rise in population and the railroad system was the peak of this until 1957 when the railroads of Puerto Rico were allowed to go bankrupt that the population of Isleta came crashing down from 34,637 (1920s-1940s) to 7,963 today. It is important to talk about the history of Isleta because Puerto Ricans don't realize how much more convenient life would be if we hadn't completely ripped out the streetcar systems and new options are needed to take away the stigma public transit carries in Puerto Rico.

 Plan details for Isleta.

Old San Juan Terminus will be built on a parking lot in front of one of the main cruise ship ports.

The new light rail will have two transit hubs. The Old San Juan terminus will be developed on a huge parking lot and will be right in front of the cruise ships, giving the tourists a more convenient glance at the rest of San Juan -- one that does not require exorbitant taxi fees or decision-making as to where to go. The local bus system is surprisingly inefficient, with long wait times and unreliable schedules, so a light rail system is the one thing residents want. The other transit hub will be in the new Convention Center District. This district used to be a military base and it is now home to the Puerto Rico Convention Center and a new Sheraton Hotel. Nonetheless, many parcels remain empty, signaling a catalyst other than just a brand new convention center is needed. This is where a light rail could potentially make many projects planned for the area get their cranes in gear. San Juan's mayor has made trips to Oregon Iron Works so there is a fair amount of certainty the trains will be from that company.

Surprisingly, as the plan mentions in many places, 70% of Isleta's waterfronts are inaccessible. More than 50% of the South waterfront space is taken up by an empty port, from back when Isleta was an important shipping hub, and most of the North waterfront is inaccessible because the fort walls are a barrier dividing residents from the coast. Stairs would be built to the beach and would minimize impact to the existing wall. Hotels and other mixed-use buildings will be built along both the North and South waterfronts. They will be built in much of the unused land in Isleta including surface parking lots. The plan also looks to combat erosion on Isleta by creating "artificial reefs" (look like offshore break waters in the render) and pumping sand onto the beaches of the North coast. This will create a new destination for locals and tourists and help protect the islet from rising sea levels. In the face of new development, the municipality also plans to "revitalize the rundown neighborhood of San Agustín" while avoiding the destruction of historic buildings from developer interest.

 a series of bridges/entrances to Isleta.

A mess of onramps and fast lanes will be replaced with a more streamlined design to create a more inviting and memorable gateway to Isleta.

There is a strong emphasis on redefining Isleta's public realm. The proposal illustrates a connection between parks in the north and south waterfronts with "green connectors" or landscaped boulevards, creating a sense of continuity and connectivity in between destinations and ultimately making Isleta more livable and enjoyable.

Establishing a memorable gateway to Isleta is also very important. The current disaster of onramps and high speed lanes has made the experience of driving into Isleta a very painful one. In the near future these will be entirely removed and replaced with 4 roundabouts. The new simple and clean design will lower the speeds of drivers but it will also lower congestion. It will also remove the extreme barrier between Miramar and the Convention Center District.

The report titled, The Walkable City by Antonio DiMambro & Associates, Inc. is very ambitious and utilizes many progressive urban planning ideas such as historic preservation, integration of diverse socioeconomic sectors, bicycle infrastructure, mass transit and mixed-use, transit-oriented development.

The mayor presented his proposal to an audience of investors and construction industry representatives on Friday, 10 July 2010. Mayor Jorge Santini said the city is only lacking funding for the estimated $1.5 billion project, and he is seeking funding from all sectors to help make San Juan more livable. He hopes the Isleta can be an example for the rest of the Island, which, since the 1950's, has seen a shift in development patterns toward a more sprawl and automobile-oriented lifestyle.

David Soto is studying to be a transportation systems engineer / urban planner in Puerto Rico.



Old San Juan

For pictures of the current congestion in old San Juan, showing how unpleasant it is for pedestrians, see

This will be a huge improvement. Let's hope it happens.

Charles Siegel

Old San Juan

There is actually more congestion than that . . . just sit in line by Castillo de San Cristóbal waiting to go up toward el Morro and the muni underground garage and you'll get a good taste of traffic in Old San Juan. :)

olde san juan, yikes

ouch! having lived in san juan, i can assure this is out of scale and horrendous. when the renderings show traffic-less highways and the new beaches are located at high energy coastal areas, it is no wonder that goodman's "after the planners" is still relevant. san juan is about the streets and plazas the rest is a misunderstanding of urban livability and good settlement patterns.

