Public transportation is a critical component of the solution to Barbados’ energy, environmental, and economic challenges. Because it is a frequent source of public dissatisfaction, improving public transportation must be the priority of every government. In Barbados, the Transport Board continues to struggle under the current government due to inefficient management systems and an inadequate maintenance programme. Even when there is some attempt at innovation, the focus seems to be misguided.
Recently there have been some hints about a return to the concept of flyovers which was initially quoted at US$60 million but was set to triple given the trajectory of cost overruns. A progressive plan for public transportation is not one which seeks to place more cars on the road but to have more commuters using a clean, comfortable, and on-time system that is designed to meet the expectations of its potential users.
Barbadians have been known to declare our bus system ‘the worst in the Caribbean’. This of course is highly inaccurate, but it is inevitable that the flaws in a system one uses regularly will be far more glaring than in a system that one uses infrequently and when on holiday. This is the case when a Barbadian visits another island on holiday.
The Desiderata counsels against comparing oneself with others, but looking to other countries often provides good examples that inform the design of public policy. Therefore, it is instructive for us to look at some examples to assist with the way forward for the Transport Board. One of the main trends worldwide is the use of technology to improve the management of public transportation systems.
Our current system is focused on connecting rural areas to city centres. However, it may well pay to develop a more flexible arrangement between outlying areas. First, we need a mechanism whereby we can collect accurate information about the patterns of travel for commuters, so that our policies and route designs can be fine-tuned to their needs. Technology can address this.
Bus-tickets in the form of a reusable smart card which can be topped up and used on publicly owned buses would be an excellent use of technology. This will provide much better usage data than the guesstimates and surveys which inform policy under the present system. Additionally, it is a more efficient way of collecting fares, and therefore managing and accounting for government revenue.
A typical example of misguided public policy is the proposed GPS vehicle tracking system promised by the current administration for the first quarter of 2016. This should have been focused on making the technology available for commuters to get to places on time instead of being positioned as a punitive tool against drivers.
GPS is widely used in public transportation systems to monitor fuel consumption, driving speeds and braking. It can, of course, be used to evaluate driver performance and schedule maintenance reminders, so it is convenient for record gathering and keeping as the government envisioned.
However, GPS has even more handy features for commuters. One such is the ‘live maps’ property that allows commuters to view the real-time location of buses and the estimated time of arrival. This coupled with an accurate bus schedule that is available online would cut the waiting time and uncertainty. In turn, this would decrease the irritation of Barbadian public transport users considerably.
As you can see, a ticketing system coupled with widespread use of GPS can assist with both overall management and maintenance issues. This data could then be made available to independent application developers who can use it to design apps for smartphones and other personal devices. In time, the smart card can be replaced for some users by mobile phones that can be topped up directly from their bank accounts.
With specific reference to maintenance, the Transport Board fleet can be gradually changed to electric
vehicles. There are several benefits related to electric bus technology. They are more fuel efficient, less taxing on the environment, and they have less moving parts which results in lower maintenance costs and down time than those vehicles with internal combustion engines. Electric buses used with a GPS system that monitors the engine and internal works and follows a proper maintenance schedule, can reduce the operating expenses of the Transport Board significantly.
There have been some concerns internationally about the use of electronic buses; there was, for instance, a worry that they would be a fire hazard because of their large batteries. Results in other countries demonstrate that a good battery management system and conscientious attention to standard operating procedures can eliminate this worry. The biggest challenge to electronic buses is the capitalization costs, which are high and militate against Barbados being able to move towards investing in a full fleet.
Ultimately, getting persons out of their cars and into buses could result in more productivity due to reduced traffic congestion, enabling commuters to get to work faster and, in some cases, engage in personal development in the form of reading or even relaxation while in transit.