Peter Espeut | Visioning national transportation
“Give us vision lest we perish”, powerful words in our National Anthem penned by Jamaican Methodist minister and patriot Father Hugh Sherlock.
Think ahead 30 years; dare we think ahead 30 years? Use your 2070 vision: how will most Jamaicans get around?
In these pre-prosperity days we plan for the expected future by building four-lane highways to Port Antonio and Montego Bay. That was “Highway 2000”, the vision of the 1990s. Even though we are already in the 2020s, we are still working in “Highway 2000”. Is that still the vision for 2070? More highways, more cars, more flyovers, more toll roads?
As prosperity slowly emerges, is it the plan for every Jamaican adult to have a car to drive to work, to university, to the stores, to the cinema, to the beach? What will the population of Jamaica be in 2070, and how many cars will be on the road? Will we have enough roads? Will four lanes be enough? Will there be enough parking space?
How much oil will be available in 2070 to power these cars? What will be the price of petrol? Will we be able to generate enough foreign exchange to buy the huge amount of oil we will need? Not to mention the cars themselves?
Even if by then electric cars have taken over the roadways, what will be the price of electricity? And how will we generate it?
If every adult has a car, will there be a need for public transportation in 2070? Or just for schoolchildren and tourists?
PLAN INTO THE FUTURE
Are we even thinking about these things as a nation? Can we plan into the future more than four or five years, beyond the next election cycle? Do we choose our future, or have it thrust upon us, unforeseen and inplanned? Where is the strategic plan for Jamaica 2070?
Don’t you enjoy the ease of getting around in cities like London, Paris, New York, and Washington DC? Overground or underground railways will get you to work or school over long distances in reasonable and predictable time. A car would be a liability.
Why are we investing billions – maybe trillions – in highways to move large numbers of small vehicles – each with a few people – who travel at great cost in bigger and bigger traffic jams, rather than investing in mass transit which will move large numbers of people quickly and cheaply over medium to long distances above or under the traffic, at a fraction of the cost?
What is the mental block preventing our national planners from moving beyond private motor cars for national transportation? Of course we enjoy the independence of movement and the privacy that an automobile provides, and that can apply on weekends or at nights when we are at play. But when it comes to peak demand – going to work and school in the morning (and coming home in the evening) – speed and reliability are more important. Students and employees will arrive at school and work less stressed. That is what will increase the productivity of our labour force.
Imagine getting on an overhead train in Portmore or Spanish Town (or in May Pen or Morant Bay) and after changing lines in Hunt’s Bay or Half Way Tree or Rockfort you can disembark on the University of Technology or at Kingston Public Hospital or at The University of the West Indies? Can you envision that? I am sure the Chinese will help us to make that vision a reality!
The taxis can still jostle for short-haul passengers.
If we are going to use billions in public funds to subsidise public transportation, better to support a system that moves large numbers of people, reduces travel time, and lessens our dependence on fossil fuels.
In subways and metros overseas, men and women in business suits rub shoulders with clerks, nurses and schoolteachers. That is not how we do things in elitist Jamaica, where greater social distance is required. Maybe high-quality mass public transportation will increase social cohesion.
In Toronto, trains articulate with buses which run at right angles to train tracks to cover large areas. In cities without rectangular grids, buses still articulate with trains but run eccentric routes. We might choose to use route taxis instead.
None of the above is part of any national visioning that I know of. We have a ramshackle and inefficient public transportation system which makes huge losses. At present the Jamaican Government is making significant investments in highways, which means more cars and more minibuses – and more traffic jams in the near to distant future.
But will oil geopolitics remain the same, especially with the discoveries in Guyana? Where might population centres shift as new housing is built? Where will the new jobs to be created by 2070 be sited? Where will the thousands of tons of new food which will be needed be produced? Across which distances will commuters need to be transported?
I hope that in some dark corner somewhere, forecasters and futurists are huddled over their computers working it all out for Jamaica! Otherwise perishing of one kind or another is a real possibility.
Peter Espeut is a sociologist and development scientist. Send feedback to email@example.com