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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.

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Monday, March 10, 2008

The Life of Brian and another first for Barbados.

I have been making a plea to a friend, whom I shall call "Brian", so far in vain, that he should not add another car to Barbados' roads. Now I have more information that will perhaps convince him of the right thing to do.

Yes, Barbados gained the highest mark (29th) in the Caribbean and Latin America in the World Economic Forum's 2008 annual assessment of Travel and Tourism. Mauritius was 41st and our nearest regional rival, Costa Rica, was 44th. Switzerland, Austria and Germany were, respectively, 1st through 3rd; all are very rich countries with well-developed infrastructure to support travel (roads, trains, buses, trams) and have well-developed travel businesses based around winter sports but also general visitor arrivals for historical, social, business, and cultural events. These countries offer more than sun, sea and sex.

However, the Nation reports that an Economist Intelligence Unit study shows Barbados with another regional first. [In passing, if you search the newspaper's archives with the actual title of the story you get no result! I had to find it on Google.] The country ranks in the top 10 for accident victims per head of population, at 763 victims for every 100,000 people. Barbados is 8th, ahead of the US, Japan, Canada and several other major industrial countries; in the region, Costa Rica was above Barbados. Barbados is reported to have about 305 cars per 1,000 habitants--that's 33rd in the world. The list is led by New Zealand (619 cars/1,000 people), with Ethiopia laast (1 car/1,000). The US was 11th (468 cars/1,000). Buses, vans and trucks are not included. Barbados is also reported amongst the places with the densest road networks, ranked 6th in the world, with nearly 63 vehicles/kilometer of roads.

Those of us living in small rock of an island sense this high density and it's good to now have some figures that support the feeling. Here, I come to "The life of (my friend) Brian". My friend has been living on the island just two months. He lives 2 minutes from his office by car, and 25 minutes away if walking (which is downhill to the office, but of course, uphill going home). He has pleaded and convinced himself that he needs a car to be "independent"; he has scouted out a small vehicle and is close to settling on a deal. His wife has a car to take the children around during the day and to run those errands that help the family stay well-fed and healthy. He currently gets a ride to work occasionally. Sometimes he walks, but complains that with the heat in Barbados, he can't do this every day. (He's a Caribbean man but one blessed with a life in well-conditioned air.)

I suggested that he use a bicycle. To this he has responded: "You may not know how bad people smell when they arrive at work all sweaty from walking [running, biking, skateboarding] to work and not taking a shower." I take his point. I know how my home office starts to smell soon after I have come back from tennis in the mornings, and try to get maximum breeze through there all day. So, Brian, I "feel your pain" on that aspect. He admits readily that the walking or biking would be good exercise, and he presently does nothing active, except to strength his arms as we share El Dorado.

He's lived in England like me. So I said, "Look, when I lived in London I walked to and from the train station from/to my house every day (15 minutes each way) and from/to the station to/from the bank (15-20 minutes each way)." [Look at a UK campaign to expand this.] He paused then replied "But in England it never gets hot like here and not for very long." Ah, that old chestnut. But, my friend, you know all too well that in England, it rains a lot and snows occasionally and when it is hot it is often humid and sticky. Well, he then mentioned the need for walking shoes. Again, mon ami, the women walkers in the US have made a sport of walking shoes (sneakers) for the journey to/from work and the swish work shoes in the office. I could mention that in the UK there are earthquakes, tornados, floods; terrorists; other impediments to walking or biking.

He thinks he has made a number of compromises already; he has relaxed his "suit and tie" uniform. "I sometimes wear 'Dockers'" he said proudly. Hey! The man is radical! I even offered to "lease" my car to him (though I never mentioned payment--he could handle the running costs); I need it mainly to do afternoon school pick up and a few other errands during the day. I could manage to coordinate with other parents on school pick up and by coordination with my wife most of the other errands could get done using her car. But I have to accept that he wants to have his car.

I think I may lose this fish, but I am still trying to hook him. We have been brought up for a long time during the latter part of the 20th century to expect the private car to be there, and it is many things, including a very significant status symbol. We work our money and one of the things on which we like to spend is a vehicle. Need is rarely that strong a justification.

My view of Brian's life in Barbados is that he will add to the nation's statistics: he has already had his accident (though it was very recent and not in the statistics reported above, I imagine). He will probably add to the cars per 1,000 people figure.

We in the Caribbean region, and worldwide, have a challenge in weaning ourselves off the private car. We have worked hard to develop our economies and societies and one of the accepted modern rewards of wealth is the car. (It used to be a good horse, then a carriage, so we are moving along a well-established curve.) I mentioned once to someone here how the Dutch (for years) and the French (more recently with self-service bikes) have worked hard to promote use of bicycles; priority lanes, etc. The recently introduced bike-sharing programs that have worked well in Paris are reported to be headed to the US and to London. "Man, people in Barbados don' wan' hear 'bout dat. Dey wan' deh car" was the response I got when I suggested that thought be given to such ideas. I can understand the fears of cycling on narrow roads, especially with drivers who have very little experience with cyclists.

I can understand the "cry for freedom" that is customarily satisfied by having a car: sometimes long waits at bus stops and train stations, and or/cancellations have been a part of my life in different large cities. But I also know that most New Yorkers do not own or drive a car. For the longest time most Europeans who could afford a car never saw the need for two. Good public transport is a great help, plus the other supports for those who want to walk or ride a two-wheeled machine. Yet, believe we need to learn to do more with less. It's a sacrifice, for sure. There is a lot of logical sense in not wanting to be the first to sacrifice. But we need to do some serious thinking about the consequences of "life as usual".

3 comments:

Jdid said...

never knew that about the road density.

regarding walking in Barbados, they really need to do something with the sidewalks in some of the urbanized areas though. they really aren't conducive to walking. at one point when I was in Barbados, I like your friend, was within 20-25 minutes walk of work. I was rather young at the time, living at home, and had no car but my father usually dropped me off before he headed to work and i'd somehow find my way home via transit.

One day car brek down and I decided as a man that loves to walk that it shouldnt be that hard to make it to work in 20-25 minutes. luckily I gave myself a bit of extra time though.

My problem was I completely and conveniently forgot about the lack of proper sidewalks on my journey. At points the sidewalks were great but at others they would suddenly and mysteriously disappear and I would be walking close to guard walls and praying that no minibus came down and squeezed the life out of me. quite the harrowing experience.

So all that to say it would be nice if the powers that be took safety into consideration and gave us some better sidewalks.

Nics said...

Considering the very narrow roads in Bim and my interesting experiences there brushing the waters edge with the wheels of the vehicles I was in, I consider myself lucky that I havent been in an accident!! No wait, I was...my bro-in-law crashing on my FIRST visit there for his wedding to a Bajan, returning us to the airport...head on might I add...and i was suitably in the middle of the back seat..wedged in yes but with no seatbelt...anyway God shone on us and the wedging worked cos didnt fly out the windshield...What a smashing impression he made on his father-in-law eh!!Selah!

Pudding and souse said...

It's very dangerous for a cyclist in Barbados. Most car drivers seem like "old women". Nervously entering junctions; doing every thing very slowly; uncomfortable with unfamiliar situations including cyclists. I saw a bike flattened on Pine East-West Blvd. last Thursday. Hard to see how. Would love to add the picture but it's not possible.