Ronald Thwaites | Congestion and productivity
The chaos and congestion on our urban and township roads is both cause and emblem of the nation's low productivity.
Recently, at the graduation ceremony of one of our lesser-regarded high schools in the country parts, I asked a group of the boys what they planned to do on leaving school. No one was interested in farming although they all hoped to eat at least twice a day; only a few felt that there was any possibility for them to achieve higher education; the majority hoped to get (or buy) a driver's licence and to control a car to operate as a taxi.
That way, they reasoned, they could make a quick money, get girls and a measure of excitement. Things like getting a road licence, proper insurance and adhering to the road code did not figure in their reasoning.
"Sir, why yu nevva mek we learn to drive in school?"
There are now almost three-quarters of a million motor vehicles on Jamaican roads, with thousands more on the used car lots which are to be found in every village across the land. How many more can our roads reasonably accommodate? Which government is brave enough to face the fact that a limit is inevitable?
Money, short for food, medicine and schooling, is easily available for 'cyar'. One of the best credit unions, where Jamaicans of modest means, given the predatory banking system, place their savings, offered a 50 per cent discount on motor vehicle loans last month!
My conjecture is that there are probably 10 car loans for every other small and microbusiness financing. For the first eight months of this year, we spent more than 90 per cent of our export earnings buying motor vehicles, parts and extra fuel to service them.
This is unsustainable. And there is no state policy which addresses the predicament.
It is much more than aggravating an already disastrous balance of trade deficit. Congestion, road rage and indiscipline on the road have become major causes of social discontent and low productivity.
Despite all the highway improvements, road capacity cannot keep up with the number, weight and operating mode of the cars and trucks at present - let alone the more to come. Also, you have to factor the 300 lives sacrificed on the roads each year as well as the many more hundreds injured and maimed - all of which depresses growth and wastes billions of private and state dollars.
This is self-inflicted loss. As is the gushing subsidy which we lavish on the JUTC every year, crippled by the stupidity of spawning its own competition.
Punctuality is one simple, important factor of a competitive economy. Policymakers should heed the very time-sensitive business process outsourcing sector as well as the education system, to appreciate the stress and expense which getting to and from work on time increasingly involves.
Mike Henry says that a transport policy is in the making. By the time it comes, events will likely have overtaken its effectiveness. The scandalously delayed Road Traffic Act still has huge gaps in dealing with driver indiscipline, vehicle noise, pollution and safety.
Suggestions for amelioration
Here are some suggestions for amelioration in the short term. First, there has to be a doubling of the enablement of the traffic police to ease gridlock in what has become day-long peak hour in urban centres and, if they can, to discipline especially public passenger operators.
Then there has to be mandatory retraining and recertification, at their expense, of all drivers prosecuted for careless or dangerous driving. And every 10 years, every driver ought to be retested to ensure physical, emotional and technical capacity. There is a pending resolution in Parliament to deal with this issue which has, predictably, been languishing for months waiting on a time to be debated.
Driver education must be offered by the HEART Trust, directly or through carefully chosen franchisees, as a feature of grade-12 and 13 training.
No doubt, with considerable pain and controversy, there needs to be a rationalizing and enforcement of the route assignments for all public passenger vehicles, except hackney carriages. We have never been serious about this. I recently saw a minibus advertising transport from Kingston to Negril via Morant Bay.
In a culture already noted for low total factor productivity, it ought to be embarrassing for our creditors, the Inter-American Development Bank and the International Monetary Fund, to be the ones to tell us what is obvious: that there is a huge negative relationship between chaotic transportation and congestion on the one hand and unhappiness and low output on the other.
What is stopping us from making the necessary and possible changes now?
- Ronald Thwaites is Central Kingston member of parliament and opposition spokesperson on education and training. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org