#COVID19Chronicles-166: September 25, 2020–More messages, please; people are not getting it.

The realisation is hitting home starkly that Jamaicans are not hearing and/or heeding the many messages about COVID-19 prevention, so we have seen a recent wave of attempts to do more communicating, especially as it relates to wearing masks. Minister Tufton has been on a blitz this week. His tone during last evening’s ‘COVID Conversations’ was all about not descending into despair about where numbers are heading and not to accept comments that suggest the government has stopped caring about the development of COVID.

He spent a lot of time stressing the anticipation and planning had mitigated many of the worse outcomes earlier projections suggested:

However, it’s clear that the messages that people need to act on are just not sinking in to a wide enough degree, and this is reflected in visits he’s made to communities and businesses.

Some public agencies and companies have joined the push, eg the public bus company, JUTC, has been flashing items for its passengers.

The bus company had responded well in March to the early need for sanitization of vehicles:

But, in keeping with general laxness in observing health protocols such as wearing masks and keeping distance, evidence is clear that passengers don’t get or wont apply it. In April, JUTC issued a statement to the effect ‘no mask, no travel’:

However, anecdotal evidence is that this is not observed, nor are rules on only seated passengers.

In addition, the ministry of health and wellness is liaising with firms and the private sector organizations about new workplace protocols:

These efforts come as the Caribbean is being urged to do more to tackle COVID-19, especially in the context of the region’s known high incidence of NCDs:

Many people know that non-compliance with COVID protocols has a point where it can be displayed as violent opposition. While we are far from highly politicized protests, we saw this in Jamaica when curfews were introduced on April 1, with open defiance and some decided to openly flout restrictions on night one, only to be summarily embarrassed for so doing.

So it went on in the first month:

Transgressions occurred but enforcement seemed to be offsetting.

However, 4 1/2 months on from curfews being introduced from April 1, we see that recurring as enforcement of restrictions on entertainment hits a wall of resistance, yesterday, with police being attacked.

Several involved in organizing the party and some of the 200 patrons were quickly remanded in custody.

This has happened in other countries to varying degrees. Most embarrassing when politicians cannot hold strain, as in Kenya.

As various activities resume, however, we see that following protocols is a struggle even in the full public gaze, as in the NFL, which has fined several coaches heavily for mask-wearing breaches the past weekend:

Some useful infomation on budget was presented last night on where expenditure had been focused:

The first field hospital (from the USA) was accepted; they are modular and should facilitate more flexible responses to cases:

#COVID19Chronicles-108: July 31, 2020-Transport not of delight: the crazy economics of Jamaica’s public transport system

For context, I started my working life as a transport economist, working largely in conjunction with Crosville Motor Services, a branch of the then National Bus Service, which operated in the Northwest of England and North and West Wales.02D68895-BB2C-427A-8A75-01E99BF5F416

It was during a time when local government could subsidize rural transport; I was working for the county council.

For the longest while I’ve struggled to understand how Jamaica’s public transport sector survives. For JUTC, the public bus service provider for the Corporate Area, the answer is simple: all of its inefficiencies—its operations are loss-making and it is overstaffed—get passed on to the tax payer to cover in subsidies (now about J$7 billion) to cover a projected loss for FY 2020-21 (before COVID) of some J$11 billion.

The recent report by the Auditor General covering 2014-19 about the range of malfeasance within the company merely puts flesh on the bones of some of that inefficiency. In past years, we have known that the enterprise was a ‘feeding trough’ and used as one of several avenues for political party favours in terms of ‘jobs for the boys’. We learned more about the corrupt practices of staff (namely the ticket scam) and how that was dealt with mainly by moving to cashless ticketing. Those kind of malpractices aren’t surprising in any enterprise that handles large amounts of cash without appropriate checks and balances and has a large staff complement. The main points of the report, as summarized by The Gleaner bear this out (my stress):

1. Board of directors failed to implement the necessary internal controls to protect the financial resources of the company.
2. Had an unapproved staff capacity costing an accumulated $1.15 billion that was not leveraged for operational efficiency.
3. Management exceeded the overtime budget by $728.6 million, despite excess staff capacity.
4. Failed to advertise vacant positions and engaged staff in unapproved positions or without the minimum qualifications in breach of its human resource administration policy and procurement guidelines.
5. The Ministry of Transport and Works was deficient in its oversight of the JUTC to ensure adherence to the Public Bodies Management and Accountability Act and the GOJ Corporate Governance Framework.
6. Board failed to implement recommendations of the Internal Audit Committee.
7. Ministry did not ensure that the board adhered to the Risk Management Framework to protect the interest of the JUTC

Other issues in the report:
1) Net accumulated shortage of more than 231,000 litres of fuel valued at approximately $36.5 million between 2014-15 and 2018-19.
2) 36.5 per cent decline in ridership between 2014-15 and 2018-19.
3) 11.6 per cent decline in available bus service between 2014-15 and 2018-19
4) $178.7 million of obsolete spare parts at end of 2018-19.
5) 16 buses (average) out of service for 139 days (average) awaiting parts.

So, in an area where people are heavily dependent on public transport, JUTC managed to under provide, significantly, and faced a massive decline in ridership. That, at a time when fares are relatively low. 

JUTC loses riders to both private minibuses and taxis, but these are also not viable. However, they are limited in their ability to raise fares and have faced sharp increases in costs. I’ve long guessed that these private operators—especially the illegal/‘robot’ operators—stay on the road—as distinct from stay in business—because they are quasi-criminal operations. Simply put, they are loss-makers in an otherwise profitable activity.

As such, they can only really survive as long as they help ‘bring in’ substantial benefits. One obvious route (no pun) was as a simple cash cow. In 2015, the JUTC chairman (Dr. Garnett Roper) cited the “relationship between the irregular [hackney carriers using their vehicles as robots], the illegal and the criminal. A substantial number of the taxis that you see on the road are owned by sections of organised crime.”

Other research points to links between taxi operators/drivers and scamming activities. In one of this simple deduction exercises, I figured out some things about how it works.

