No one can seriously doubt that the transportation system in Barbados is in crisis which was exacerbated by the recent 75 per cent rise in bus fares in an environment of a grossly inadequate number of Transport Board buses.
It would seem to even the most casual observer that the increase was designed mainly to benefit the unruly privately owned sector. The Board, haemorrhaging losses at the rate of $40 million annually, can do little with the additional projected $20 million it expects to earn from the $1.50. The decision to sell packages aimed at saving commuters 50 cents per ride is helpful only to those able to find the money to purchase in bulk. Images of school children in terminals and at bus stops long past nine o’clock in the morning and workers waiting three hours for a bus should serve to convince us that our transport system is broken. So, what is the solution?
First, we have to accept that transportation is a social good like health and education. As such, we cannot rely on the private sector to meet the varied needs of the public. Private enterprise exists to maximize profits, and so privately owned buses are going to ply routes and travel at times that will guarantee the most returns for investment. Service to many rural and far-flung districts is likely to be poor to non-existent. One well remembers the days when places like College Savannah in St. John and other outlying villages could only expect buses hourly between 6 and 8 a.m. and 1, 3, 5, 6 and 7 p.m. Saturday was the only day that service was provided after 7 p.m. and on Sundays, villagers hardly saw a bus. We cannot revert to that state of affairs.
It is my considered opinion that the 80/20 percentage split between PSVs and the Transport Board is a recipe for chaos. The Transport Authority will have a monumental task trying to regulate the ZR’S and minibuses whose owners and operators already show that they have no intention of obeying rules and regulations. If we cannot get drivers of those vehicles not to go off route, not to stop wherever they like and to remove the music from the buses, how will we be able to get them to serve commuters on unprofitable routes and at down times?
What the country requires is a gradual move to a system run by the state, financed by a small transport levy payable by all income earners. Persons earning up to $2, 500 monthly could be asked to contribute half a per cent; over $2, 500 but not more than $5, 000 – 1 per cent; up to $7, 500 – 1.5 per cent and over $7, 500 – 2 per cent. Bus fares can then be reduced to $1.00 per trip while pensioners, Police Officers and students of all educational institutions will continue to be allowed free travel. The cry will probably be that an already over-taxed people are being burdened with another imposition. However, we need to think of the national good. For commuters, especially those in the lower income bracket, paying ten to 15 dollars per month is certainly less burdensome than having to find $15 or more weekly for increased bus fare.
There are other benefits of a nationalized bus service. Once the service is efficiently run, even persons owning vehicles may decide to commute to and from work on public transport. This would have the salutary effect of drastically reducing traffic congestion. The country would be rid of the vulgar music and noise emanating from blaring music boxes, and order would replace the lawlessness which we now have to tolerate on our streets.
A dedicated school bus service would, of course, be necessary and we should encourage, not force, pensioners to travel, wherever possible, between the hours of 9 a.m. and
4 p.m. on weekdays, thereby freeing up room for workers. Not all movement of buses needs to begin and end in Bridgetown. There should be depots placed strategically to allow for an effective transfer system so that, for example, buses may take passengers to a particular depot from where other buses may then move to various destinations throughout rural Barbados and vice versa.
If our aim is to improve productivity and to facilitate easy and comfortable travel across Barbados, government must move expeditiously to provide state-sponsored transportation at an affordable cost to commuters. This does not mean that enterprising private persons cannot try to compete in the same way that there are private schools operating alongside government-owned institutions. The point, though, is that the state would provide buses to service all parts of the island. All it calls for is competent management unfettered by unnecessary bureaucracy, and freedom from political interference.