Next stop: City of Knowledge
The first trip of the day departs at 4:00 a.m. from Albrook Terminal’s Bay D. The bus covering the C820 route makes a very symbolic journey every morning: It crosses neighborhoods of the old Canal Zone, which in the past had restricted access for Panamanians. It takes people to a place that two decades ago was the center of the United States’ quasi-colonial power in Panama, and that today plants a flag as the hub of knowledge in the country. It is the City of Knowledge.
At those hours in the morning a bus leaves every 12 minutes and at 5:00 a.m. the frequency increases to one bus every five minutes. The line soon becomes endless and by 7:00 a.m. it is the most prominent of the bus terminal. Roberto Caballero, Maintenance Manager of the City of Knowledge Foundation, is usually there at that time. He travels from Villa Zaíta, a neighborhood on the northern outskirts of the city, combining metro, taxi, and bus. Half a year ago he sold his car because he understood that the City of Knowledge can be reached perfectly by using public transportation.
The experiment worked for him and now he smiles about it. “I used to spend about $500 on the car every month. Now, I have $20 on my card and it has been a month and I haven’t spent it,” he says.
Image of the City of Knowledge Transfer Terminal, that connects the campus to the Albrook Transportation Terminal via the Metro Bus system. In 2014 the building received the LEED Gold certification (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) from the U.S. Green Building Council.
In a city where, according to the mobility studies of the Panama Metro, 35% of people own a car, in which 45% of trips are made in private cars, and in which understanding of public space is only favorable from a vehicle with five seats and four tires, that someone like Roberto Caballero puts his faith in public transportation starts to become more common. After 18 stops and 27 minutes without congestion, the bus has arrived at the City of Knowledge.
Sally Hernández has travelled from Ciudad Bolívar, in the north of the metropolitan area, every morning to the City of Knowledge for 13 years and has seen the evolution of the public transportation system in the area. “Nowadays, the waiting time from one bus to another is much shorter compared to several years ago. No matter what time of day, the trip from Albrook to my workplace takes 30 minutes,” she says.
When he started working at the International Center for Political and Social Studies (CIEPS), some acquaintances made Sergio García think that he was going to have to get a car to get to the City of Knowledge. Until he tried traveling from Via Argentina by metro and connecting in Albrook with the buses. “I don’t know how to drive and I don’t want to learn,” he says now.
Maribel Guzmán, one of the planners of the company MiBus, says that the C820 is one of the most successful routes in the city. It is less affected by congestion than many others operating on the outskirts, making its trips much more regular. From Albrook to the City of Knowledge and vice versa, on average there are 23 pick-ups during rush hour.
The route began operating on October 8, 2012. Ciudad del Saber and Amador were the first neighborhoods of the Reverted Areas that the MetroBus system reached. Nine years later, this service moves about 190,000 passengers a month, which makes this complementary route one with the highest demand in Panama City.
Alessa Stabile, Sustainability Manager of the City of Knowledge Foundation, argues that it was important for the service to be called “City of Knowledge” instead of Clayton, as the old bus route that provided the service was known. It is a way of claiming this space as Panamanian and promoting its accessibility. “It changes people’s perception a lot when they ride a bus that says City of Knowledge route instead of Clayton. That is why years ago the inner streets of the City of Knowledge were given the names of the martyrs of January 9, 1964,” Stabile says.
Sergio Garcia, an immigrant, thinks that the Reverted Areas, including the City of Knowledge, “function as a mini-city within the city.” It has its own architectural style inherited from the United States, its own street system and its own life. It is here where public transportation comes into play as an element of urban cohesion. The urban vindication achieved from the symbolic standpoint like the names of the streets in the City of Knowledge is perfected with the right to access this space continuously by public transportation.
Now, The City of Knowledge can not only be reached by buses of the C820 route. In addition, the C810 routes of Miraflores, the C970 of Merca Panama and the F030 of Inner Chilibre provide their services on a daily basis. Summit Park’s C800 works on weekends.
Maribel Guzmán, of the mi Bus company, comments that “close to 39 buses pass by the entrance of the City of Knowledge during rush hour,” of which about half are headed to Albrook, where most of the structural bus services of the metropolitan area and Metro Line 1 connect.
Nelva Araúz thought that arriving at the City of Knowledge on her first day of work at CIEPS would take longer, despite living only three kilometers away, in the community of Los Ríos. “I had the impression that those buses came around every hour,” she recalls, referring to the old orange vehicles of the Cooperative of the Workers of the Bus Service of the Township of Ancon (SACA). However, a bus arrived a minute after she stepped on the bus stop. Ten minutes later, she was at the City of Knowledge. Now, she knows the technique: If you miss the Miraflores bus, five minutes later the one from Inner Chilibre or from Merca Panama will arrive.
She, like economist Javier Stanziola, use the services that connect the campus along the Omar Torrijos Avenue. When he doesn’t bring his car, he uses the buses of the C970 route, which go to the Provisions Marketplace on the road over the Centennial Bridge. On that bus, he says, the symbiosis that occurs is unlike anything seen in the city: scientists and researchers who go to the City of Knowledge mix with tourists who visit the Miraflores locks, and with sellers and buyers of vegetables that go to the central market of the capital.
In a segregated city, first through the Canal Zone and then by the disorganized expansions of its residential areas, those kinds of settings remind us that we are all under the same roof. That public transportation is also an exercise in democracy and equity.
It is estimated that between 7,000 and 11,000 people use the City of Knowledge campus every day. The City of Knowledge Foundation has been transforming spaces of old military use for several years and has seen the importance of developing a comprehensive mobility plan on campus, in which pedestrian traffic and public transportation are considered a priority.
“As this was a military base, all the sidewalks were narrow and there were quite a few spaces that were not connected to the sidewalks, ramps, or universal access. Therefore, our plan is to transform the internal system of sidewalks to make people feel more comfortable walking, combined with planting trees on the sidewalks to give more shade,” Alessa Stabile explains.
In the last five years more than 400 trees have been planted both in the area of the recreational park (Kiwanis Sports City) as well as the rest of the City of Knowledge. The idea is to condition the mobility networks on campus so that cars are no longer the main means of internal transportation. In the smallest ring of the campus, to get to any point it does not take more than ten minutes on foot, and in the largest ring, no more than 20 minutes.
In addition to encouraging people to walk more within campus and an adequate public transportation service, urban planning and the sustainability criteria of the City of Knowledge contemplate intelligent densification with mixed uses, where in the same block there could be more accessible housing, commercial and community services, as well as recreational areas. The Foundation believes that it would have a very positive impact that more people (especially young people) can live, study and work at the City of Knowledge. “More density pulls better public transportation,” Stabile says.
The master plan of the Panama Metro considers the construction of a light rail line that departs from the Casco Antiguo, goes around the Central Avenue, connects with the future train hub at Curundú station and from there departs to Merca Panama with a major stop at the City of Knowledge. But that plan will take time to be accomplished because in the order of priority lines 3, 5 and 4 take precedence.
From Mi Bus, planner Maribel Guzmán says they are attentive to any steps that take place at the City of Knowledge. “In the future, the projection is that the frequency and reach of the C820 can be increased, in response to the demand for growth.”
The vision of the City of Knowledge could serve the rest of Panama City as a catalyst for change: strong public transportation service, people-based mobility policies, and intelligent densification.
The City of Knowledge is no longer the distant U.S. military base, but a place that welcomes all public to its spaces and activities, and that encourages people to take advantage of the public transportation system to get there. And also, to leave: the last bus of the C820 route departs for Albrook at 10:45 p.m.