Put simply, the economics of privately operated public transport in Jamaica operations don’t make sense: fares are too low to cover costs; fuel and taxes drain them, severely. So, it’s no surprise to me that we are seeing that squeeze pinch hard. Why? Economic shocks have a way of pushing illicit activities out from their cover. So, the extreme drop in ability to operate must weed out quickly the marginal operators, at least, and those who have to rely on volume to even appear viable. So, when the taxi operators are literally begging for mercy it’s because they really have reached a tipping point. The fact that they are willing to say they operate in a corrupt system is like the dying screech of a seal about to get eaten by a whale. 

Jamaica’s public transport system needs a complete overhaul, but I doubt if that will happen soon or fast, not least because the many vested and dark interests need to have their cases properly addressed. Few modern public road transport systems have avoided these massive shake outs, and the economic carnage that is associated with them is unavoidable and painful, and I can’t see how Jamaica’s can be any different. 

 

#WhetherJamaica? A glimpse at our road traffic woes through an historical eye

I have the good fortune, or misfortune, if you prefer, of having spent much of my life living outside Jamaica. So, as my friend/attorney, Clive Williams said when we first met, “I can see that you run up to the wicket differently.” I do not disagree that I approach many local issues from a different angle/viewpoint. I have also had the benefit of living in or working in lots of different places, so many things I see in Jamaica can be put into a geographical or socioeconomic context that reflects that we are more similar than different, fundamentally, but at different points in our historical progress.

Take, for example, our traffic woes with illegal taxis and the bad driving habits of public service vehicles, in general. I know and have learned (because I studied urban planning) that ‘pirate behaviour on roads is a common feature of many urban developments. In the UK, during the period from the mid-1850s to World War 2, pirate buses created various forms of mayhem on London’s road, first with fare scams, then with ‘racing’ and ‘dangerous’ driving (as many ex-soldiers sought to find work and landed as bus owners in a poorly regulated environment):

After the first world war, the situation got worse. There was a shortage of buses (many had been requisitioned during the war) and many ex-servicemen took advantage of the absence of any sensible licensing procedure to set up their own bus services.

By 1924, London’s bus operations had become completely chaotic.

Pirate buses would race their General counterparts, terrifying passengers; take shortcuts to get to the busiest areas for trade; switch between routes to find the best passenger traffic.

Fines for speeding were increasingly common; there were even some more serious incidents of sabotage.’

Does that racing, terrifying passengers, taking shortcuts, totally chaotic, etc ring a bell with what we often see on Jamaican roads, though our passengers often seem sanguine?

For those who have watched the British TV series, Peaky Blinders, you can see the world of post-First Word War Britain up-close and dangerous, as ruthless ex-servicemen turned into gangsters.

The necessary conditions may be somewhat different in Jamaica, but at their base they include similar features to the 1920s UK: a general lack of employment opportunities for able young men, but also a world where public transport is in great demand and the supply is woefully inadequate: we know that JUTC alone cannot meet the needs of the Corporate Area and rural bus services are notable by their absence. Add to that a poor system of regulation and enforcement and you have all you need for mayhem.

None of that excuses what happens in Jamaica, but it means that we wont see change until the basic conditions change, plus we have a police force that is more complicit in its inability or unwillingness to enforce and a general approach by government that it’s easier to offer amnesties, periodically, than to see fines paid regularly. I’ve written before about what those perverse incentives must lead to: Who in their right mind would pay fines when due?

So, as the saying goes: History is prologue.

The Road Traffic Act that is due to go through Parliament may offer some solutions, but I would venture to guess that on the matters of enforcement it is silent, because the powers are there already, but not used fully. We also have the well-known but also untouched problem of members of our security forces being active participants in the business of running taxis and minibuses. If ever you wanted to see an enforcement ‘conflict of interest’ you’d be hard pressed to better that. Some argue for higher fines, but that’s pointless when current/lower fines aren’t being paid on time, or ignored by owners who are themselves implicated fully in both the breaking and keeping of laws.

The stock-flow dilemma of Jamaica‘s progress. Is it mainly about playing political favourites?

Economists often have to draw distinctions between the problems created by stocks (balances at a point in time, which show how things have accumulated) and flows (changes in balances over time, increases or decreases). Depending on the topic concerned, stocks can be so large that only massive changes in flows can affect how things appear. Put simpler, if I have $1 million in my bank account, it wont change if I take out 2 percent a month ($20,000) and receive the same amount as new income. It will grow if my income outpaces my drawings; and decline only if my outgoings outpace my income. But, stocks can be so large or been accumulated over such a long time that people find it hard to conceive of them changing. In this sense, it’s useful to think about some of the social, economic and political problems in Jamaica in terms of how it may be possible to manage the stocks and what can be done to change the flows.

For any country, these ideas are important because it will take a lot of change in one direction to alter what we see and perceive as the situation in the country. People often look at developed countries and see how their accumulation of wealth has left them with assets that won’t decline in a hurry. By contrast, less-developed countries appear less well-endowed and their assets often seem in a precarious position.

For example, while the average age of cars the USA’s is just over 10 years, Cuba’s stock of motor cars is about 60 years (dating from the 1950s) because it had to endure an US trade embargo and restrictions on personal ownership of cars. With the lifting of the embargo, scope is now greater for new cars to be imported, but there’s still the issue of whether many Cubans can afford to buy new cars. So, seeing any major change in the ‘antique’ look on Cuban roads is unlikely to happen fast.

For Jamaica to make it from here (where some things seem alright, but many things are not alright by any stretch of the imagination) to there (where most things are alright, and some things absolutely unparalleled, and few things seem not alright), means dealing with the huge balance of ‘bad behaviour’ that manifests itself in many spheres of ordinary life, and subjecting the country to an enormous flow of ‘good’ behaviour.

