When It Comes to Auto Supremacy, No Island Is an Island

Through circumstances too convoluted to go into here, I found myself on a huge cruise ship over the holiday break, bound for the Eastern Caribbean. Our first port of call was San Juan, Puerto Rico, which is much the same as Aaron Naparstek left it two years ago:

[Old San Juan’s] biggest assets are these
charming old, winding streets and all of these incredible old
buildings. The streets are absolutely perfect for strolling and
shopping and sitting at cafe tables. And they are almost totally
useless for motor vehicles. And, yet, there is no strolling, shopping,
or sitting at cafe tables on the streets of Old San Juan. Rather, the
public space between these beautiful old buildings is almost entirely
dedicated to traffic and parking.

In fact, though I had not seen Aaron’s account of his trip until today, we both took photos of the same gridlock-choked street, as seen above.

In this shot, fellow cruisers weave awkwardly through traffic on a Segway
tour of Old San Juan. Out of frame is their guide, who led them on
foot. Swear.


Here, the wide, inviting sidewalk leading to a gorgeous municipal building is used for personal parking.


Puerto Rico wasn’t the only island I visited that has been turned over to the auto. In St. Thomas, pedestrians are crowded onto sidewalks that are no more than three to four feet wide in some spots, while cars are given parking and at least one travel lane.

And on beautiful St. Kitts, which I was fortunate enough to see by rail, much of the countryside has been turned into a junkyard.

The eco-evils of cruise ships aside, I’m not sure how much the presence of relatively affluent vacationers helps or hurts these poverty-stricken destinations. But from what I saw the auto-related blight and hazardous pedestrian conditions aren’t hampering the tourist trade. Could be that many of those who visit just don’t notice. Or maybe it’s the weather, or, as Aaron noted, the unlimited food and $8.50 tropical drinks to be had back on the boat.

Photos: Brad Aaron

  • The model we should be looking to is Roosevelt Island!

  • Paul

    This pisses me right off! RIGHT OFF! Now I have to punch my dog.

  • BicyclesOnly – Can you expand on what you believe the Roosevelt Island model is? Right now the model there as the residents see it is to let developers build more and more apartments without expanding the mass transportation infrastructure. The Island will soon need additional F trains, a ferry service or something to handle the two buildings in progress and the three that are scheduled after that. All part of a nine building Riverwalk complex that did not exist 3 years ago – not even counting the Octagon complex at the North end of the Island which opened 18 months ago – Eric

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    I’ve heard that Bermuda is better in this way. Can someone confirm this?

  • Hilary

    Non-residents can not rent cars in Bermuda. Bus and taxi service are both well developed and served by a very competent civil service (many of whom wear — you got it – Bermuda shorts!)

    Jamaica, on the other hand, is a tragedy. A once viable train service has been abandoned, and the single main road that goes through the center of towns and villages is clogged and about to be widened (taking the narrow sidewalks with it). In Negril, there are jitneys for Jamaicans but deemed too dangerous for foreigners, who are essentially forced to use private (and exorbitant) taxis.

  • Michael

    Sad to say that Bermuda is also a traffic choked disaster. I was there last year. There are lots of buses but they are stuck in traffic much of the time.

  • Eric, I’m not terribly familiar with Roosevelt Island. I’ve probably visited it about 20 times in as many years. I happened to take a bike trip there with my daughter last weekend, which is probably why it was on my mind.

    Given the restrictions on cars, residents appear to rely upon walking and mass transportation more than on cars or taxis than in any other part of New York City. As a result, it is a safer and more comfortable environment for pedestrians. On the streets, cars are required to yield at non-signal-controlled pedestrian crossings, just as you see on Main Streets in small towns. To my eyes, there is more informal chat among people who cross paths on the street there than you see in Manhattan, which I attribute to the people not being inside cars. Those are the aspects of RI that I would like to see fostered in Manhattan, perhaps other parts of New York City.

