Solutions to Improve Mobility in the Old Quarter, “Casco Antiguo”, of Panama City
A friend traveling through Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, sent me this photograph commenting on the only transportation allowed to circulate within the historic center. I shared the photo with as many individuals as I could, as I am convinced the only way our Casco Antiguo will achieve increased levels of competitiveness is when it implements a comprehensive, efficient mobility system.
To have a world-class historical and cultural center, we must seek to improve mobility, just as other historical centers in the region such as Cartagena, Lima, and Quito do.
Our Casco Antiguo maintains its original road layout from the colonial era, in which the primary means of transportation was the horse, the streets were narrow, made of dirt, and later of cobblestones. Heavy traffic is unsuitable for the streets, and adjustments are necessary. Solving the mobility issue is not a complicated challenge. For decades, administration after Government administration has discussed, analyzed, and studied the issue at hand without avail. The underlying problem is that there has been no will to implement the actions
for fear of facing resistance from residents, merchants, and public officials who choose to park inside the center, in areas where space does not allow it.
A point that most of us who live or work in the center agree on is that solutions for mobility in the Casco Antiguo have to be given within the framework of a comprehensive plan that considers different aspects. Below, I present what a large majority of stakeholders agree on:
Reduction of vehicular traffic within Casco Viejo:
It is evident that mobility cannot improve if the same number of cars continue to circulate within Casco Viejo. Therefore, before considering any solution, we must be clear that the cars presently circulating through Casco do not fit, and this will not improve if no concrete measures are taken. We will examine these in the following points.
Parking in the periphery:
The new parking lots must be located on the periphery and connected to the historic center by trolleys or electric buses. The Mayor’s Office of Panama is working on a project called Puerta Sur located at the end of Calle 13, next to the Masonic Lodge. The construction of the project is scheduled to begin in 2023, and they expect it to provide over 200 parking spaces.
In addition, it is important to highlight the Casco Parking Building, which was completed in 2022, with capacity for more than 300 cars as well as commercial premises. Both are operational, but still disconnected from the city center because they do not have a more efficient connection. By making adjustments to the direction and reorganization of roads, they could accomplish the connection with the center by circulating trolleys or electric buses. I believe that this is workable, and would be a great opportunity for the sector to solve the mobility issue in an attractive and fun way for visitors. It would also enhance the value of areas such as Avenida B and Plaza Amador.
There are other lands or buildings on the periphery of Casco that could be developed for parking. However, due to building height limit regulations, these projects can be very costly. It is therefore necessary for the authorities to intervene to promote the development of these projects, either through the implementation of public projects in accordance with the regulations, or through incentives for their implementation by the private sector. In addition, the investment and operation of connecting transport (electric buses) should be promoted by the public sector, at least as a facilitator.
Government officials must park outside of Casco Antiguo:
The various government offices currently park their cars in the parking lots built for visitors inside Casco Antiguo. Both visitors and residents should have priority. Since Casco Antiguo is one of the main tourist attractions in Panama City, this practice goes against our tourism strategy, and the authorities should immediately correct it. According to the guidelines indicated above, officials should park in the periphery and their various offices should guarantee them transportation in electric buses.
Parking within the Casco is a priority for both residents and visitors. It is important to highlight the importance of residents being the main beneficiaries of parking within Casco Antiguo. Effective planning and utilizing existing spaces can be used to achieve a minimum level of accessibility for residents, although demand will always exceed supply.
It is crucial to grasp that the vitality of Casco is driven by its residents, and their presence is what eventually sustains it. A historic center dominated solely by bars, restaurants, and nightclubs is not viable. This is because, typically, these establishments occupy only 20% to 30% of the available space. Consequently, without a residential component, the remaining space would deteriorate due to underutilization.
On the flip side, visitors, especially those attending cultural and social events, should be granted access to parking lots and given priority within Casco. Similarly, residents with approved access should also be prioritized, given the limited availability of parking spaces.
Street parking for cars is prohibited:
While progress has been made in implementing this restriction on certain roads like Avenue A, there remain numerous streets and squares where cars continue to park freely. This persistent practice hampers smooth vehicular traffic and contributes to the unwelcome occurrence of traffic congestion. Notable examples of such areas include Plaza Amador, Avenida B, Plaza de Francia, Bajada de Jaén, Bajada del Ñopo, Calle Tercera,
Calle Cuarta, and several other significant thoroughfares. The presence of parked cars disrupts traffic flow and detracts from the historic urban ambiance.
Following the international trend observed in thriving historic centers, prioritizing pedestrians is imperative. In our historic center, envisioning the desired changes becomes clear once we successfully reduce traffic through preceding measures. This paves the way for at least a partial pedestrianization of the area.
To execute this vision, it’s essential to define a designated route and specify the roads on which authorized vehicles, including residents, visitors, suppliers, and approved public transport (such as trolleys and electric buses), may circulate.
To create pedestrian-friendly zones, we should establish pedestrian streets and implement organized access control, possibly using fixed or retractable bollards where needed. Additionally, leveraging technology to manage parking availability within Casco will be crucial for effective implementation.
Addressing the governance aspect is a critical component when devising and implementing a comprehensive, well-regulated mobility plan for the historic center.
Enhancing governance can be achieved through fortifying the Old Town office’s capabilities, enabling it to wield authority effectively on the ground. To facilitate this, the creation of a specialized law is imperative, granting this institution the autonomy to execute projects like improving mobility in the Old Town independently, free from dependencies on other institutions, as is the current situation.
Undoubtedly, Casco Viejo is the ideal canvas for narrating Panama’s history and the myriad experiences woven around it. Seamless and pleasant circulation is fundamental to ensure that this experience remains enjoyable and memorable.
The present juncture offers a unique opportunity to embark on the challenge of implementing necessary actions and adjustments to resolve mobility issues within Casco. Recently, an especially large amount of tourism and real estate projects has transformed the area, bestowing it with a rejuvenated identity.
We maintain optimism that the forthcoming government administration will recognize the immense potential
Casco Viejo holds for the tourist and cultural advancement of Panama. Consequently, it should rise to the
challenge, forging collaborations with private entities and the community to address and resolve the mobility dilemma effectively.