Another Heather Cole Column – $3.50 Bus Fare: A Catalyst for Change?
It seems that every problem related to the delivery of Public Transportation in Barbados has been exposed in the past few weeks. Raising bus fare has always been a sore thumb for successive administrations. In my lifetime, I have seen bus fare rise from $0.25 in 1976 to the present $3.50. Despite increases in the cost of public transportation, addition of new routes, increases in the number of buses and a significant increase in private operators in the delivery of public transportation, the efficiency and effectiveness of the service has never improved.
One must not forget the role played by the previous Administration in the starvation of government owned public transportation while they set out to privatize the entire system by issuing licenses to private operators. The 10 long years without purchasing a single bus is a major part of the problem. What the last few weeks have exposed are the bones of a badly decimated patient. Sad to say, it has also given a voice to those responsible for the patient’s state of health. The present Government must act to prosecute the hell out of those former Ministers of Government who are still to be blamed for what was inherited, lest they continue washing their mouths on them.
What the transport ministry has not realized is that they are to deliver a quality service. I applaud the effort to clean up the Fairchild Street Bus Terminal. However, the under capacity of buses needs to be rectified as soon as possible and with new buses. There is simply no way around that. One hopes that the difference in the increase of bus fare will be used to start a fund to buy some.
In my opinion the best recommendation that came out of the Prime Minister’s meeting with the entire sector is the plan to absorb some of the private sector mini buses under the Transport Board’s brand. Although that is to be commended, more must be done as the focus should now be on efficiency and effectiveness in order to reap economies of scale.
For this to be achieved the entire system must be changed from its very base. One cannot build a new transportation system on this old base and expect to obtain new results.
While all roads lead to Bridgetown, the public transport system does not have to reflect this. The present system must be redesigned for connectivity. For example, on a set of new blueprints, one can leave Christ Church and travel to Belleplaine without going to Bridgetown or by catching a special bus. The new design should encompass an express bus, a tram system or even an air train service that runs down the centre of the island, possibly encompassing the old train line as well as an extension to the airport. It should travel from St. Philip to St Lucy in no more than half an hour, stopping at several hubs along the way. With the present system an increase in bus fare is burdensome if one must catch 2 buses to get to work in the morning and 2 buses to get home in the evening. Having a decentralized system should positively impact congestion on the roads. Redesigning the system will increase efficiency, reduce travel times and lead to effectiveness.
The role that I envision for the mini buses and ZR’s is that they all do not have to congregate and ply their trade from Bridgetown. The ones that have opted to be part of the Transport Board brand can also operate to carry persons to catch the air train service and to take persons to catch the transport board buses. For example, persons who live in Cane Vale, Gall Hill and Silver Hill area can catch one of the Transport Board Brand mini buses take the to Oistins to catch the Speightstown bus. Persons who live in the south can take one of the branded ZR’s to a hub to take the air train.
The logistics of the routes must be re-examined. Longer buses with greater seating capacity must be purchased. Just because we came across the Atlantic like sardines packed in a tin does not mean that we must live this way until perpetuity. With a full complement of buses, more buses must be available at peak times; no one should have to wait an hour or half an hour for the next bus especially on the long routes and; a limited stop service must also be in place for some buses that travel the long routes.
We must also aim to have a transport system that supports not only a work day schedule but also performs a coach service for leisure. For example, no one would have been subjected to getting a ticket for parking illegally when they used their own transportation to attend the Buju concert last weekend. If transport board had a leisure service, few patrons would drive to those big events where they would be no parking.
All bus stops must become Smart Stops with online capability to inform commuters when the bus will be at their stop.
For government to remain a provider of public transportation, the transport board must re-claim some of the lucrative routes and limit the number of licences that they will issues to private operators.
The Management structure at the Transport Board must be aggressive for projects to be accomplished within short time frames. The transport board must also realise that increases in bus fare are not always the solution to address loss of income and that they must seek to reduce operating cost, waste and misuse of the public funds. An Improved customer service will lead to an increase in confidence in the transportation product.
We must seek to optimize our present modes of transport as well as introduce different kinds of transport. We can correct the deficiencies of the present system by creating a new state of the art logistically sound and efficient system that resolves decades old problems of not enough buses, buses not running to schedule as well as accessibility to public transport and a costly poor service.
As we investigate the next decade, travelling by bus can become a positive experience. Providing a high-quality service of differentiated products will make the transport board a profitable entity. It can therefore reap economies of scale to the point where bus fare can be reduced to $2.00 again as more persons will opt for a service that is reliable, convenient and saves them time.