Welcome to Bad Drive T&T

Welcome!

If you’ve stumbled across this website without knowing much of the context for its existence, here’s the back story: I’m Martine Powers, a journalist who writes about transportation, and I created Bad Drive Trinidad as part of my year on a Fulbright Fellowship. The blog was in operation from Sept. 2014 to July 2015, and focused on all things transportation and traffic in Trinidad and Tobago. (Pardon the alliteration!)

Throughout my time running Bad Drive Trinidad, I asked lots of questions about how and why transportation and infrastructure work in Trinidad, and I passed along those answers to readers — a lot of readers, it turns out. More than 40,000 people checked out BadDriveTrinidad.com in that 10-month time period, more than 90 percent of whom were in T&T.

(The name, Bad Drive, is a play on a funny phrase that’s used in Trinidad to describe a situation when a driver behaves recklessly on the road.)w

I’ve since moved on my role consistently managing and updating this site — pretty soon, I’m headed to Politico to cover U.S. transportation policy — but I will still be posting occasionally with news from Trinidad.

I also intend to publish occasional guest articles and columns from Trinibagonians interested in sharing their perspective on the transportation problems that continue to plague Trinidad. In that vein, please email if you’re interested in submitting an article or essay.

Until then, here are some of the most popular articles from Bad Drive Trinidad:

7 things to know about Trinidad’s anti-highway hunger striker

Kublalsingh is on the ninth day of his strike. It doesn’t look like he’s planning to capitulate anytime soon.

Still haven’t read the Armstrong Report? Here’s the Cliff’s Notes version.

Officials could have avoided all this eleventh-hour drama by involving the community from the get-go.

Drive or take a taxi? The economics of parking at Piarco

Based on gasoline, taxi, and parking data, it’s almost always cheaper to drive yourself to the airport.

Eight highlights from this week’s meeting on the Manzanilla-Mayaro Road

MP Peters: “How much faster you want them to build the road? ‘Abracadabra’ wouldn’t have worked.”

I spent a day in T&T’s traffic court. Here’s what I learned.

Jokes were plentiful — “Is only two drinks I drink!” — and highlighted Trini attitudes about drunk driving.

What you need to know about Trinidad’s new bike lane

Questions remain about whether the “part-time” bike lane will help commuters and non-athlete cyclists.

Drivers hate the Grand Bazaar ‘traffic light tree.’ They’ll probably change their minds.

Grand Bazaar’s newest public art installation may yet wind its way into the hearts of Trinis.

Here’s what to do when a maxi driver tries to ‘short-drop’ you

It’s frustrating. It’s an inconvenience. And it’s also illegal. Now, officials want commuters to fight back.

Think traffic to Maracas is bad now? It’s about to get worse

Traffic jams to the beach are already legendary, but a planned construction project will require detours.

Happy travels!

– Martine R. Powers

This engineer explains why no Trini wants to take the bus

It seems as if all we talk about on the radio these days is Jack Warner.

But the folks at 101.7 FM know where the real story is at: transportation. And specifically, why Trinidadians are generally loathe to use buses or maxis to get around, if they can avoid it.

Last Wednesday, the radio show focused on the challenges of congestion, and invited transport engineer Trevor Townsend to come onto the show and offer solutions for Trinidad’s traffic woes.

One of the show’s hosts on the show explained why he found it more convenient, and more comfortable, to use his car for daily commuting needs, rather than jumping on a maxi or a bus.

Radio host #1:

“There is a certain level of flexibility in owning, and going around in, a vehicle … When I have four cars, I have a choice, and I don’t want to go and have to squeeze up in a maxi or squeeze up in a bus, or wait in the rain.” 

Townsend acknowledged that this is the same choice that tens of thousands of Trinidadians make each day.

Townsend:

“If your travel time by public transport and by the car is the same, then there’s no incentive. You prefer to spend that time in the cool air-conditioned car, alone …

…The concept of the Priority Bus Route was a means of prioritizing public transportation so that there’s an incentive for fast movement via public transport.”

