The benefits of public transportation


Panama City traffic is the worst I've ever seen!
Panama City traffic is the worst I’ve ever seen!

I needed to wake up at 4:45 this morning for a meeting I’m supposed to have at 9:00 AM in Panama City, which should be less than an hour away. The problem is that I might still be late, because the traffic heading into the city has gotten so horrible. As I might have mentioned earlier, the number of cars in Panama has easily doubled (if not tripled) since the last time I was here eight years ago. Many people here (just like in the U.S.) buy a car as a status symbol, or because they think it’ll make their life easier, and while that might seem to make sense in the small picture of individual families, a huge mess is created when lots of people think the same way.

Even small roads get all backed up.
Even small roads get all backed up.

You see, each car on the road adds a tiny bit of commuting time, because cars and buses already on the road need to slow down when this new car merges onto a roadway, or the new car swallows up a small portion of the available space on the street. Add another car, and the commute slows down a tiny bit more. The delay might not be noticeable for one or two cars, but multiply that number by 10,000 or 20,000 and the commute slows to a crawl. That’s what I’m stuck in at the moment!

Here’s a simple math problem that I hope might make it clear. Let’s say that each new car only causes a 1/2 second delay from the normal commute between La Chorrera (the city I’m leaving from) and Panama City. If ten new cars are added, that would only mean a delay of 5 seconds, which probably would’t seem like much. You might not even notice at all.

Now for 20,000 new cars on the road, we’re talking about a delay of 10,000 seconds. How many hours is that? Take 10,000 and divide it by 60 to find the minutes, then divide it by another 60 to find hours. According to my calculations, that’s now a delay of 2.78 hours, or 2 hours and 47 minutes, which is probably close to the traffic jam I’m currently in.

So what’s the solution? Traffic can also be bad in the U.S., because my own commute from Pennsylvania to Princeton, NJ each morning, which should only take a half hour, can sometimes take an hour or more.

The bus is plenty comfortable.
The bus is plenty comfortable.

For me, the solution would be improved public transportation; to get as many people to ride buses and trains as possible. Not many people would like this idea, of course, because they think that giving up their car would mean giving up their “freedom.” There’s also the problem that most public transit in the United States loses money and needs support from the government to survive. That said, I will add that I am on a bus headed into Panama City that will make a profit (even with Panama’s more expensive gasoline), and when I finally get to the city, I’ll take a taxi to my final destination. It’s a whole lot more convenient than driving forever in circles to find a parking spot, and if I ever did want to drive on my own out in the countryside, I could always rent a car. Sure, it’s not a perfect solution, but to me it seems a lot better than the current problem, where traffic is just barely inching along. This bus currently has 50 people in it, which is reducing the need for at least 25 cars. If those 20,000 new cars were transformed into buses and the drivers changed to riders, we’d only need about 1600 new buses to do the trick, assuming that 2 people are currently sharing cars (even though most drivers are actually driving alone). Even under these conditions, and even increasing the delay for each bus to one second, we’d only have an added delay of 27 minutes–more than 2 hours less traffic! The only other solution would be to widen all of the roadways in Panama, and expand the number of lanes on the highways from 2 to 4 (or more), which would also require complete reconstruction of two very expensive bridges (probably hundreds of millions of dollars each)! Is that a workable solution? I don’t see how that’s possible, especially because one or even two lanes of traffic are often blocked by car accidents. More cars mean more problems, if you ask me. To tell the truth, if there were good public transportation between Pennsylvania and Princeton, or of I could ever afford to live close to where I teach, I’d give up my car entirely.

Traffic is rough all the way to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (about a block away).
Traffic is rough all the way to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (about a block away).

And when it comes to sacrificing my “freedom,” I’ll say that I am currently free from the fear of causing an accident, and I can sit here and write and text without any worry that my distraction will harm anyone. The guy on my left is playing soccer on his smartphone, and the guy on my right is sleeping while listening to music. If we were driving, we’d all be chained to our steering wheels, locked into following the car in front of us, with no chance of escape. The freedom I have right now to sit and be creative (or sleep, if I choose) is perfectly fine with me!

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