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Surpassing The Automobile In Cuenca

One Of The World’s Great “Walking Around” Cities

In a 2010 article in Conde Nast Traveller, Calvin Trillin called Cuenca a “great walking-around city.” The former New Yorker editor, food writer, and poet describes ambling through the city’s historic district, likening it to towns in southern Europe. Cuenca, he says, “doesn’t look like a 16th-century city that has been preserved; it looks like a city that has been in use since the 16th century.” It is an observation, he points out, he could make only as a pedestrian.

The “walking-around city” tag is one that most of Cuenca’s 4,000 North American expats would easily recognize. Like Trillin, expats here take great pleasure in strolling the streets, peeking into the quaint family-ownedtiendas that look like throwbacks to U.S. shops of the 1950s, checking out what’s for lunch at the indigenous markets, picking up a supply of coffee beans delivered fresh from a nearby valley, and dropping in on the city’s galleries and museums to see the latest exhibits.

Although the pleasurable stroll is an intrinsic part of expat life in Cuenca, walking also has its practical side. Whether for pleasure or business, walking is the primary means of transportation for most foreign residents. Because of Cuenca’s compact layout, walking gets you to most of the places you need to go. And it often gets you there faster, especially during rush hour. Many expats, in fact, choose their housing accordingly.

If you check real estate ads on English-language websites, you’ll notice that listings put special emphasis on walkability. “Within walking distance of a supermarket, indigenous mercado, restaurants, and El Centro” is how RentalsCuenca.com describes one of its rentals.

Walking is not just for expats, of course. Most Cuencanos don’t have cars, so walking and public transportation are the primary means of transportation for them, too. In recognition of this, the city government has launched an extensive program to improve and expand city sidewalks, and plans to rebuild more than 100 miles of them in 2013. Many of the reconstructed sidewalks will also have bike paths, another municipal priority.

And even more plans are on the drawing boards to make walking easier. In its 10-year master plan, the city says it will convert several historic-district streets to pedestrian malls, with bike paths. “We want to be known as the city that moves beyond the automobile,” says a brochure outlining future development.

Most Cuenca expats don’t have a car, and most say they don’t need one. A recent survey conducted by the expat website, GringoTree, showed that two-thirds of expats get by on foot or by using public transportation.

Foregoing cars, of course, represents enormous savings and is an added bonus to the already low cost of living in Cuenca. According to USA Today,the average cost of owning a car last year in the United States was more than US$9,000…and the majority of those leaving the States for Ecuador owned more than one car. (You can do the math.)

Even for those trips that are not within walking distance, Cuenca’s public transportation system is cheap and accessible.

The city’s 500 buses get you from one end of town, and beyond, to the other end for 25 cents. If you don’t want lots of company, taxis are plentiful and inexpensive. In and around the historic district, fares are US$1.50 to US$2, and a trip to the suburbs rarely runs you more than US$5.

Things get even better in early 2015 when the city’s new light rail system, Tranvía de los Cuatro Ríos, becomes operational. The quarter-billion-dollar project, modeled on European systems, will take riders across town in less than 15 minutes for 25 cents, traveling from the southeastern edge of the city, through the historic district, past the airport, and to the industrial park in the northeast. The system is designed to carry 120,000 passengers a day. Spotting an investment opportunity, some savvy expats are busy scouting out real estate close to future rail stations.

Although there are plenty of options for getting around Cuenca without a car, the pleasures of being a pedestrian in a “walking-around city” are hard to beat. As Calvin Trillin points out, if he had not been on foot he would never have watched the goat herd dispense milk into paper cups at the 9th de Octubre Mercado or sampled the best empanadas and humitas in town.

“This is why I like to walk,” he says.

David Morrill

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