San Juan:Walkable City

Sociologist-Urban Planner
San Juan-Madrid

Being a Puertorican, having lived and studied my B.A in San Juan and understanding that according to this plan the pedestrianization of Old San Juan does not include said highways, I really don't see a reason for the 'ouch' in your reply given that the program only includes the restriction of access to motor vehicles in the San Agustin Neighborhood and in the traditional Old San Juan living quarters (not extended to the entirety of the ''isleta''. What does concerns me is what was mentioned above about puertoricans identifying public transport as uncomfortable, and worse, as a mode of transportation for those with limited economical means. To understand this phenomena we have to incorporate within the field of urban planning an anthropological perspective in order to have a greater effect on convincing the population, when raising awareness of the benefits of public transport, that it is first and foremost for the general interests of society. This, in my view, implies a marketing of sorts that the Urban Planning profession still lacks on the island. Please feel free to discuss as this is only my view on the matter and I believe urban planning is much more than the imposition of form in a discourse of planning and development policy. Thank you all for the valuable info. and input on the topic at hand.

Walkability and environmental "best practice"

It is far, far less costly to simply build a new walkable city on greenfields, than it is to destroy decades of accumulated capital and forcibly redevelop an established, high-cost land metro area. The latter is economic lunacy on any scale other than the smallest tourism-curiosity experimental one.

Decades of earlier planning decisions are largely responsible for auto dependency in the USA. Walkability is really the natural consequence of light and highly decentralised regulation, especially regarding land uses. Look at Switzerland.

Also, if rural production and roads and transport were not so heavily subsidised, REAL food and produce prices would have long since been an incentive for much greater admixture of agricultural and urban land use.

I think very very few people actually have their heads around many of the factors that contribute to resource use efficiency. Mostly, the absence of a genuine free market IS the PROBLEM, not the solution. The radical environmentalists Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger are actually among the most open-minded people on all these issues. They seem to genuinely want "best" environmental and resource outcomes, without making exceptions every time some favoured political constituency or other stands athwart the objective. (e.g., unions, food producers).

The crowning irony to me, is that the environmental movement once apon a time, was all about "back to nature"; and they were actually a lot closer to the holy grail of environmental "best practice" than the frankenstein social engineering monster the movement has morphed into. Concrete jungles and mass transit. Bah.

I recommend James Heartfield's essay, "Herbert Girardet and the Plastic Concept of Sustainability".

It is far, far less costly

It is far, far less costly to simply build a new walkable city on greenfields, than it is to destroy decades of accumulated capital and forcibly redevelop an established, high-cost land metro area.

This would be a devastating argument if grounded in reality.

In reality, there are swaths of inner-ring suburbs where the structure is worth less than the land. This is the basic metric that actual developers use to consider a redev project.

The other problematic issue in reality is that arable land is decreasing, while human population is increasing. I would wager that 99.375% of people with an agriculture, natural sciences, food science, public health, epidemiology, etc education would be concerned by such a situation. Not to mention those in Public Works who are concerned with the extra roadbuilding, pipe, pollution, heat island issues that arise with building on greenfields.



Nice nitty gritty points to analyse

Your line of analysis is good, Dano.

The value of land is a very important issue. All sorts of effects need to be analysed when the price of ALL land is driven up by some factor or other. Urban growth boundaries and land bankers foremost. If there is one point I would like to register at "Planetizen", it is that one. High land prices are the planners worst enemy. Regulations that force land prices up unnaturally (as opposed to "letting the prices rise" by allowing efficient use of the land) are a planners "tool" best left on the shelf.

The redevelopment of land to the most efficient use, based on the way land values evolve in a free market, is an important ingredient in the demonstrated superiority of these free markets over the planned economies of the former communist bloc. Alain Bertaud's "Cities Without Land Markets" is an informative read.

My particular disagreement on infrastructure cost, involves the cost of renewing and expanding old infrastructure in already built out areas. Surely you are not disputing that this is much more expensive than in greenfields situations. I do not at all disagree that there is "value capture" in redevelopment sufficient to recover these costs, what I disagree with is the tendency of the urban planning profession to insist that the costs of infrastructure for fringe development is a reason not to allow fringe development at all, while the much higher costs of redevelopment in inner, established areas, are not made the subject of planning permission debate.

Providing wider roads and bigger sewerage and stormwater pipes and so on, is much more difficult and expensive when there are buildings and people and hives of activity in your way every inch of the way. I do not at all mean to say that this is a reason not to do them; just that if this is viable and fringe greenfield development is also viable under similar benefit-cost comparisons, it is not consistent to censure the one and not the other.

The heat island effect would be mostly absent from a sprawled metro area with abundant green space. Pollution is arguably heightened more by congestion than by VMT. The costs and resources involved in servicing a high-density area are arguably worse per capita than in low density areas. The jury is still out on that one. You don't need to run elevators in the suburbs, or heat stairwells, for example. And you can't hang washing outside to dry if you live in a condo. Ask a trucking and delivery company whether it is easier and cheaper to supply foodstuffs and so on to retailers in Manhattan, or to an "edge city". You could get farmgate fruit stalls within a mile of many inhabitants of an edge city or a rural "new town".

