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A closer look at road congestion
Few days inspire more fear in the hearts of the commuting public than the start of the school term after the July/August holidays.
With schools across T&T opening Monday, visions of what once was (relatively clear roadways for two months) to what is (bumper to bumper morning and evening traffic congestion) leave many who must endure the daily grind longing for solutions to the gridlock on T&T’s main roads and highways.
The traffic situation gripping the country is more than just about getting around. From an economic perspective, hours spent in traffic have costs in terms of worker productivity, corporate efficiency and even the quality of life of those who must sit through the hours-long ordeal daily.
According to senior lecturer in transportation engineering at the University of the West Indies, Dr Trevor Townsend, where we find ourselves today in terms of congestion on the nation’s roadways could have been foretold well in advance.
“The problems that exist today were many years in the making and those in the transportation profession saw this situation coming. Could it have been prevented? Certainly,” Townsend said, speaking at his UWI campus office.
According to the university lecturer, traffic congestion across the congestioncountry’s road networks is a subset of a much broader problem facing T&T.
“What we have in T&T is a land use problem. Land use determines activity patterns and activity determines people’s demand for travel and the demand for travel can only be supplied by whatever infrastructure exists. Our demand for transportation has been climbing faster than our infrastructural capabilities,” he said.
Townsend pointed out that a major contributing factor was the rapid growth in the use of private cars.
“In real dollar terms, the cost of private car ownership has declined. Coupled with a fuel subsidy that has existed for many years, though less so now, one gets a reasonably clear picture. Many of the impediments to private car ownership that once existed are not there again. In fact, private car consumption has been growing at a faster rate than the population”
Among the more heavily congested routes in T&T, the east-west corridor and north-south routes stand out. Townsend stated that time spent in traffic along these routes and the associated costs were a “wasted asset.”
“No one benefits from this congestion. The psychical and mental anguish persons go through ultimately does affect their quality of life and productivity,” he said.
Townsend—who is also chairman of the Association of Professional Engineers of T&T (APETT) transportation committee—pointed out that across T&T roughly one million people move through the country’s transportation network daily.
“Of the million or so people who move on our roads daily, our very crude estimate is that about 100,000 man hours are spent in congestion per day. This is an area that we are looking to do more research in to really show how much is lost as a result of congestion.”
Turning his attention to public transportation, and the Public Transport Service Corporation (PTSC) in particular, Townsend stated that the current system offered to the commuting public was woefully inadequate.
“The public transportation system as provided by the State does not fully and effectively cater to the realities of commuters. The PTSC’s fleet, scheduling and operating efficiency are below what one would deem acceptable for the commuting public of this country. They are heavily subsidised to the tune of about $300 million per year and carry about 10 to 11 passengers per year. So you’re looking at a subsidy per passenger of approximately $30.”
Townsend added that when this is compared to the cost of maxi-taxi travel, the loss to the State immediately becomes evident.
“The bulk of PTSC bus trips are between Arima and Port-of-Spain and San Fernando and Port-of-Spain routes. The cost of a maxi-taxi trip from Arima to Port-of-Spain is $7 while the government spends roughly $30 to carry that same passenger on a bus. This is clearly inefficient.”
The university lecturer added that the “private side” of public transportation (taxis, maxis taxis and “PH” vehicles) operated far more efficiently.
“You’re looking at an industry here worth over $2 billion. There are more than 5,000 maxi-taxis in T&T that make over 200 million passenger trips per year. What we have seen, however, is a decline in the “H” taxis. At its peak, there were about 25,000 registered taxis on the road, now it’s down to about 12,500. A major element in this decline has been the increase of “PH” taxis operating on transit points across the country.”
Mass transit, rapid rail
For many years, the prospect of a mass transit system was touted as a solution to some of the traffic woes afflicting the country. In fact, studies were conducted to determine the feasibility of a rapid rail to alleviate congestion along the north-south (UWI to San Fernando) and east-west (Sangre Grande to Westmoorings) corridors.
According to Townsend, it’s important to understand what a mass transit system is in the first place.
“There are three aspects.
“Firstly, is its availability to all paying passengers. Secondly, it must be able to carry multiple passengers to different origins and destinations and, finally, it has to be co-ordinated, reliable and predictable. Given these factors, a mass transit system in T&T is possible without a rapid rail. In fact, nothing about that speaks specifically to any type of mass transit vehicle.”
He added that from where he sat, a rapid rail would not be the best solution for T&T’s mass transit ambitions.
“Based on the studies that have been done, the rail option is not the best option. When population densities and the length of the corridors and journeys are taken into consideration—along with our levels of demand—the rail option is not the appropriate choice.”
Probed about what would be a more applicable solution, he said:
“Based on analysis done by the IDB, it was not suggested that the government embark on a rapid rail project. In fact, it was clearly indicated that a bus rapid transit system would be a far better alternative in terms of the costs for passengers, ease of implementation, level of service and flexibility.”
According to Townsend, one of the most important aspects to treating with the congestion on the nation’s roadways was for planners and policy makers to figure out exactly what the priorities were.
“For far too long we have focused on creating space to move more cars rather than to holistically think about how we move people. The act of extending lanes on highways simply facilitates more congestion rather than make the act of commuting easier. We need to shift the way we view transportation as a whole in the country.”
He added that the establishment of a specialised transportation agency was critical to pursuing solutions to fix public transportation in T&T.
“Because we have no dedicated agency tasked with examining transportation in T&T from top to bottom, we end up with actions that are not cohesive across many areas and are sporadic and knee-jerk reactions to situations as they pop up.”