We can scan the whole terrain of Jamaican activity and identify where and what those bad behaviours are, and what good behaviours we would like to see in their place. So, a classic example is the behaviour of licensed taxi and minibus drivers, who seem to have laws unto themselves and use the roads in near-total disregard of the rights of others on the roads. So, society has to withstand dangerous maneuvering, speeding, overloading, abusive and aggressive behaviour. This is made more appalling to me because their passengers seems to tolerate (and in some cases, encourage) such behaviour. So, bad behaviour is tolerated by most motorists and by fare-paying passengers, so get bigger validation. The police do a poor job of implementing road regulations and dealing with infractions by this group of motorists, which gives further validation. So, the bad drivers have little incentive to change. The costs of their behaviour are borne by the bulk of society and they profit to the extent that passengers readily run to them for transport instead of shunning them. The solutions to these problems cannot come from amnesties on road fines or occasional displays of ‘zero tolerance’. Like pulling off the heads of dandelions, the weeds soon reappear because the roots have been left untouched.

It is not possible to list here all of the misdeeds that make up daily life in Jamaica, and if I tried, anything I missed could be seen as lack of appreciation on my part or lack of observations. So, run through your own list of the things that peeve. The principle is the same. But, let me add a few more that many will know and wonder if they will ever change.

Informal settlements. The country is littered with housing that has been erected by people who decided that they wanted to live somewhere but did not go through any formal processes to obtain land and/or erect housing. Consequently, the country is well-known for the many ‘zinc fence’ communities, made up of ramshackle structures initially of wood but now including some that are made of breeze blocks. While such communities have solved a housing problem for those who chose to that route, they fall short of what can make communities work well. Roads and pathways have been created that may lead in and out, but may not be able to deal with even the simplest of vehicles: these are warrens made for foot traffic, mainly. They can support easily modern motorized service vehicles to deal with garbage and emergencies. They do not have features that make it easy to trace inhabitants, eg road names and house numbers. Consequently, many see such communities as natural breeding grounds for those who wish to be less visible, especially if they are involved in illegal activities. But, they are places just waiting for a disaster to happen. Lacking planned water supplies, sanitary provisions, or electricity, people can survive but tend to be worse-served than if the communities had been planned. By being unplanned, such communities also put an unanticipated burden on provisions that had been planned. In other words, they overstretched what would otherwise be adequate services and this tends to make life worse for a greater group of people. The solution to this problem is not with piecemeal measures. The quality of life and housing in such communities has been well-set over decades and wont change with some community programmes or installing stone walls instead of zinc fencing.

Poor quality roads. Pot-holed streets are as much a signature of Jamaica as are its zinc fence communities. Whether the deterioration of the roads reflects poor design, poor construction, overuse, the unanticipated results of extreme weather, or some combination of these factors, the result of a road structure where driving like a slalom skier is more the norm than the exception. Such thoroughfares are dangerous in general. When they occur in areas where travel is already risky, say in hilly or mountainous areas, it’s a wonder that more accidents don’t happen. No sooner are such roads repaired than they appear to start to fall apart. That leads many to wonder who has been gaining at the expense of society by authorizing and implementing such inadequate constructions. The solution to this problem cannot be through more patch-and-mend repairs; roads deteriorate faster than they are being repaired.

The physical differences in the examples I have cited mean solutions will have to be different in kind, but they have a commonality in that incentives have to change to make people want to do things differently.

  • Taxi and minibus drivers and owners need to suffer greater costs for their disregard of road rules and the needs of other users. Whether these are fines, lost licenses, seized vehicles, prison terms, or other forms of punishment, something that shifts greatly the cost-benefit calculation for them is needed.
  • Informal settlements need to be reorganized so that they become integrated with the general housing and settlement conditions accepted by the majority of the country. They need to be more formal, for the benefit of the greater society. The benefits that may be enjoyed by living without costs that others have to bear have to go. Costs borne by society as a whole have to be shared better by those who live in such communities. Some will say that nothing short of wholesale clearance and resettlement can offer a solution. Maybe, but we should know how difficult such schemes have been when tried (in whatever circumstances, eg in British slum areas) in other countries. The communities have a social cohesion that will be broken and that has to be managed and monitored carefully. Gradually changing such communities may do little to alter fundamentally the problems that exist.
  • New road designs and better construction may stop the current frequent process of build-collapse-rebuild-collapse-rebuild… But, the problems may lie less in physical construction than in administrative weaknesses, ie poor management is the real culprit. So, even if concrete roads were in principle likely to give Jamaica much better road surfaces, those who manage the process of contracts and monitoring them may be so involved in a series of corrupt practices that even these roads will be seen as inadequate.

Each of these problems show things about Jamaica that are pervasive and seemingly hard to change without a series of massive or cataclysmic changes. None can be swept away with the flick of a finger. Each requires major physical changes and changes in how people perceive what they are entitled to do. We also have to separate the problems.

Cries of ‘foul’ by those drivers who claim that their opportunities for making a livelihood are being curtailed need to be set against the daily mayhem their behaviour creates; the wins can’t all be theirs.

We need to make informal settlers understand that moving to areas that have insufficient housing does not entitle anyone to just construct fixed structures to solve that problem. (The problem in some other countries manifests itself with people moving into mobile homes and setting up ‘camps’. Camps can be moved without people losing their homes, and sometimes are, shifting the problems from locality to locality.) Cries about ‘homelessness’ that may arise if such areas are removed need to be set against the anarchic situation that has been allowed to exist.

Our road construction problems aren’t solved for most by new highways built (mainly by foreign companies) to higher standards and under processes that seem to avoid certain malpractices. To replace all the bad roads with roads having guaranteed longer durability would impose an enormous cost and inconvenience on many travellers, but would seem worthwhile if it stopped or reduced substantially the constant repairs that seem to be the current norm. Is society ready for this process and trusting of those who will set it in train?

