Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Friday, February 08, 2008

Flyover to where?

Let me say upfront that I do not believe that a country the size of Barbados, even with its high rate of car ownership, needs flyovers to deal with road congestion.

Once in my life I trained in urban planning, and my first job was to work as a transport economist. At that time, working in local government in north Wales, there was a great struggle between "us" planners, who were trying to be methodical about all forms of land use policy, and "them" road contruction engineers. My first boss impressed on me that building more roads, or widening existing roads, did not reduce traffic congestion; it merely moved the congestion somewhere else.

Evidence shows that, like Parkinson's Law, traffic increases to fill the available space. The way to reduce road congestion is to manage the road system effectively; tackle the pricing of road use; provide economically affordable alternative public transport; physically restrict use private of vehicles; and change public attitudes to travel. The British government has been wrestling with road congestion for decades. The UK Ministry of Transport provides good information on the issue of road pricing, which is worth reading along with other material about improving traffic flows. The solutions are not simple and anyone who proposes a single element and says that this will solve the problem is taking you for a fool. It is instructive to read the January 2008 final report by New York City's Traffic Congestion Mitigation Commission, which considered a range of carrots and sticks--various congestion pricing options, carpooling and telecommuting incentives, license plate restrictions, truck restrictions, etc.

Barbados' basic road traffic problem is that most roads were not designed for cars, and they have not been well adapted to either the volume of traffic or the nature of journeys. Widened highways that terminate as single lane roads inevitably create traffic bottlenecks. Having single lane roads where traffic volume is high and that are used frequently by local buses inevitably causes congestion even in off-peak hours because there are few or no places to pass.

Those of us who came through the British colonial system have many things to remind us of how life used to be. One of these memories is roundabouts, and Bajans would do well to consult one of the UK guides on dealing with roundabouts. Barbadian roundabouts are designed, and drivers encouraged to use them, in a way that is very restrictive, and these restrictions cause unnecessary congestion. For example, the preferred British way to turn left (taking the first exit) is to signal left and approach in the left-hand lane.... To go straight on (taking the second exit), a driver is encouraged to "select the appropriate lane" on approach to and on the roundabout; if no marking is on the road it is usually safest to keep to the left lane. But in Barbados most roundabouts are marked for the straight ahead move to start from the right lane. This could be seen as inappropriate road use.

A look around Barbados makes me ask the question: Why are roundabouts here so large?Look at the huge roundabout on the road between Mapp Hill and St. George's Church. This is a small country where most vehicles are very small. By reducing the size of roundabouts the space for vehicles to maneuver them would be increased, with little increase in risks. But that only tackles a certain part of the problem.

Some other suggestions, and everyone could think of something they have seen abroad that helps traffic flow better. Borrowing from the US: allow vehicles at most junctions to join the flow when the light is red (in Barbados' case, a left turn on red if the road is clear). Borrowing from the UK: traffic lights that respond to traffic volumes and can be manually or electronically overridden. Borrowing from many countries: using cameras at junctions to help determine how to deal with traffic flows. Oh, and better design of junctions: most junctions do not allow enough space for vehicles that wish to turn left and could do so will little inconvenience (think of the junction down from Collymore Rock at the corner with Royal Bank of Canada).

Driving behaviour does much to increase congestion. In Barbados we have a problem caused by buses, who habitually stop to take on or let off passengers, with little regard for other road users. Often there are laybys for the buses at designated stops but minibuses (both those with "ZR" or "B" plates) in particular will stop whereever they feel is concvenient. This holds up following traffic unnecessarily and can continue because there is no effective sanction. Admittedly, this is hard to police and a solution needs a re-education of bus drivers and passengers. However, if a few bus operators lost their licenses for bad road conduct that might give some salutory lessons.

My sense is that the ABC Highway improvements were never broadly discussed in any public forum. They seem like a fairly common government project that had its supporters, lacked real in-depth analysis of the costs and benefits, and probably provided some nice fees. All I have read and heard suggest that the design is still "on the drawing board"; the costs are not under control; and the need has not been proved "beyond a reasonable doubt". Certainly, there is a good argument for using the money for other social needs.

I have a side bet with my wife that the flyovers will not be built. If they are built then it will be because the general population has had a chance to consider the issues and decide that this is what it wants for this little country.

No comments: