The shock rise of the bus fare by 75 per cent after a decade at $2.00 must have been, we imagined, music to the ears of the private minibus and route taxi operators.
After all, no one group has cried out louder and more consistently for a bus fare increase. They complained about import duties, taxes, registration fees, licences and the like. Of course, the State has not chimed in and said, “And don’t forget PAYE and NIS for your drivers and conductors!”.
No sooner did the new Government indicate that Barbados under IMF management could no longer support a $2 fare than the privately owned public service vehicles – a contradiction in terms if ever there was one – entered the bus fare sweepstakes. More than $2 but less than $5, they cried.
But after having their decade-long wish fulfilled for a fare to compensate for the cost of fuel and fees, after bus strikes and soundbites, should the travelling public not expect even the slight semblance of an improvement in service by those best equipped by their very ubiquity to provide it?
Apparently not. There is no order out of disorder, no greater availability of transport when people want it and where people want to go.
On the contrary, the observations of our reporters and their interviews across a wide swathe of routes suggest to us that the only clear beneficiaries of this fare increase have been the private owners of public service vehicles.
Public Service Vehicles – a tautology if ever there was one. For $3.50, they can still be guaranteed to travel at 20km/h on busy thoroughfares backing up traffic like a clogged South Coast sewer, never mind how much of the commuters’ time they eat away as they rush to hold down a job in a chancy economy at a hotel or villa or government office.
For $3.50, they can still cram eager school children to race at breakneck speeds, dodge oncoming traffic and provide thrills and spills to teens while endangering the lives of future generations.
For $3.50, they will now only carry part of the way to your destination, ordering you off as they spin around to collect more fares or go off on home.
For $3.50, do not expect PSVs to be found at night when the volume of travellers does not rise to the desire of a few to get where they need to go.
And for $3.50, the grateful owners of PSVs baulk at the Transport Authority’s attempts to spread mass transit access to more people in more places along more routes.
This is the unkindest cut of all. The Transport Augmentation Programme (TAP) was the regulator’s way of cutting more operators in on the action that was once the exclusive preserve of the bus-strapped Transport Board.
It was also the surest way to improve service while the Transport Board and the Ministry of Transport work – we presume they are still doing so – to obtain the additional buses the public has been waiting on for nigh on a year.
And yet, private operators who complained of a bitter struggle to stay afloat on such presumably crammed routes as on the south coast corridor screamed with disdain against TAP.
This disreputable conduct of private operators delivering a public good must end. At these prices, the people of Barbados deserve a more strongly regulated public transport service.
They should be safe: enough PSV passengers have died needlessly from crashes over the last two decades while the much-maligned Transport Board has managed not to lose a commuter’s life since 1955.
They should be safe for our children to ride, away from reckless driving and sexual predation.
And PSVs should be accessible to more people for more hours on more routes. Their continued failure to operate in the public’s interest and at their convenience and necessity should cost them. If permits need to be revoked and granted others more willing to serve the travelling public, then so be it.
To whom much has been given much is expected.
For now, motorists, workers and students must endure this greed at any speed.