On primary production, the USA has spent decades increasing production while decreasing the footprint of the land utilised, and putting once-producing land into forest park status. I have seen statistics somewhere that claimed that the amount of land involved was the size of a State or three. Robert Shiller did a good recent international analysis of "available land" somewhere. The problem is largely political and cultural. There are some massive rivers dumping fresh water into the ocean right in the middle of some of the least productive areas in the world.

Points analysis.

Thank you wodehouse (he was one of my favorite authors of boyhood).

High land prices are the planners worst enemy. Regulations that force land prices up unnaturally (as opposed to "letting the prices rise" by allowing efficient use of the land) are a planners "tool" best left on the shelf.

Well, kindasorta. As Glaeser himself explains (but never seems to make it in the quotes pulled on, say, Reason), the imposed regulations are often actually for large-lot single-fam that are asked for by residents to preserve their home values. Planners want more mix and more variation in housing, which - when demand is met - keeps Ricardian rents more stable.

The heat island effect would be mostly absent from a sprawled metro area with abundant green space.

This is one of my areas of expertise. This is not necessarily true, as large-lot single-fam contributes more to the UHI than adequate canopy cover. Most quantified analyses find a steep drop-off in effects of greenspace. Tree cover is a better determinant, which means adequate planting space for roots. Including in over-parked parking lots (a major UHI issue in America-Canada).

Lastly, a consideration for infra is that the sad deferred maintenance on existing infra means much of it needs replacement anyway so the work is done one way or another.



Nice interesting discussion, old chap

I'm happy with that, Dano, all good points, maybe we aren't so far apart in our thinking.

I am against imposed "minimum" lot sizes almost as much as I am against urban growth boundaries. I think the urban growth boundaries magnify the adverse effects of all the other regulations far more than the other way around; and, as I keep saying because I think it is one of the most important points we need to confront, metro-wide, unnaturally high land values are a worse obstacle to all kinds of beneficial redevelopment than NIMBYism is. "Ricardian" land values are "good". What I am talking about is the BASE to which Ricardian rents are added or more realistically, from which they are multiplied. The urban growth boundaries affect the "base" value from which all the others flow.

There has been a bit of discussion about this recently on some other sites. I now think it is quite easy to calculate the point at which "land banking" of the entire within-limit supply will be or will not be indulged in. Holding land has a finance cost, and it is now becoming clear at what price point the property market simply cannot "clear", i.e. a "bust" is likely to occur. Not just a "freeze"; because you can't finance unutilised land indefinitely. Of course it depends on the interest rate; but I am inclined to think that "20 to 30 years supply" of land is sufficient to deter land bankers; wheras at 10 years supply within the urban growth boundary, a scramble for monopoly position is very likely to occur.

I suspect that some of the staunchest lobbyists for reform today (without mentioning any names) are old-fashioned, honest property developers who have suddenly found themselves without a business because whiz-kid competitors had bought up all the land in their normal area of operation. The same old-fashioned property developers are experiencing schadenfreude today as the whiz-kids go bust.

I am interested in your assertions about the heat island effect. I am happy to leave it in the "depends" category. Maximising tree cover is obviously beneficial. Most humans I know like trees on and around their properties. It is the "treeless" aspect that upsets me the most about higher density urbs.

On the infrastructure, again, your point is valid. it obviously "depends" on a lot of variables from case to case. What I especially object to, is the cost of one set of new infrastructure being "levied" on the developers, while the cost of the other set (the inner area redevelopment) is subsidised from public money. If anything is an increaser of "inequality" in society, that will be. I am not saying that you are advocating that or endorsing any regions that do it. But the popular thinking in the planning profession currently, is likely to tend to that result if not subjected to rigorous rational analysis.

I would be interested to know if you have any counter-suggestions to my belief that "bubble" land values as opposed to Ricardian ones, are actually tending to REDUCE the densification pattern that naturally occured as a result of Ricardian "rent". Alain Bertaud's studies are the main ones I know of, that analyse density profiles for regions. He suggests that density profiles are the first "indicator" that urban planners should be studying. (Or it might have been the second thing. He provides a list somewhere).

Rural USA the new wave?

Someone just recommended THIS to me:

This is extraordinary. Under the radar, many rural areas in the USA are booming.

I think this is important. I think these rural areas are the parts of the USA that actually correspond more to the highly efficient mixed land use model that makes parts of "old Europe" score well on so many statistics, low VMT etc. This can only be for good.