If, by some miracle, it were possible to get every Jamaican to commit to behaving correctly from this time forward then our problems would be solved. We would stop hoping that people would behave. But, that miracle is unlikely to happen. So, the best we can hope for is that most people decide to act in this correct way, and those who are misbehaving decide to do no more misbehaving. But, even that is a big hope. What is more likely is that many Jamaicans will behave and try to weather the storm of the many Jamaicans who see continued misbehaving as what they spend their time doing. That’s where we’ve been for a long time and it wears down those who are on the good side, and makes it harder to see or believe that the bad side is not taking over and swamping the good.

We have accepted that it’s unlikely that some moral and civic wave will wash over the country so that those who misbehave will see the errors of their ways, repent, and change.

One of our grave problems is that many people have no experience of life being lived differently and of life being such that hustling and trying to beat down each other is not the only way. Our social landscape is not filled with enough bright lights who can say they shine because they did it only the right way. That’s sad because it means that people who could have succeeded by merit have to acknowledge that they got help from ‘connections’. So, if even those most likely to succeed don’t trust merit alone to move them ahead, what hope is there that those at the other end–ie most likely to fail–would choose to do otherwise?

We could offer the case of Jamaicans who migrated and how they have managed to succeed in countries that lay greater stake on orderliness and merit, and appear to deal more stringently with corruption, but again our landscape would show that such successes are few amongst the first generation (products of Jamaica), and those of later generations are really products of their new home, so have essentially been socialized differently.

Dealing with many of Jamaica’s problems now seem daunting to many people, because the problems seem so widespread and the strong impression is that the bad are quickly out-fighting the good. So, even if say 3/4 of the island’s nearly 3 million people are good citizens, the impact of the remaining 1/4 is so significant as to outweigh them. Put simply, the significant minority is beating hands-down the majority. People feel under siege from several fronts, and that creates levels of stress that have reached intolerable levels for many. Any one of these stressors could be a trigger for an explosive reaction.

But, how ready is Jamaica and its policy makers to tackle any or all of these problems? Part of the answer rests on the extent to which policy makers’ hands are ‘clean’, ie to what extent are they direct or indirect beneficiaries of the bad behaviour?

We know that to be part of the problem with public service vehicles, where members of the security forces are known to be owners and operators of taxis and minibuses, which creates clear conflicts of interest when it comes to implementing road regulations.

We know that informal settlements can be and are pockets of political support which would be diluted or lost completely if the communities were disrupted.

We know road contractors have been favoured by political connections but cannot determine if that also involve unwarranted financial or other gains by public officials. Rigorous policies on asset declarations would go someway to seeing if that were the case.

So, we have to do some serious self-examination. If a major part of the problem comes from the convoluted intertwining of political favour and implied misappropriation of public funds then its unlikely to solve itself.Our country is driven by partisan politics and it would be too risky for one party to cede control in the name of ‘levelling the playing field’ for the nation as a whole, versus the party.

If political favouritism isn’t the root of the problem, then does that imply we are a country that love to inflict pain on itself?

***************

I’ve not addressed specifically the problem of violent crime here. My own feeling is that it manifests features that are much like those in the three examples I cited: an official tolerance for certain misbehaviour that has then grown to a level that has more momentum that can be addressed by ‘simple’ policy changes. Instead, certain people have to be forced to accept costs and recognize losses. That politicians (and by implication, public officials) are involved in proven–at the very least in the creation of the ‘monster’ that now roams the land. To what extent are they still involved? Only they can say. Is the country prepared to look squarely into the eyes of this elephant in the room? Measures like Zones of Special Operations (ZOSOs) cannot do much as they affect little, if at all, the culture that says crime pays. Our low rates of capture, clear-up and conviction are testimony to a swathe of failed policing and justice practices, plus a society more inclined to keep silent about what they know than give up criminals.

Omar, what have you done? Joined-up government in action and Jamaica fare well?

Uuc
He announced yesterday that fares for the urban bus company, JUTC, will increase from next Sunday. They will rise 20 percent for adults, 50 percent for children and the disabled, and 200 percent for senior citizens (over 60). The rise for seniors is penal, even though it is in line with legal provisions that their fares be half the adult fare. Most of these citizens will be on severely restricted incomes, either as pensioners or as dependents with limited financial independence. They have suffered more economic mismanagement than the other groups so can feel the pain even more. They have endured the Independence years.

Today’s Gleaner has a good piece focused on the plight of the elderly in dealing with the increase. It also outlines JUTC’s financial plight. It’s loss-making. Spanking new buses, which now each bring in less revenue than before. Oops!

But, the transport minister has only attacked one side of its budget, the revenues. Oddly, that is reminiscent of what we see the current finance minister doing by levying new taxes and raising existing tax rates. The cost or expenditure side seems to come as an afterthought or done so feebly as to not warrant mention. For the public sector as a whole that may be a problem, but what of a corporation that has been deemed by the auditor general as having serious inefficiencies? We heard about frauds, inept maintenance processes, etc.

There’s something very Jamaican about this approach, having more than a little of the harsh beating that people like to think is both good for the body and the soul. Everywhere you look, makka jook you. In a week when another politician of the minister’s party has tried to help us understand what it is to be Jamaican, and pleasing to God, I shudder to think what other cultural education about Jamaicanness the government has in store. If you can’t hear, you must feel. Our proverbs are replete with good advice. We may be pleading to God, shortly.

No Jamaican who uses JUTC buses can afford the increases without making enormous sacrifices. Civil servants’ previous wage increases won’t cover them, and had been already eaten up by last year’s 20+ percent fare rises. Private sector workers have as tight if not tighter wage controls to suffer. We know the exchange rate slide has squeezed financial pips till they popped. School children may have some independent income, but are normally funded by their parents, so slug working people again. The senior citizens won’t have pensions increases even one-tenth of the increase. So, what, dear Omar, will they do? Grin and bear it? The PM’s love for the poor is shown by this? Those who joke that it means making more poor people are surely smiling. Going to the supermarket and feeling the people’s pain? Better get on a bus, too.

Opposition leader, Andrew Holness, wants to protest the fare increases. even if he alone stands in Half Way Tree to do it. My feeling is he won’t be alone. He can get a lot of political mileage from the issue, against a party who famously protested similar increases just a few years ago. No amount of pleading to ‘fellow Jamaycons’ or ‘my people’ should work. The question is, ‘Will it matter?’

