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Highways to hell

Express - April 08, 2001
By Raffique Shah

I HAPPENED to be on the Solomon Hochoy highway last week Monday at around 6 a.m. For many years now I have not been a "morning" person, meaning I don’t wake up from sleep before dawn, and more than that, I do not have to commute to Port of Spain on a daily basis to get to work by 8 a.m. So when I saw the number of vehicles on the highway at that early hour, all heading for the capital city, and that a full two hours before people reported for work, I was amazed. Because it occurred to me that if the traffic was heavy at that hour, it would degenerate into sheer torture an hour or so later.

In fact, for some time now, those who have had to endure traffic woes—mainly people who need to get into Port of Spain on a daily basis—have been driven to the point of exasperation. I am told, for example, that if one does not “beat the heat” by getting onto the Uriah Butler highway very early, one is condemned to crawling from Guayamare all the way to when you get to where you park, and that’s if you find parking space. That tells me we have come a full circle from the days when all these main arteries were single-lane highways, when an eight-to-four job was really a four-to-eight, that is 4 a.m. to 8 p.m.

I discovered one of the root causes of the problem that Monday morning. I saw, as I mentioned above, lots of cars on the highway, many of them foreign-used bearing new number-plates. As I used my ever-alert eyes to scan the traffic, I observed that almost every car had one person aboard—the driver. There were few taxis and even fewer buses. So all those vehicles were heading for one destination, Port of Spain, and each one was taking one person there. If that is multiplied by the number of people who work or do business in the city, then the true nature of this unplanned traffic horror becomes clearer.

Now, I know that’s not true in the literal sense, since there are tens of thousands who cannot afford to buy cars, hence they use the public transport system. Still, the number of additional vehicles coming onto the nation’s limited roadways is alarming: I suspect some 20,000 new (or foreign used) vehicles are licensed every year. It is one thing to say that we are moving from “developing country” status to “developed”, if that is measured by the number of cars on our roads or cellular phone owners or other forms of conspicuous consumption.

But in our quest to attain “good grades” from the UNDP and World Bank, we are creating illusions of grandeur, a typical Third World phenomenon in which perception becomes the truth, and the society that is riddled with comical contradictions.

It is clear that we do not have a proper national transportation plan. The Government’s approach seems to be to upgrade the nation’s main highways and roads. So they convert two-lane highways into three-lanes, except that since most of these roads were not designed for expansion, you have some narrow, dangerous lanes. And heaven help you, driver of some small car, when a huge truck bears down on you, horn blaring, solid steel flashing past your side-view mirror mere centimetres away. Or they pave what were intended to be the shoulders of some roads.

Or they build some “over passes” in which the roads are so narrow, it’s a miracle that only one person has died in the case of Sadiq Baksh’s maze-of-confusion in San Fernando.

But it is grossly unfair to have people who live in Central or South Trinidad (or East or West of the city, I suppose), rise from their beds at 4 a.m. in order to get to their jobs on time. Worse, they hardly return home before 6 p.m. This means that while they are paid for working eight hours, many of them at the minimum wage, they really spend 14 to 16 hours a day on their jobs.

The critical point is it matters not what the Government does to upgrade the access roads to the various city-centres, once you have an inordinately high number of vehicles heading for a few destinations, and parking in those cities or towns is non-existent or very limited, traffic will “jam” you.

This is not to suggest that PTSC has not upgraded its services, or that taxi transport is inadequate (well, except during peak hours). PTSC’s new buses look very comfortable. But no way can the public transportation system meet our current requirements. Still, it’s chaotic, this massive number of cars storming into the capital city every working day, with limited entry points and even less parking space.

So what’s the solution? Increased and safe parking space at points outside the city limits, and as far as places like Chaguanas, Curepe, San Juan, Arima and elsewhere, Then cheap and efficient public transport to take them to city centres.

Take the Divali Nagar site, for example. It lies idle for most of the year, but it’s an expansive paved area that can accommodate a few hundred vehicles. Caroni has some sugarcane fields in the vicinity, too, that could earn the company substantially more revenue as car parks than growing canes. Still, people will need incentives to feel comfortable parking their vehicles at centralised lots and commuting to their places of work. Many measures would have to be put in place before their confidence can be won, but really, we have no choice unless we are prepared to descend into an abyss of traffic confusion.

There is another “incentive” that can be offered to ease the jams: charge a toll fee for every vehicle that enters the city with, say, three or less passengers (driver included) between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. on weekdays. This may sound very harsh, and the question of people’s rights to enjoy property (in this case their cars) may reach the courts. But we need to take radical measures to solve an intractable problem that will only grow worse.

Because the traffic woes also lead to grumpy employees, low productivity, huge loss of man-hours, stress, pollution and worse. We can ignore it, of course, as is customary in our culture. But we do so at our peril, and at a cost to the economy that we cannot begin to calculate.

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