Smart Public Transportation in New Providence – Why We Should Do It

What is smart transportation?

 As smart transportation technology continues to progress, many countries are now rethinking the way that public transportation is carried out in their countries. “Smart transportation technology” is simply the use of things like internet, electronic devices and even AI to provide smarter, faster and safer travel between two points within the system.

As such countries like The Bahamas with its current public transportation system modeled in 1994, are seeing these systems becoming more and more outdated with leaner and more economic methods becoming more popular.

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 Why should we do it?

Increasing tourism numbers, urbanization and other factors have made the growing capital city of Nassau in need of a remodeling of the current public transportation system. This comes at a crucial time, as with one of the lowest production rates in The Caribbean, the need for economic and environmentally feasible public transportation is essential to the country’s economic and social growth.

 Here are some of the things that make this necessary:

o  According to the 2010 census, the island of New Providence houses just under ¾ (248,000) of the total population of The Bahamas. However this is does not account for urbanization and illegal immigration throughout the decade. The island’s residential zone is largely made of single-family homes that have continued to spread out from the traditional city center of Downtown.

 Consider then that there is an estimated 15.1 births per 1000 people along with an immigration crisis leaving some to estimate that there is close to half a million people living on the island currently, more than double the inhabitants of the island in the mid-90’s when the current model was introduced.

o  Most Bahamians have to rely on their own private transportation to carry them through daily life. The availability to import cheap, used Japanese cars has resulted in nearly 25,000 cars being imported into the island a year creating massive road congestion. In 2016, there were more than 200,000 registered vehicles in the entire country meaning that by the end of 2020 The Bahamas may have more than 300,000 registered vehicles, a 50% increase in vehicles in just 4 years.

o  2019 was a historic year for Bahamian tourism, with 7 million tourism arrivals, the highest in the nations history. More than ever, authentic tourist attractions are moving away from the city centre. There is a greater demand by local tourism suppliers for improved public transportation efficiency. This is also a goal for the Ministry of Tourism, who wish to see air & cruise visitors get away from the foreign-owned, commercialized city center and partake in more locally owned tourism products and services.

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 The Current Situation

 It’s worth noting that the current state of “public transportation” on New Providence is really a hybrid of both public and private sectors. The government sets structured routes for a “public scheduled jitney service” to follow. However, the government doesn’t own any of the buses in this system, rather it gives out licensees to private parties that then buy and operate the buses.

As it currently stands, there are 42 bus routes on New Providence designed to service the different communities on the island and about 280 bus licenses given to private operators. With a maximum capacity of around 26 seats in most jitneys this means that the total capacity for movement at any given time is around 7,280 persons or 2.9% of the total population of New Providence. However, this does not take into account the licenses that are not being used nor the buses that are out of service.

Just about every government has indicated that they’d like to introduce a unified bussing system, but all have had problems getting this initiative off the ground. Despite the Cabinet giving approval for the most recent 600,000 dollars unification plan, presumably issues with organization as well as the global pandemic seem to have halted progress.

Additionally, many of the bus drivers themselves remain unconvinced that the proposal will address the real problems within public transportation. The bus drivers union president has cited the dangers of theft with the current pay-as-you-exit system, along with changes to bus routes as issues to be addressed. Along with this, what are some of the other problems?

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The problems

 As far as the BII or Bahamian Innovation Index which ranks the level of innovation in Bahamian institutions, there hasn’t been much innovation in the sector at all. The entire process is unelectronic and unorganized, patrons are usually picked up at any point along the roads and pay in cash when they exit the bus. The bus system isn’t really designed to get persons from point A to B but rather to get persons from point A to downtown, the city center where just about all bus routes converge. This causes huge traffic in the area but also forces people to change buses multiple times in a system where there is no unified ticketing system.

As there is no unification in the system, little to no data regarding passenger behavior is taken into account by the government which has limited the data driven improvements made in the last 30 years. Along with this, is the fact that drivers are allowed to choose when and how they operate their routes resulting in an unpredictable service where customers are left to “guess-timate” their ETA (estimated time of arrival).

Additionally, many areas on the island do not have reliable access to public transportation at all with the closest bus stop more than a 15 minute walk. In the less populated parts of the island, a reduced number of buses will run those routes and with no time estimates available this essentially renders these routes useless. Just about all buses stop running at 6pm, completely neglecting the evening & night workers.

With regards to the existing infrastructure, the current bus system does need significant improvements. Many jitney drivers say there is a huge need for more weather-proof bus stops that protect against the rain and heat. In addition, illustrative bus routes placed on the bus stops, within the bus itself and on online platforms would also be huge steps in the right direction.

Some solutions

 To completely nationalize an industry in a free market economy comes with its share of logistical headaches, for that reason the solutions brought forward are things that can be tested or implemented within the next three years and with a handful of willing operators incentivized by the government.

In order to build a truly efficient public transport system, it must have something that guides the structure of it. For instance, how do we know which areas are over/under capacity or where people would really go if they didn’t have to swap buses on Bay Street? In order to answer these questions in a way that can be practically applied to New Providence, we will look at three simple ways we can improve our public transportation model.

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 1.    Create a unified bus fare system linked with the Sand Dollar

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Tying this with the recently rolled out Sand Dollar national digital currency is a no brainer; the government which is keen to see this program widely incorporated would be providing it’s middle and lower class citizens with a reason for use, jitney franchise owners have direct visibility on cash flow rather than the driver-trust system that they have to currently rely on and patrons are able to have a more seamless experience while reducing the health risk of a paper money system that can carry the coronavirus for up to 28 days.

The ideal system would allow for structured transportation plans like daily, weekly and monthly passes that would make public transportation cheaper for the average Bahamian. With around 90% of The Bahamian population owning a mobile phone currently, this could be the kick starter of a post-coronavirus culture.

 2.    Invest in the physical and digital infrastructure needed

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 Better physical bus stops are essential if we are to ever develop a scheduled public transport system where people can properly calculate journey time. This would also do well in eradicating the current system where buses are allowed to stop in the middle of the road to pick up a passenger, something harmful to the bus passengers and motorists alike. To combat the cultural resistance that structured bus stops would receive you can create bus zones where population and traffic is high enough that only bus stops are to be used within these zones.

3.    Be as innovative as possible

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Many of these initiatives would require direct government involvement and incentivization, along with the backing of the bus drivers union. The benefits of smart city transportation like greater production, reduced pollution and better quality of life is something that should command the attention of both major political parties as we gear up for the 2022 election.

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