Jamaicans are great talkers and huffers and puffers, and have been known to protest in numbers recently for big issues that threaten their daily existence such as…the ‘gay agenda’. As most of you know, the cost of living has skyrocketed since gay rights advocates have been given more publicity.

The IMF review team has been on the island over the past week doing its latest assessment of how the Rock has been doing as a hard place. The timing of the fare increase is, therefore, no surprise. Not that it’s IMF policy to raise costs, but the unbalanced budget still needs to be less unbalanced. First, get the best bang for the Jamaican buck just when many children will restart school. (Let’s wait for stories of children going to school but with no money for lunch.) Second, get some IMF buy-in to another measure to reduce the public deficit. Growth appears to be showing itself as the fourth consecutive quarter of positive GDP numbers was just issued. But, if it’s one percent, it’s a mosquito bite on the butt of an elephant. What is that itch?

I did not hear the minister’s announcement, but heard that the words ‘first world service’ and ‘JUTC’ were used in the same sentence.

IMG_1429.JPG Jamaica doesn’t have it. I read passengers being urged to get their Smartcards, through which payments can be made from September 1, with promised extra benefits. Hasn’t this been ‘on the cards’ for years? Delay? Cho! Listen, if the benefits are not extra credits on phone calls, forget it. First world transport services have schedules. Let me just check the one at this bus stop… Cho! Someone must have taken it. Let me check the JUTC website. Oh, my, the last fare increase was in 2010…. The other increases must be uploading….

First world services (FSS) include clear and timely announcements of service changes. What can I say? With that website trapped in time? In the Jamaican scheme of things, four days notice at a press conference is plenty. Ah so we dweet! First world services come with buses that do not have passengers crammed onto the drivers’ lap. I know it’s not true for every bus, but I see it enough on Mandela Highway in the morning commute. First world services do not have buses bursting into flames. How would you like your trip, well done or medium? Let me suggest no use of FSS with JUTC.

Many pieces of Jamaica are disjointed. I hear the PM talk about ‘joined-up government’, but have no idea what it means. Maybe, it’s more buzz than substance.

IMG_1430-1.JPGThis government has made life difficult for itself by failing to bring the population along with its policies. Its record of consultation is poor and it doesn’t seem to learn that this is damaging on many fronts. It smacks of fear…rejection is likely when it comes to harsh decisions, and each attempt to impose policies without consultation erodes credibility.

I think the groundswell of opposition will be strong against this measure and it’s too late for sorry.

The problem of Jamaica’s urban public transport. Signs of a caring government?

This morning, I was headed toward Spanish Town. At about 7am, I was hailed by a man who recognised my car and wanted a ride to the place I was headed. I stopped and let him in. I asked him how long it took him to get from Spanish Town to where we met. He said he’d left home at about 5.30am. He explained that buses were hard to get because during the early morning rush hours toward Kingston, the buses are often full and getting a spot is hard. I could relate to that.

Crowded bus transports in Kingston
Crowded bus transport in Kingston

As I had been heading west, I had noticed–not for the first time–that the JUTC buses headed east into town were jammed pack. All I could see was buses with people standing, even pressed against the front windscreen. As I was about to stop for the passenger, I noticed a large JUTC bus and a smaller minibus in new JUTC colours stop to pick up some of the 30-40 people waiting at the junction of the Mandela Highway where I turned toward Caymanas Golf Course.

Once again, it’s useful to watch carefully what Jamaicans do. I’m a lucky citizen who does not need to use public transport in Jamaica to meet my basic needs. I had to do it in London and Washington DC, and I have never seen such travel conditions on a regular basis without people really taking a very vocal and physically unfriendly stance. Maybe, I have missed it, but when was the last time we heard about, read, or saw bus riders in open protest against bus operators? That is a completely open question.

I visualised one of these over-filled buses crashing and what the consequences would be. We know that JUTC has some hefty claims facing it from previous accidents.

JUTC bus on fire
JUTC bus on fire

We know that a spate of bus fires occurred last year. We know that people have made sport of throwing stones at JUTC buses, and just a few days ago firing shots. This is carnage waiting to happen. Is that the sign of a government that is really caring for its people. Words and deeds need to match.

It takes an amazing amount of tolerance to endure the kind of conditions I saw today and have seen often on Jamaican roads. I saw it in Conakry, Guinea, in west Africa.

Conakry traffic chaos
Conakry traffic chaos

That city was generally in total chaos during morning and afternoon rush hours, and even worse when the summer rains occurred. Bus riders in such situations are often crammed into small minibuses or taxis for maybe two or more hours every work day.

But, Guinea is one of the world’s poorest countries and they have been on the verge of bankruptcy for many years, and have suffered several coups during the past few years, and has real problems providing water and electricity to its population. Yes, there is a similarity, but that’s a convenient fact. Jamaica is a far better organized and functioning country, Yet, we have managed to screw a large part of what we deem to be our assets–workers and school children. Do we believe we are doing our best by our people?

Moving around rural areas and from those areas to and from Kingston remains another challenge. Makka juk everywhere fi true.

The good, the bad, and the ugly (April 13, 2014)–The Thinking Jamaican Edition

Jamaica has some very sharp-witted people. We also have an inordinate number of those termed ‘not the brightest button on the jacket’. Some of our thinking is heavily constrained by certain moral and religious positions that make sense to some but little or no sense to others. We also have a bunch of people who, rather than fess up and acknowledge that they have done something really silly, will sit there and bluster and bluster and wait for the house to be blown over. The saddest part of that is it’s so awfully obvious. Add to it a bit of pomposity and you’ve got yourself the makings of a great interchange. Anyway, let’s have at it.