    I’ve never tried to travel to RI by mass transit during rush hour. Your question suggests that you view the tram and the subway service to be inadequate. I used to live near the 23rd/Ely stop of the E/F, so I know how packed those trains can be for passengers on the last stop before (or after) Manhattan.

    The line I use most often now is the 6, and it is as full as full can be during rush hour. And there is certainly plenty of development occurring on the UES. So the problems RI is facing with development may not be unique.

    I think people may be quicker to recognize the need for improved mass transit to handle the residents in all of the new developments if they do not have the ability to “opt out” by using a car or taxi. That’s why I propose restricting them as you do on RI.

  • Mark

    Go to Spain. The half-dozen neighborhoods comprising central Madrid are refreshingly car-light with many pedestrianized, totally car-free zones. Segovia and Toledo also blessedly car-light.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Wikipedia has a “List of Carfree Places” that includes several islands:


    It looks like the car-free islands with the highest populations are Venice (pop. 70,000), Cheung Chau (30,000) and Lamma (6,000) in Hong Kong, and Spetses (3,916) and Hydra (2,719) in the Aegean. Has anyone been to any of these places? (I’m guessing that some have been to VVenice, at least.)

  • BicyclesOnly –

    You are correct our car traffic is much lighter than most neighborhoods. When the Island was reborn as Roosevelt Island and the residential buildings went up there were NO cars allowed on Main Street unless they were of employees of the two remaining hospitals, maintenance, or delivery vehicles.

    Over time gradually more cars were allowed past the Motorgate Garage that sits on the RI side of the Roosevelt Island Bridge but the fact that there is LIMITED on-street parking has kept the traffic reasonable although during business hours it is becomming more constant and during hospital shift changes it always picks up. Most cars obey the State Law imposed Pedestrian Yield signs although many car-free residents would love to see speed bumps installed to enusre nobody picks up their speed to much.

    And yes the promenades surrounding the Island are completely car free except for public safety and the occasional car making biking and walking a pleasure.

    So our “model” is create one central parking area at the only vehicular entrance to the island and then limit the available parking spots to virtually none per capita.

    – Eric

  • Andy B from Jersey

    Back to Brads last comment: The tourist don’t notice the traffic mess because I can bet that most of them are from the US, so its just business as usual for them. What I’d really like to see is St. Maarten. It’s been over ten years since I’ve been there but I’d be curious to see if the Dutch and French influences (and tourists) on the island have helped keep the cars somewhat at bay. My feeling is that it hasn’t.

  • arthur

    The place you’re referring to is Old San Juan, the 400 year old historic district; San Juan is actually a huge metropolitan city comprised of several districts. Unfortunately, there have been many plans to make Old San Juan a car-free zone, most immediately, because the ancient structures were made to sustain horse carriages at most, not SUVs and a constant flux of cars, and for the longer-term livability issues discussed on this blog. However, it is the business owners in the historic district that are the strongest opponents to the car-free plans, arguing that such plans would drive car-accustomed consumers away.

    Puerto Rico recently opened a very modern light rail line extending mostly from the San Juan suburbs to the financial and business districts, but it does not extend to Old San Juan, Condado (a South Beach-type district), or the Isla Verde district (where the airport is).

  • Manuel Figueroa

    Poverty stricken destinations – you may want to do your homework before making comments like the one stated in this article and try to figute out why there is so much traffic in Puerto Rico and whom the islanders get their ideas from!




The Art and Science of Designing Good Cities for Walking

Editor’s note: This is the second installment in a three-part series this week by renowned Danish architect and livable streets luminary Jan Gehl. The pieces are excerpts are from his book, “Cities for People,” published by Island Press. Donate to Streetsblog and Streetfilms and you’ll qualify to win a copy of the book, courtesy of […]

Making NYC’s Streets Safe for Hydrants & Pay Phones

Bollards are hardened steel, concrete or stone posts buried into the pavement of city streets and sidewalks. In Northern European cities you see bollards all over the place. They are used to make sure that if a motor vehicle accidentally jumps up on to a sidewalk, pedestrians are protected. Bollards are a kind of urban […]