Saturday, November 1, 2014

Transforming Public Transportation: Can we do it?

I'm not sure how bad public transportation is in other Caribbean countries, but in The Bahamas it is a cause for consistent public ire. Even other public bus drivers complain about each other; how they cut each other off in traffic, how they steal each other's customers and how some buses go outside of their route to cream off passengers.

In The Bahamas we call public buses "Jitney's". The more emotional of us elongate the word Jitney and prefix it with a few other choice and colourful words. Some of us even use special hand and finger signals to waive to our favourite bus drivers. How nice!

My previous next door neighbour has a fleet of buses, and daily he complained about the mess and the abuse he took from other bus drivers, passengers, other vehicles that he shared traffic with and all else road-rage worthy while he downed more than his fair share of "adult-sodas" at the local public house.

Of course, he had to be whisked safely away after a few hours of lamentations induced by his adult soda of choice. Thank goodness that he is a owner now and not a day to day driver anymore. Because one can only assume that the consumption of too many adult-sodas would leave any man struggling with too much sugar in his blood stream, which may make him unsteady during the day, to say the very least.

Anyways, for my case, and while I write about important things (at least I like to think they are important), I also like to take the time out to whine and moan about certain matters because I could. Because I'm the one penning this and not you, I just have to express just what my feelings on the public transportation fiasco we have in New Providence that public bus drivers are at the core of.
Just last week I was "trapped" behind one of those buses travelling on the Prince Charles Highway heading East. I am being bitterly honest when I say this, the bus driver stopped at least 7 times in the space of a half of a mile before I was able to get around it.

Some of these "stops" were no more than 100 yards away from the previous stop. Some even shorter.

Why all of the continual stops and starts? Why cause me to forget my prayers that morning and turn into a bitter, angry and spiteful man before my next stop? Why are these bus drivers doing this to me!?

I wrote something on the miasmal mess of public transportation a little while back, as well as highlighted a way in which we can solve this problem. The article was widely shared around The Bahamas and other national and regional sources: Getting around in New Providence.

Back when that previous article was written, New Providence was then also dealing with a major road development project that multiplied the problems of transportation times 10,000. So, not only were the roads a mess, we had to deal with the same herky-jerky chaos that we normally deal with on a day to day basis.

Unfortunately, while funding was "reportedly" provided for the upgrade to the public transportation system through a very small part of that road development project, with the project officially coming to an end, we are left with the same problem of a lack of a coordinated and carefully planned public bus system.

The major problem why The Bahamas has a lack of movement on a unified public transportation system was that the bus drivers didn't want anything that opened the door to them losing their particular routes. Of course, this left in place the status quo of everyone poaching off of everyone else's routes. So, I guess the status quo of some of someone else's route is better than the possibility of no route at all.

The second problem was with regard to building a stakeholder model that made sure everyone could play a major part in the unification of a public bus system and sensitively transitioning those that didn't want to be a part of it out. Of course, from the onset, and with so many drivers, this would never have flown under any other manner than the one I presented earlier and will reiterate and elaborate on later in this article. That's just human nature to keep one bird in the hand. This is before we get to the politics of it all, both national and personal rivalry.

The third, and equally important problem, was the lack of leadership on the matter. A lack of leadership born out of a void of will to get it done. For all things considered, it isn't an easy task putting public bus drivers in the same room let alone have them coalesce around an idea as heavy as unifying and organizing the public transportation system so the country can benefit.

An attempt to create a model for the public bus system was done before by a private group a few years back. The group designed a new route, with a fleet of new buses, and was touted as the solution to the public transportation mess. However, what it did was create another fleet of privately owned buses to add to the already nightmarish confusion. That's just what it is. Truth!

We deserve better than this. We can do better than this!

Going to back what I had originally posed earlier, I will add value to the first opinion and build around it.

For one, creating a unified system isn't undoable. The main concern for the individual bus drivers and licensees is with regard to supplementing their salaries during the transition, particularly for the drivers and licensees that don't want to be a part of the new and unified system.

Just to say: Construction, purchasing of new fleets, corporate modelling, staffing and traffic planning is a given. This is just what needs to take place as a result of an initiative such as this. This isn't where the rub is if the over-arching idea is to create a singular, unified bus system.

The rub comes when we do not take into consideration the bus drivers and licensees that may lose income as a result of phasing out the mess we have now into a newer, organized and workable system.

What should happen is that we can provide an estimation, over time, of what it costs individual bus drivers on a yearly basis and what they stand to lose in income during the transition into a unified bus system. If the average bus driver makes $25k per year, and the project should take 2 to 3 years to complete, then that is anywhere between $50 to $75k pay out. Whatever loan, guarantee or financing option undertaken, this should be factored into the financing agreement.

Sure, it takes money to do all of this in addition to paying bus drivers out. But if the end goal is to have a singular, unified bus system, then after the bus system takes into effect then paying off the financial obligations from a public monopoly would be straight forward and stable.

The second issue is with regard to the bus drivers and licensees that do not want to be a part of a unified bus system, and do not want to stop public bus services. The solution to this is to expand the industry for public bus charters with a no bus-stop requirement, and have them work as private and public charters.

For example, allow them to have licenses where they can organize arrangements with corporate offices, schools and governmental agencies for charter services. The charter service would be designated to office to home charters, with a mixture of regular bus-stop drops and privately marked off-road stops in residential areas.

This would cut down on the public nuisance that bus drivers create through their frequent and annoying stops in the middle of the roadway, while at the same time providing for a working public bus system in addition to making the streets more organized, safe and user-friendly.

More people would have to walk a few yards to their particular stops, but walking to an identified stop is what we should be doing in any event. Let us not lose sight of what is right and proper.

All in all, I feel the end result should be on the table regardless of when and if public consultations and discussions start with regard to finding a solution for public transportation. The end result being a one bus system country. No more, no less.
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