Publico: Transit, Puerto Rican Style
It was a busy day at Estacion Publico here in Puerto Rico’s bustling west coast port.
It always is.
And many people were waiting for rides. They always are.
While scores of riders were climbing into and out of the lines of cars and vans crowded into the huge terminal, many others sat quietly waiting for one, two, or three hours for their trips to begin.
No buses provide public transportation throughout this 110-by-35-mile mountainous island except in San Juan, the capital.
So, publicos are the buses of Puerto Rico outside San Juan. And every city and every town of any size boasts an Estacion Publico--a Public Station.
A publico (Spanish for public) is a privately owned car or van licensed by the government to carry paying passengers.
Women, some alone, some with children and sometimes entire families from mountain and coastal villages up and down Puerto Rico’s western shores had come to Mayaguez in publicos to shop.
Businessmen and women were arriving and departing Mayaguez from villages, towns and cities from one end of Puerto Rico to the other. So were families on their way to christenings, weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, funerals, all piling in and out of publicos.
Publicos are easy to spot. They have bright yellow license plates with the word PUBLICO inscribed above the plate number followed by P or PD .
Many publicos are owned and operated by fathers and sons, or by brothers. Many are owned and driven by women. Altogether, there are 15,000 licensed publicos in the Puerto Rico.
“Many Puerto Ricans do not own cars. They rely solely on publicos for transportation. The narrow streets of our towns and cities are filled with publicos, “ notes Luis Montalvo, a publico driver for 10 years in Mayaguez.
People traveling from one town to another board publicos at Estacion Publicos just as they would at a Greyhound bus terminal. But these transportation centers are built and owned by the government.
“Publico drivers who operate their vehicles between towns and cities are issued permits to serve specific routes,” says driver Manuel Rosario. And those who follow routes not their own risk a penalties for doing so.
To go nonstop from from here to San Juan costs a rider $15. It costs only $10 to ride Rosario’s shiny blue van, which is one of those permitted to load and unload passengers along the way. On average, it takes 3 1/2 hours for Rosario to make the 100-mile trip.
On arrival in San Juan, he waits his turn to load up with passengers and return to Mayaguez.
“If I were to go a different way, to take another route into someone else’s territory, I would be subject to a $50 to $100 fine if caught and lose my permit,” says Rosario. “We are closely regulated.”
At Estacion Publico in Mayaguez (population 85,000), drivers stood around in little groups talking or leaning against their vehicles reading newspapers in their unhurried wait for passengers.
Angel Almodovar was one of them. He has been driving a publico for two years between Mayaguez and Yauco, 29 miles away. He charges $3 each way and collects $30 to $40 a day in fares.
“This is a good job in Puerto Rico. We are providing a public service,” Almodovar says. “Publicos are very good for the people. The whole system is monitored and controlled by a government commission to make sure it works efficiently.”
He talks about the 20 years he spent in New Jersey and the Bronx working in paintbrush factories.
“For Puerto Ricans the big money is in the States. But here life is more peaceful. We don’t have the rush. Very few people in New York had time to say hello because of the rush. Here they say hello. Here we have peace of mind. We don’t have the stress.”
Almodovar worked seven years teaching fifth and sixth grades in Puerto Rico before becoming a publico driver.
“I enjoy teaching, but I like this better. I like meeting new and different people every day,” he says.
All kinds of people, young and old and from many walks of life, own and operate publicos. Most, like Almodovar, do it full time. Some cars and vans are shiny new. Some are weather beaten and rumpled like the one driven by Juan Ortiz, a farmer who moonlights as a part-time publico chauffeur.
“I have been driving a publico 31 years while raising vegetables, cows, pigs and chickens on my five-acre farm,” says Ortiz. His publico is his 1974 Chevrolet Impala full of dents from a series of small accidents.
“Angel talks of no stress in Mayaguez. Well, I have stress negotiating these narrow streets and blind corners. The dents on my car reflect some stressful moments,” laments Ortiz, whose route is the 18-mile run between his hometown of Lajas and Mayaguez.
He arrives at the Lajas Estacion Publico at 6 a.m. and makes one round trip a day.
“Sometimes my publico is full with five passengers within a half hour or an hour. Sometimes I don’t leave until 7:30 or 8 a.m. But eventually I get a full load,” he explains.
If lucky, he is back in Lajas by 9 a.m. with five passengers he picked up in Mayaguez. But most of the time he doesn’t get a full load for the trip home until noon or later. Although the trip only takes 45 minutes each way, he and his passengers may sit and wait for hours until he has a full load.
They pay $1.50 each way. Ortiz collects $15 in fares each day.
“I figure after gas, oil, tires and other expenses I clear about $8 a day or $40 a week as a publico chauffeur. As you can see, the car isn’t in the best of shape. I cannot afford to spend a lot of money on repairs,” Ortiz says.
“Sometimes my passengers have to wait in the middle of a trip while I change a flat tire. They don’t grumble. They understand.”
Often the publico is a slow way of getting from one place to another, but the people of Puerto Rico are patient and accustomed to delays. Other times the trip is fast and direct.
But Puerto Ricans know a publico will eventually get them to their destinations at a reasonable cost because they travel every road everywhere throughout the rugged terrain of this mountainous island.
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