The author of that blog posting has dug out some interesting investigations. Apparently rural areas can be attractive to the young and to artistic, bohemian types. Maybe this is a new trend that does not yet have a "Richard Florida" to identify it?

Destructive Redevelopment??

"destroy decades of accumulated capital and forcibly redevelop an established, high-cost land metro area."

Maybe I missed something, but I don't see anything in the article about destroying and redeveloping a metropolitan area. They want to ban cars from old San Juan, add light rail, and develop unused land:

"Hotels and other mixed-use buildings will be built along both the North and South waterfronts. They will be built in much of the unused land in Isleta including surface parking lots."

Charles Siegel

The capital-destroying model

Surface parking lots are not "unused". Yes, building a hotel instead is a more efficient use of the land - but carparking could be included.

The high cost of light rail means that substituting this for roads, is certainly destroying capital.

But I did mention tourist curiosity areas - I really mean to say that there is no way this sort of thing is a viable model for all urban redevelopment.
If car-free, light-rail-based areas were not a "curiosity", none of them would be viable. Their very rarity actually helps. Even so, time will tell how successful this San Juan project is.

My Input

I have first-hand experienced this area of Old San Juan. Those parking lots I was referring to? Empty lots of wide open space, which the residents of nearby housing projects use to make a quick buck by charging people to park on someone else's land. Doesn't sound like city capital to me.

Light rail wasn't a curiosity for San Juan back in the 1900s when it was the backbone of getting around San Juan. I just don't see it from your point of view. This area has been devastated because no money has gone into it in such a long time. No one appreciates what is left of it as much as its residents and a select few do. The government wants to bring people back to Puerta de Tierra.

And I add, there will be mixed-use development, which includes residences, commercial, and tourist development.


Urbanism isn't for people, its for tourists

"It is important to talk about the history of Isleta because Puerto Ricans don't realize how much more convenient life would be if we hadn't completely ripped out the streetcar systems and new options are needed to take away the stigma public transit carries in Puerto Rico"

Sadly, I feel this sentence can summarize the planning profession's next set of big mistakes. In the 1960's planners wrecked ruin on this country through housing projects and the expressway system, which ignored the real needs of the working poor. Likewise, this project seems to avoid the problem of the poor who work there, converting what should be affordable space for the poor into an urban cultural fantasy. It would be a shame for planners to lose their credibility now much like we did in the 70's and 80's do to an overzealous pursuit of our own ideals. I am a believer in urban culture as a sustainable solution for our future, but it seems like we think that if we just plan for forced gentrification. Transit will not be adopted overnight. People wont come just because we built it (unless they are tourists).

Enough of that rant. I just feel that quality land like this in possession by the poor should remain somehow in their possession, with planners taking on a position as advocates to improve the community slowly and naturally. Maybe that was done, but it doesn't seem like it given the short summary above.

My Input

The pre-phase of the plan (happening now) is a renovation of all the housing projects in this area. As one of the largest concentration of housing projects on the Island, I think there is a great deal of things being done here for the poor. Not to mention, the light rail will have stops along these housing projects. Most of the land in Puerta de Tierra is lost in inheritance. The owners have passed, and family members and the government can't decide who gets the land. This is how most buildings in San Juan get abandoned, and this is the case for most buildings in Puerta de Tierra. So, I don't know where your assumptions that the poor will be removed are coming from.


Walkable Old San Juan and La Perla

Great piece, David.

Yes, it is absolutely terrible trying to get into Old San Juan and this plan represents a positive - and essential - improvement. Although most readers may know little of La Perla, La Perla is a particualry unique local community steeped in tradition and pride in Puerto Rican culture.

The part of the plan envisioning changes to La Perla is troubling for me in that the people of La Perla have struggled hard to stay where they are, and this plan could change that. Given the traditionally adversarial stance displayed by La Perla residents toward development, particularly gentrification and commercialization of the waterfront for private gain, this aspect of the plan will be quite a challenge. The plan must hold, as a central tenet, the commitment to do no harm to the people of La Perla.

I just walked the streets of La Perla about two weeks ago, interacted with some of the residents and, despite a some visible discomfort/skepticism, met very polite and accomodating individuals for the most part, even having shared a laugh over a what I first though to be a derogatory term, but was clarified as instruction on how to return to street level.

Calle 13's "La Perla" music video is a must watch, and La Perla is a historic community within a globally signifcant geography that must remain intact throughout this important planning initiative. All-in-all, I love the plan; driving in Old San Juan is a nightmare. It will be great to see this area shine, but not so bright and white hot that it burns La Perla's unique presence from the oceanfront.

It would be great to preserve surfing ops, too. :)

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