by Larry Smith
Today I'd like to indulge in a little road rage.
Over the past eight years I've been riding a bicycle for both exercise and enjoyment. Not competitive cycling, I hasten to confirm, just casual bike riding.
For a long time I was able to ride from Fox Hill Road to my office near St Matthew's Church. I was able to do this a couple of times a week, just outside the peak traffic hours, without much risk. I was also able to ride downtown on Sundays and holidays with no hassle at all.
But lately the traffic situation has become so chaotic that it is too dangerous (for me anyway). And that applies to most routes, most times of the day, and all week long. I truly sympathise with those who are forced to ride to work through all kinds of traffic conditions.
Besides the crowded intersections, there are two principal road hazards today: speeders and idiots (you know, the kind who think nothing of passing within inches of you - whether by design or stupidity - as if you simply didn't exist).
And even during non-peak times in relatively quiet residential districts, the number of speeders has increased noticeably, along with the rate at which they travel. My guess is that this is a function of the frustration most drivers are faced with today. Whenever a relatively open road appears, we take advantage of the luxury by putting the pedal to the metal.
The rising number of idiot drivers is probably due to the fact that there are more young people driving today, coupled with less enforcement of traffic rules. The risks and inconveniences they cause are not exclusive to cyclists; they are multiplying and intensifying for all road users on New Providence.
Then there are the afternoon shift changes at Atlantis, when streams of vehicles exit PI over a single bridge, producing long-term stalls for west-east drivers on Bay Street as police override signals to prevent gridlock on the island. And don't forget the jitneys that jockey to get ahead of everyone else by any means possible. You never know from which direction they are coming - behind you, toward you or sideways.
In the heavily-populated Eastern district, the afternoon rush hour now extends from 3-7pm, as thousands of parents forsake work and trek to the various schools to pick up their little darlings. School traffic then merges with going home traffic. There''s hardly any point in returning to work anyway. Meanwhile, heavily loaded trucks barrel down our narrow city roadways at breakneck speed, secure in the knowledge that no-one will challenge their right of way.
And the slightest out-of-the-ordinary circumstance - a pot hole, a stalled car or just a puddle of water - can have devastating repercussions. Only last week traffic into and out of town from the east (where perhaps a quarter of the island's population lives) was backed up for hours on consecutive days because fender benders had closed off one lane of a two-lane artery.
A simple matter to remedy, one would think. But not in the Bahamas, where simple matters are magnified into colossal problems because no-one gives a damn...since there are no consequences for irrational behaviour anyway. And don't even think about retaliating either in word, gesture or deed - you may find yourself on the wrong end of a fatal road rage dispute.
A case in point occurred last week, when some guy (for no reason at all) smashed my daughter's rear windshield with a rock while she was driving in broad daylight on West Bay Street. Road rage is not something to take lightly in this town - even if you are entirely in the right. As one middle-aged friend put it: "Our abandonment of core social values - respect for others and personal integrity - is glaringly evident on the roads of New Providence.
"Traffic lights and speed signs are ignored; drivers barge in from side roads onto main thoroughfares with indifference; and litter is discharged from vehicles with impunity. Then there are the tinted windshields, derelict vehicles, uninsured drivers, noxious fumes, jitney terror - the list is overwhelming. If we don't fix the leaks soon, the dam will collapse!"
To help employees cope, my company - Media Enterprises - recently adjusted working hours to run from 8.30 am to 4.30 pm. But it provides little relief, since the so-called rush hour now extends for most of the day and into the night, particularly if you have to pass through one of several traffic choke points at the edge of town (such as the notorious Montagu junction). And it will only get worse because experts say traffic volume is growing by 3 per cent a year, and it's unlikely that radical action will be taken to fix things.
As for the Montagu junction itself, that is the most glaring example of stupidity one could possibly imagine. A complex arterial intersection in the middle of a commercial boat ramp, street market and public park. Successive governments have ignored the problem - which is the cause of endless traffic delays and frequent accidents. A parliamentary committee recommended solutions more than a year ago, but nothing has been done to implement them.
In some American cities experts say frustration over growing road congestion is leading more people to use public transit, move closer to their jobs, telecommute or make other lifestyle changes. in other words, people are making rational choices about what's best for them - and being stuck in traffic for hours each day is not one of them.
In the Bahamas, our choices are limited. More often than not we can't move closer to our jobs because there is no residential space near commercial areas. Telecommuting requires a certain type of work as well as a certain type of mindset as well as full computer literacy. And public transit in Nassau is so unsafe, uncomfortable and unreliable that no-one with access to a car will use it regularly.
These issues, and others, were addressed last year in a Congestion Reduction Study undertaken by a Barcelona-based firm called Advanced Logistics Group. These consultants produced a strategic plan which offers a series of short- middle- and long-term policy measures "targeted at achieving changes in travel behaviour and travel patterns" on New Providence.
They say that implementation of this plan could reduce peak-hour traffic congestion by more than half, realising a yearly cost savings of more than $1.3 million from the morning commute alone. The cost of delays due to traffic congestion was calculated by assigning a dollar value to the time wasted based on household income statistics. But it doesn't include the immediate and indirect costs of fuel and wear and tear on vehicles, not to mention lost serenity, family time and civic engagement.
However, the key to our salvation involves a radical overhaul of our public transport system to make it a "viable and attractive option". And I think that key has already broken off in the lock, since we are nowhere nearer to setting up an improved and unified bus system in Nassau than we were when the idea was first mooted by former transport minister Glenys Hanna-Martin four years ago.
The congestion reduction plan's short-term measures call for renewal of the bus fleet, building park and ride sites at the edge of town as well as parking garages in strategic areas, optimising the island's 68 signalised intersections, creating reversible road lanes and bus-only lanes, enforcing paid on-street parking, turning Bay Street into a pedestrian zone, promoting carpooling and a setting up a more stringent and expensive vehicle licensing and inspection regime.
I note with interest that the plan does call for investment in bicycle/pedestrian lanes and paths, along with bike lockers at major public transit stops (although they would have to feature military security measures). Park and ride stops are suggested for JFK Drive, Soldier Road, Arawak Cay, Montagu and Prince Charles Drive. Permanent and exclusive bus lanes are recommended for Blue Hill Road and Market Street from Robinson to Bay.
Other measures include getting workplaces to introduce flex-time, requiring traffic impact studies for new developments, excluding freight transport from designated zones and phasing in a system of road fees - meaning charging motorists to drive in certain areas.
Longer term recommendations include privatisation of the unified bus system (which doesn't yet exist), water taxi services from downtown to PI and Cable Beach, a new bridge to Paradise Island from Arawak Cay, and building the fabled container port at Clifton.
The plan also calls for strict regulation of freight transport to reduce its impact on road congestion. These proposals include tougher licensing for drivers and vehicles, designated freight routes and times, and introduction of a road wear tax. In the short term, freight transport would be heavily restricted downtown and on Paradise Island. In the longer term, warehousing would be confined to outlying areas along Harrold Road, Prince Charles and Cowpen Road, with goods arriving at Clifton and travelling along the newly diverted Adelaide Road to Cowpen.
Now this all sounds perfectly sane and straightforward on paper - but what happens when you consider the reality on the ground? For example, successive hard-mouth governments have not had the spunk to deal with relatively minor and contained issues like controlling the vendors, mail boats and ferry boats at Potters Cay; rationalising Montagu; moving the jitneys off Bay Street; regulating freight haulage and enforcing traffic rules generally.
The official track record so far doesn't give much hope for the future. We certainly couldn't imagine the indecisive Christie administration implementing anything on this scale. And for the new Ingraham administration, the plan suffers from its origins during the Christie government. It's a vicious circle.
Perhaps the best course would be to pick a demonstration project and implement it fully. Now, should that be Bay Street, Potters Cay, Arawak Cay or perhaps Montagu?
Well, we know there are some 8,000 workers concentrated on Paradise Island, and we know where they are coming from every day and where they are going every day. And we have a single large entity to deal with. Why don't we start there?