Good

I will single out JUTC (Jamaica Urban Transport Company) for a series of moves trying to make its segment of the public bus transport market a saner place. Most welcome were the quick measures to stop people throwing stones at buses. The series of attacks on JUTC buses is suspected to be by people thought to be opposed to the reformed sub-franchise bus system introduced by the JUTC on April 1, 2014. JUTC recorded 18 other incidents over two days which left damage estimated at J$2.5 million to a number of the company’s buses. The police have arrested a number of people in connection with the attacks. However, the Joint Coalition of Transport Operators has sought to distance itself from the series of attacks.

The new system for sub-franchise operators took effect on April 1. Under the reformed system sub-franchisees are now required to abide by a new set of regulations which include painting their buses yellow, wear uniforms with clearly displayed identification cards and have route numbers and franchise stickers displayed on the back and front of their vehicles. Order! Accountability! They are also required to pay a fee. According to the operating groups, the sub-franchise fees in some cases have increased from J$280,000 to $756,000. They have been warned that licences will be revoked if the requirements are not adhered to.

JUTC is also going to get heavier with its existing ban on preaching/evangelising on its buses.

It takes all sorts...
It takes all sorts…

It may make for a colourful journey (though I should say that as I’ve not had to deal with it, though recall experiences on the train that used to run across the island, and know it from similar activities in other cities). Jamaica does not have the lock on that. The logic of some pastors/evangelists is that they must spread the word of the Lord wherever and whenever they can. Some of them say we must listen or remove ourselves.

An already tense atmosphere in the process of travelling by bus may get more tense.

For Jamaicans, problems are often obvious and speak for themselves
For Jamaicans, problems are often obvious and speak for themselves

Bad

Yesterday morning, I wrote about the strange way that Jamaicans think. I headed out to spend the day at the National Stadium complex, where my daughter was swimming in the Mayberry Investments Prep/Primary Schools Swim Meet. I go the complex each Thursday for my daughter’s swim training; I occasionally go there at the weekends for swim meets or sometimes for track and field events. A few things have struck me about the management of the complex, which is the responsibility of Independence Park Ltd, a government agency under the Office of the Prime Minister. IPL’s mission is ‘to manage the entities under its control as viable facilities ensuring that they are maintained at “world class” standards‘. I imagine that most patrons going to the complex don’t know that mission. I wont speak about the other places managed by IPL. But ‘world class standards’ are eluding them, if we’re talking about high standards.

On the many occasions that I have visited the complex over the past nine months, a few things have struck me.

The flow of people is poorly managed: Parking is provided at the complex, and available in three main areas, but I have never seen a sign indicating the parking areas. In somewhat typical Jamaican fashion, it seems that the notion is that if you’ve been before you’ll know where to go. Except that one area is ‘to the back’ of the Stadium near a community called ‘Nannyville’. Parking is for a fee, usually. I have never seen a posted fee structure. Instead, some ‘security personnel’ man the gates and inform parkers of the tariff. That’s a lot of interaction for each car, which tends to make things slower. It also invites negotiation of various forms: people who think they don’t have to pay (eg those in diplomatic vehicles); those who don’t want to pay; those who will pay but want something else, whether on offer or not. At least one guard spends a lot of time telling people that they cannot enter by the gate marked ‘Main Entrance’, to which many drivers flock, naturally.

When multiple events are being staged, such as yesterday with a major all-day swim meet and a major track event, the parking areas are designated for each event, except no one has bothered to make a sign to indicate that. Look, Jamaicans love to put up sign, and even in our sometimes bad English, it would be easy to write ‘UTech Classic Meet parking here’ or ‘Swim Meet parking via Nannyville entrance’. The result? Minor chaos yesterday morning–that, well before the track meet started at 4pm. People got angry as they found they had to turn away from entering near the main gates, or the front of the stadium, and circle around to Nannyville. Lines were forming at the front and the manoeuvering was getting harder as cars started to “bump up against each other” as one angry woman retold the tale. Probably, made worse because many visitors are not regulars at the complex. The guards seemed to lack a few basics in courtesy (and probably were met with similar by some), and “did not have any manners”, as the lady also retold. Lines to enter via Nannyville started to stretch back a long way: the gate had one guard, who in the absence of a sign that said anything other than ‘No entry’ on one side (closed) was having to handle each driver who had a simple query, “Where do I park?” I got there early and parked easily, but judging by announcements at the pool area for drivers to come to move their cars, which were blocking others, things got a bit tight.

I suggest that IPL review how a few excellent stadiums manage the people and car flows. I won’t tout the US, necessarily, but it’s close and has lots of venues of similar size and layout, albeit in a society that is much more car-oriented.

I don’t know how IPL interacts with other agencies and, therefore, which of these problems come from that interaction not working well. But, if that is part of the problem, I’d hope that the OPM would be able to knock heads together and get the matters sorted out. Funnily, for all the talk about Jamaicans and aggressiveness, there’s an amazingly high level of tolerance for the kind of nonsense that exists at the Stadium complex. That may be part of the problem: we know and accept “that’s how we do it”.

Ugly

Pride of place has to go to Northern Caribbean University (NCU, for its banning of a student for her part in a cheerleading routine that ‘deviated’ from what was approved (though NCU never vetted the whole routine so it’s not clear what deviation there was from something incomplete–head shaking already). For the record, the team was disqualified and then the summons process began. The proximate problem was that the female student, playing the part of a male groom on top of a wedding cake-simulated pyramid, apparently kissed the hand of the female ‘bride’. She was called to a meeting (I simplify the bureaucratic language), during which she was asked some questions about her personal life (for reasons NCU have deemed no one need know) and handed a two-week suspension from NCU; to this was added a two-year ban from all extra-curricular activities at NCU as a ‘probationary’ measure. Well, some lawyers have had a field day. NCU is a private Seventh Day Adventist institution, but accredited by the University of the West Indies, so has to be consistent with UWI’s overall philosophy, not a law totally unto itself. NCU has also not been as open and clear as it should be. We heard that the student did not show enough ‘remorse’ and that weighed on the punishment. She also attended the meeting with a tongue piercing and without her student ID. Good grief! You’d think someone would either have told her to go get the ID, or given her a ‘temporary pass’. Likewise, if the tongue thingy was so offensive, she could have been told to go to the washroom and remove it before the meeting began in earnest. Too simple? I guess, if you are after pound of flesh.