This calculation of time-versus-convenience serves as a challenge to public transit advocates all over the world. The MIT Media Lab created a series of maps of major U.S. cities that showed the fastest mode of transportation (driving, public transit, biking, or walking), depending on the neighborhood where you live.

In one neighborhood of Chicago, driving is the fastest option to reach 92.3 percent of the city — even though Chicago has one of the most robust public transit systems in the United States.
In one neighborhood of Chicago, driving is the fastest option to reach 92.3 percent of the city — even though Chicago has one of the most robust public transit systems in the United States.

In an article published last year, The Washington Post explained why the maps were so illuminating: It’s clear that, even in cities with pretty good public transportation, it’s usually faster to drive.

And at the end of the day, time — rather than financial cost, or comfort, or environmental sustainability — is the most important factor when people decided how to commute.

From The Washington Post:

…These maps illustrate why people make rational calculations to drive so much of the time, even in cities where decent transit does exist. The total financial cost per trip of driving somewhere is likely higher than taking transit (or biking), once you factor in car payments, insurance, and maintenance. But we tend to treat those as sunk costs. And so we often make travel decisions with a time budget in mind, not a financial one. By that metric, it’s clear here why people who can afford to drive often chose to. It’s also clear on these maps that people who can’t afford a car pay a steep penalty in time to get around.

Transit advocates spend a lot of time worrying about the lack of appeal of transit for “choice riders,” or commuters who have other options for getting around. It’s important to recognize that the decisions they make are often weighed in time.

That’s why sustainability-minded engineers such as Townsend are pushing hard for thoroughfares open exclusively to public transit. (The Priority Bus Route, as we all know, is hardy exclusive to buses.) Making buses run faster is the best way to get more people to ride.

Townsend, who was named a “provocateur” by one of the teasing radio hosts, argued that new roads won’t fix Trinidad’s traffic problems.

“We cannot keep building roads to meet the demand for cars,” Townsend said. “We must fundamentally change the modal split … of the commuting public.”

Of course, there are other deterrents to public transit use, too. The biggest one? Safety.

Announcer #2:

“Isn’t the security problem an issue? In that — my vehicle performs the function of keeping me safe from marauders, bandits, and highway men, you know? I’d much rather be in my vehicle, safe and secure, especially at night, especially with my wife.”

Most cyclists don’t feel safer on the Savannah, survey says

Last month, Bad Drive distributed a survey to cyclists about their experiences riding bikes around the Savannah.

We had some basic questions: Who rides around the Savannah? When do they ride?

And most important, how has Port of Spain’s much-ballyhooed part-time bike lane affected cyclists’ perception of safety while riding along this ring road?

More than 100 people responded.

The general consensus? Enacting “bike-only” hours on the innermost lane of the Savannah hasn’t done much to improve cyclists’ feelings of safety. The majority of respondents said “I feel about the same as I did before.” About 36 percent said they “feel a little bit safer.”

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The Ministry of Works and Infrastructure announced in March that motorists driving their cars around the Savannah would now be expected to completely change lanes when passing cyclists during the bike lane hours — yielding them a wide berth of space.

But cyclists who responded to the survey (which was distributed primarily over social media) reported that they still encounter cars that pass their bikes dangerously close — at least once per ride around the Savannah, and more often, multiple times per ride.

Screen Shot 2015-06-01 at 5.25.44 PM It was also clear that though there are many riders who traverse the roads encircling the Savannah during the proclaimed bike-only hours —on weekdays, from 4 a.m. to 6 a.m. and from 8:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.; on weekends, from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m. — there are many people who also bike outside of these hours.

In fact, more people bike in the late afternoon and early evening (4 p.m. to 8 p.m.) than during the designated evening bike lane hours.

Screen Shot 2015-06-01 at 5.26.20 PM Screen Shot 2015-06-01 at 5.26.40 PM And it’s clear that the vast majority of people who answered the survey — 83 percent — ride their bikes primarily for recreation or sport, rather than a means of transportation.

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Perhaps the most insightful part of the survey was the section that solicited comments, concerns, or accolades from cyclists about the bike lane.

