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, January 09, 2009

On The Road To Where?

For a country that supposedly loves following rules, Barbados has some of the most lawless individuals when you get onto the roads. Since arriving here nearly two years ago I have had to observe the 'saga' of 'how do we control the PSVs?' The regular episodes of lamenting the freedom with which licence plates can be produced. Stories of accidents where drivers are either not insured, or they are driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs or both, or all three offences; vehicles not fit to pass but somehow having their licences renewed; some tragic road accident; the saga of the never-to-be-finished-in-our-lifetime ABC highway; and so on.

Yesterday we saw the latest episode of these soap operas as many PSV vehicles were pulled in for investigation (see Nation News, January 9, 2009). Was it a lesson?

Barbados has the dubious pleasure of being amongst the world top 10 for road accidents (see Nation News, March 10, 2008). To recap, there was an annual rate of 763 victims for every 100 000 people on the island, putting it in the eighth spot, just ahead of Japan, the United States, Serbia, Slovenia, Austria, Canada and South Korea, among others. Only Qatar, Kuwait, Rwanda, Costa Rica, Panama and Jordan were higher on the list. No other Caribbean country was listed among the top 50 states when it came to road accident victims. Barbados has about 305 cars for every 1,000 people living within its borders and was ranked 33rd in the world. We know that the island has one the world's densest road networks, also ranked in the top ten.

But many of the island's traffic problems are not major but the accumulated little things on a small island soon send out ripples that can cripple large parts of the roadways quickly. The bus that does not pull into the designated stopping area, leaves a trail of vehicles waiting needlessly behind. The principals of a fender bender stopping their vehicles in the middle of the road to exchange accident details and even trying to find the damage leave another long line of frustrated drives behind them. The drivers at the roundabouts who block the flow leave another series of idle vehicles around them.

One of my views is that many problems witnessed here are about habits: running red lights is becoming much more common--green means go, yellow means go fast, red means go faster! The system is riddled with indiscipline, and some loose practices, as witnessed by no legal control over who can produce vehicle licence plates: go for lunch, and get licence plates with a plate of food.

This afternoon I went to the Errol Barrow Gallery and heard the Minister of Transport and Works, John Boyce, give a good overview of the past and say hopeful things about the future of transport in Barbados. He mentioned major projects that needed to be addressed, such as upgrading bus terminal facilities. He painted a picture of a government that has already laid down some important markers for its view on transport policy--for instance, less subsidy of gasoline, economic and social policies in providing free transport for school children, and reviewing major road construction contracts. Beyond that, the Minister indicated a desire to make some significant management changes in transport, including better focus on maintenance and having the needed financial resources and better personnel relations. These developments may not give us immediate relief to the many problems we experience daily. He painted an interesting picture of the 'ABC' Highway being used as a means of transferring people across various roundabouts, especially at off-peak times. It's not immediately clear what he has in mind, but let's see how he fleshes out that idea.

He did indicate that some 'poor management practices' would end, including unacceptably long completion times for projects. His tone suggested that ABC Highway might end up being renamed XYZ by the time that it is finished. He did not hold out much hope for the economic viability of ferry services--that seems to make sense, as the island size and passenger volumes that Barbados have do not seem to offer a good economic prospect, for what is a really costly option. He painted a picture of a Barbados that had 'modern' transport information systems, such as bus schedules and route maps at bus stops--oooh--and advisories about accidents--aaah. He saw little need for new buses and quoted figures suggesting that bus availability, while a bit variable, was pretty good. He stressed how important it would be to know abut the quality staff already employed: that does sound as if personnel management has been a bit missing, but at least there's an intent to get to know who does what and where.

The transport problems in Barbados do not really need big stick solutions. Had I been in charge of planning the roads I would have never allowed some of the junctions to be controlled by roundabouts, given the heavy volumes that are there for simple four way stops, and well-controlled lights would have been better, not least because you have two grades of road being controlled in some areas: a highway (supposedly carrying faster moving vehicles often on dual carriageway) crossing another lessor category of road (single carriageway) cannot give equal access to the lesser category, but that is a common problem in Barbados. There has been a welcome change in some areas (Wildey) to a one way system, but the mindset of drivers needs to be adjusted to how to deal with the problems (minor) of merging, i.e. alternating flows, onto a roadway, which seems an alien notion.

One of Barbados' biggest assets is also a major problem: its many buses operate on roads that can only take single lines of vehicles, so the flow is often controlled by the passage of that one big vehicle, and that is both frustrating and unnecessary. Dare I say that someone had not thought things through? Add to this the indiscipline of buses just stopping when and where there feel like it (more so the smaller buses), and you start to have the makings of daily chaos.

An unwillingness to sanction bad road behaviour has become a part of how life is lived on the roads in Bim. Run a red light? Nothing done. Heaven help us till we witness a major crash. Have no insurance and crash? No problem. Need a new licence plate, go to the fried fish bar and have a new one served up.

Someone told a story of a policeman who called his lady friend and asked where she was going. She told him that after she left work she would be headed home. He said he was driving behind her car right then. She said "No. I am in the office." The officer pulled up to the car he was following and say a man inside. The car the man was driving was stolen and the plates had been fake. Need I say more?

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