Many have talked about ‘natural justice’ and punishment fitting the ‘crime’. NCU have not explained why they punished just one of the cheerleading team, and the girl who was on the top, not her supporters. This was not a solo performance, after all. NCU said that another student called to the meeting did not attend. She has not been ‘found’ and hauled before the ‘bailiffs’. They said, when pressed during a television discussion, that investigation are ‘ongoing’, except that no one has been scheduled to any more meetings. All of this coming over a month after the incident. The other students may be ‘in hiding?’, or have run home? NCU surely know who they are. The performance has now featured in videos circulating on YouTube. (Some wags have said the ban should have been for the performance being long and boring.)

People are talking about rules and abiding by them. NCU haven’t actually said what rules were broken, but give the impression that we all know and agree that what happened was terrible (presumably alluding to same-sex relations) and needed to have a student put out of circulation for the rest of her university life, somehow on a probation that is not for review. Sha-Shana James, the student, said on CVM TV that she has no intention of returning to NCU. I wonder why? The school seems to have been a bit knee-jerky and got itself into a least one pickle after another. Take a look at the video of the routine. If the university is about ‘ethos’ etc, you have to wonder why they are getting students to perform cheerleading routines, and ones that start with hip-swinging routines. In this case, they seem to want their (wedding) cake and eat it, too. The amount of onscreen dancing by Charles Evans, who was speaking for NCU on CVM the other night was a little disquieting. NCU has seen only one culprit and have not really sought anyone else. That’s discrimination and they know it and seem to want to play it as something else. But, given that NCU upset some students late last year with  a new policy that makes the absence from the twice weekly chapel assembly punishable by expulsion from the institution, we have to understand that the place is strict. But, strictness and sense are not substitutes. The routine was a depiction, not real. The rationale that a man was too heavy to play the role himself seems reasonable. The troupe did not suddenly collapse in disgust as the final move was played out, suggesting at least tacit approval by all in the troupe. Anyway, enough head shaking.

If NCU has a problem with student’s sexual orientation, then be upfront about that and put it on the table. In that sense, the ‘performance’ is irrelevant. If it’s the performance that is a problem, then deal with the performers in a way that makes sense. Look, I for one wont judge NCU for being consistent in applying its rules, but don’t do this cherry picking and dissembling.

Read Orville Taylor’s take on the incidents. Read also Carolyn Cooper’s accounts of the incidents.

JUTC and road rage in Jamaica

Let me declare that I started my working life as a transport economist, working alongside the National Bus Company in the UK.

I need to get a certain frustration out of my system. I really do not like what the Jamaican Urban Transport Corporation (JUTC) is doing. This public bus company is effectively holding other motorists to ransom. Let me explain. Last November, JUTC was given permission, for a three-month trial, to have a lane of Mandela Highway (a major four-lane thoroughfare running east-west, to the west of Kingston) dedicated to its buses. Other bus operators were not allowed to use this ‘bus lane’ (more correctly called ‘JUTC lane’, therefore). At the time, many motorists were angry and upset. However, little regard was given to their protests, and the ‘trial period’ was extended for three more months, from February through April 2014. Authorization was given by the Ministry of Transport Works and Housing.

The management of JUTC was ecstatic about this trial. Its Managing Director, Colin Campbell stated the following:

  • “The JUTC is pleased to report that the temporary JUTC Bus Lane has been a success. It is of note that Spanish Town has now been ranked the highest revenue earner of the three depots.”
  • With the introduction of the bus lane on November 1, 2013, the JUTC transported 718,610 passengers compared with 686, 483 in October 2013.
  • The passenger load dropped in December because of the school break but it did not affect revenue intake which showed an improvement over November.
  • JUTC projected that 747,000 passengers will be moved in January 2014.
  • Revenue earned during the three-month trial period of the Mandela Highway Bus Lane showed an increase of J$1 million in November over October, $1 million in December over November and is projected to show an increase also of approximately $1 million in January 2014 over the previous month.
  • The ease of traffic congestion created by the bus lane also saw the JUTC saving on fuel consumption by five percent.

These are all wonderful developments for JUTC, which like many public bus companies worldwide, was struggling to get into and stay in the black.

image
The victors: JUTC buses running freely, without congestion

To accommodate the bus lane, the westbound dual carriageway has been converted to two-way traffic from Caymanas Bay to Plantation Heights between 6:00 am and 8:00 am on weekdays.

Kingston already has some bus lanes, notably on the same east-west corridor, closer to the city along Washington Boulevard.

JUTC gets support from the public purse. Now, it is getting support in the form of free space for its operations.

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The vanquished: motorists and passengers heading east, into Kingston, and those heading west, out of Kingston

However, its self-congratulatory back-slapping misses some very salient facts. All of its success from the trial has come at the expense of other road users.

Those in cars or minibuses, heading east into Kingston are still in congested traffic. Logically, private minibuses could have access to the special lanes, and ease the journey of many passengers. Few would argue that the car drivers be given the same privileges–although in many places, if private cars are carrying 2 or more passengers, they get some privileged access to roads.

Those heading west out of Kingston–normally an easy journey against the prevailing flow of traffic–are now in congestion during much of the ‘two -hour’ window of the bus lane.

JUTC’s savings in petrol consumption is being offset by additional consumption by other motorists, especially those heading west.

I would have been very impressed if JUTC’s MD had added these points into his definition of ‘success’. Better still, a full cost-benefit analysis of the trial should have been made and presented to the public.

But, the scheme has some other pernicious aspects. I don’t usually drive on the stretch of road, but have had to over recent weeks, and usually between 6.30-8am. Here’s what I have noticed.

