Despite a looming budget crisis, officials of Cuenca’s new government say they will not postpone their efforts to reduce traffic in the city’s historic district.
Improving traffic conditions and making the district more pedestrian friendly were two of Mayor Paul Granda’s campaign promises and he says he intends to keep them. “We have talked for years about doing something about the problem in El Centro but very little has happened. This is a quality of life issue that we can’t put off any longer,” says Granda.
Among the ideas being considered are establishing pedestrian-only zones, installation of a light rail system and converting the city’s bus fleet from diesel fuel to natural gas. Other plans include restriction on private cars entering the district and construction of parking lots on the perimeter. Proponents of the plan propose a fleet of light buses to shuttle drivers into and out of the district.
Advisors to Granda maintain that changes to the status quo are essential for the city’s growing tourist business as well as for the health and safety of citizens. “We are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and to keep that designation we have to take measures to improve the situation,” says Oswaldo Cordero, member of the Architecture faculty at the University of Cuenca. “They have put us on notice that we must make changes.”
Cordero says the improvements will mean restrictions of heavy vehicles, including the current fleet of city buses. “We have reached a saturation point with the amount of traffic that the cobblestone streets can handle. We are also dealing with pollution problems and conditions that are unsafe for pedestrians.”
According to the Office of Municipal Transit, 65,000 vehicles a day, of which 45,000 were passenger cars, pass through the district. According to Cordero, this number needs to be cut in half.
For residents of the district, maintenance of the cobblestone streets has been an ongoing sore point. “We’re tired of the dust and mud and potholes,” says Carmen Avendaño, grocery store owner on President Córdova. “All they do is patch work and the patches don’t last.”
Although some have advocated eliminating the cobblestones altogether, replacing road surfaces with asphalt, city authorities say that will not happen. According University of Cuenca engineering professor Cornelio Ruilova, the cobblestones are part of Cuenca’s culture and need to be maintained. “What needs to be done is to install a rigid concrete pavement base with the cobblestones on top,” he says. “It won’t be cheap but it will solve many of our problems.”
Creating a safe environment for pedestrians must be a priority of any plan for the district, according to Granda. Manolo Salgado, director of the city’s Technical Institute of Cultural Heritage (INPC) believes it is time to eliminate vehicular traffic altogether in parts of the district. “This has been done successfully in many South American cities, including Buenos Aires, Lima, Bogota and Quito. There will have to be a transition period, of course, but we need to start the process in Cuenca now.”
Photo caption: One proposal is to make streets around Calderon Park pedestrian-only areas.