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Ending of a day’s lane restrictions: police staff vehicle at around 8.15am, February 27

The lane restrictions do not end at 8am. In fact, they tend to stay in place until around 8.15. Not much you may say. However, that extra period offers JUTC some more free time and space. It also extends the congestion for those headed west. The lane restriction is extended to allow for the dismantling of the restriction–removing cones, picking up personnel and police who are there to ensure it works smoothly.

Why does this scheme operate this way? Apparently, because government agencies can exert such power to do what they want, despite protests and inconvenience to other citizens.

Whether the rest of the motorists are national tax payers, or payers of road licence fees, or fare-paying passengers, or payers of taxi operator licences, they have some rights and say in the matter. They should not be disregarded.

Clearly, JUTC does not want to help its competition. However, the Ministry should be looking at the larger picture and the total ‘costs’ and ‘benefits’. The Minister is a very good economist, and he should understand these things.

Let me be an optimist and think that the Minister and the MD of JUTC will at least reflect on the other side of the ‘balance sheet’ of this trial, and at least stop crowing about its success if only looking at benefits to JUTC. Let me also hope that if the trial were to extended further or even put into permanent operation, consideration be given to letting private bus operators use the lanes (if carrying passengers).

Let me not be cynical or dismissive and think that the public agencies will not give a hoot. However, if they take that approach, perhaps other road users will have to hoot, too. Blaring horns could be a very stirring rallying sound for those who are not being represented by those whom they chose as representatives and have forgotten what public service really means.

Do we have to tear it down and start again?

I spent part of the weekend pondering a wholly different Jamaica. It looked like Zürich or Geneva or another western European city, that has a reputation for style and grace. Everything was squeaky clean and orderly. Noise was limited. People walked along in a carefree manner. It did not seem like Jamaica. But, that reaction reflect what I’m accustomed to see. We are what we live.geneva-oldtown_1527401c

As far as most tourists are concerned, what makes their visits to the Caribbean fun and interesting and worth the money spent is that they go to places where things are not like home. People are not so ‘buttoned down’; life is lived at a slower pace; things are done with a lot of informality. “Relax, man. Chill, Winston.” Sunshine, nice, spicy food, strong drinks, exotic fruit and vegetable, all go into making this somewhere that visitors feel that they are somewhere very different. Locals love most of these things too, after all, they should be part of our lives. The attitudes and manners of the people also go into the mix. But, are the things that make Jamaica Jamaica things that have to change to make Jamaica a better Jamaica?

When I drive to church on Sunday mornings, it’s always a revelation to see Half Way Tree (HWT), that otherwise bustling hub of commercial activity in Kingston, virtually empty and quiet. Regular businesses fill the various plazas that line the main thoroughfare. But, we know that much of the buzz in HWT and in many places in Jamaica comes from the vendors and informal selling and buying that people take for granted. Jamaica is not unlike many developing countries in that informal activities are a very important part of every day life. It may take on the image that things are haphazard and chaotic. But, it’s often not that way at all. In many places, vendors have their pitches, which they occupy daily and are lothe to give up. They are prime positions: time and experience have shown sellers that they have located at a great place to meet and satisfy buyers. You don’t see vendors on every corner for some simple reasons–not all corners are made equal. You also see vendors outside designated vending areas for a similar reason: buyers can be found more easily by being elsewhere, even just outside such areas or the official markets.

One of the tricky developments that’s going on at the moment in Jamaica is the ‘cleaning up’ of business areas. It’s happening in Kingston, where the municipal authorities are trying register and license handcart operators (for a fee) and move vendors to designated places. It’s been tried before and did not work, or only for a short time. At coastal resorts in Montego Bay and Negril, a boisterous campaign has been waged against unlicensed jet ski operators, albeit that new licences have not been issued for decades even though the volume of tourists has increased greatly.

market_w304These changes wont be easy, not least because they are uprooting practices that have gone on for years. They may involve a lot of hurt feelings and tough talking and arrests before it happens fully, if indeed it does. We know all the cries that will come about the ‘small man’ and how it’s hard to get a job, and how any little piece of entrepreneurship gets stifled by ‘big people’. Doing things within formal structures usually cost more, and that may well be the difference in terms of staying viable. But, let’s see.

Jamaican taxi and minibus drivers often encapsulate many aspects of the ‘just do it’ culture that is very evident in Jamaica. 37281taxi_hike Nike should really have thought to set up a factory here: we could have been as icon as their motto. Driving like madmen sometimes, putting passengers and other road users at real risk is inappropriate, and most people understand that. But, then they quieten down when they think of how they manage to get around, especially in rural areas, where there is no public transport system, and they think what lucky people they are to have the options. Minibuses competing illegally on routes with public buses eats into the public revenues, sure. But, what Jamaican taxi and minibus drivers are guilty of is not that different from what happens or happened in many well-ordered places. In the UK, for instance, the wars between competing private bus operators were legendary, into the 1930s, when regulation was introduced, and then most small operators went out of business. In San Francisco, there is a battle raging as large businesses and organizations put on free shuttle buses for employees, but also for other riders: the buses often use spaces designated for municipal buses. Google, Apple, etc. are seen as leaders in so-called ‘disruptive technologies’, but they are also disrupting other social order. But, right now, they may be a godsend as BART train drivers go on strike. Complicated.

Jamaica’s seeming disorder on many occasions is not chaos in action. Things have developed in a way that meets many people’s needs. It’s just that things are done differently. When you go to the bank or post office, people stand in line, waiting their turns patiently after taking their numbered ticket or aware of who was in front. When you are at the cinema, people await the intermission, then go for their snack refills or use the restrooms, or check phone messages. They don’t run riot out of boredom. They leave in an slow, deliberate manner. When people are dealing with vendors you rarely see a melee for items, often because there are many sellers or the flow of buyers is slow. I’ve seen worse behaviour at a yard sale in Virginia and for sure at sales in London or New York.

Tidiness may be driving some administrators to move sellers and try to ensure that only those legally endorsed have rights to operate. It may be easier to regulate and then deal with criminals who use the current situation as a cover. But, this push for a certain ‘order’ will impose a cost and it’s not trivial.