Some asked for more signs around the Savannah to inform drivers about the restrictions on the innermost lane. Others recommended an increased police presence during bike-only hours.

But more than anything, cyclists expressed anxiety, fear, frustration, and a little pessimism about their ability to ride bikes safely in Trinidad.

“There should be cameras around the Savannah to catch motorists who deliberately pass close to a cyclist for the fun of it.

“It’s a good idea in theory but motorists don’t care about cyclists. I would like to say it’s a case of ‘ignorance’ and they just are not used to it yet, but from riding all over Trinidad, I know for sure there are motorists who purposely try to go as close to cyclists as possible, run them off the road etc. They curse cyclists and even when they don’t know the law, will shout and scream that cyclists are wrong/shouldn’t be riding on the road/shouldn’t be riding two abreast etc.”

“Good idea…more consideration needed by drivers.”

Absolutely useless, since the times that it is in service is nowhere to be seen. How can they expect the cars to know what is in practice? So you have to expect that the cars will treat you as they do everywhere else, which is with no respect. So cycling around there is as dangerous as anywhere else.”

“I think the set times for the inner bike lane are confusing/not clear to drivers. Cyclists think hard about it and understand the concept and rules but drivers see the signs for a second or two only and probably don’t give them any thought. … All that said, a brave and hugely welcome first step towards improving conditions for cyclists in T&T so many thanks to all those who helped make it a reality.”

“Bike lanes should be full-time and everywhere on all roads. We need a healthier society and environment, we need to BURN FAT NOT OIL.”

Sponsored electronic signs like the ones already there showing your speed would do the trick. They come on at the appointed times and say ‘RIGHT LANE FOR BIKES ONLY.'”

“The lane is not marked clearly. No-one understands the time that it is for cyclists. I am sick of being hooted at or shouted at for being a cyclist on the road and have now given up using the Savannah bike lane. I wish I could bring my children out to ride the Savannah but I don’t want them killed.”

“It appears to me that motorist show respect at times to group cyclist. because I work shift, I ride solo 90% of the time and only do Savannah if I can’t go to western peninsula. Motorist at times pass dangerously close and maybe the time has come to pass legislation that protect cyclist.”

“I try to avoid riding around the Savannah as it is unsafe, bicycle lane or not. In the past prior to the lane I have been told in quite explicit language to get the %$#@@ off the road by motorists. While it is difficult to avoid the Savannah, particularly going to or coming from Cascade, I plan a route around it as much as possible. The bike lane might be good for competitive cyclists in the morning but more focus needs to be placed on carefully planned safe bike routes in the city.”

“Having parking on the park side of the Savannah means that cars must cross the cycling lane to park, which automatically makes the dedicated cycling lane a joke & then the parked cars become a hazard, forcing bikes back into the lanes of traffic. Part-time bike lane is a great idea, but not really much safer for riders, riding alone.

“Cycling will always be dangerous!”

Why public transport works better in Barbados

Here’s something you’ll hardly ever see in Trinidad: A group of well-dressed European women jumping off a maxi taxi at 9 p.m., laughing as they walk the last couple blocks to their hotel.

In Barbados, though, this is a normal sight.

If you’ve been to Barbados, you know that the country’s relationship with public transit is a little different from Trinidad’s. Specifically, Barbados’ system of government-operated buses, private buses, and “ZR” vans (their license plates begin with the letters Z and R) appeal to a broader swath of the population.

Public transit is so user-friendly, even tourists and recent arrivals can feel comfortable finding their way around the country.

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It’s not a perfect system, by any means: There is no priority bus route, so all transit vehicles are subject to traffic snarls. And Barbados’ wealthiest residents continue to eschew public transit for the convenience of their own personal cars.

But, according to Lynda Holder, manager of marketing and corporate communications for the Barbados Transport Board, the country’s large middle class population relies heavily on buses and vans to get around.

“Our cultural norm in Barbados is that your levels of achievement are measured by what type of car you have. So one of the first things most people do when they have gotten a secure job, they purchase a car, seek to buy a car. And then you see that car change as they get more secure in their job.

You will find that there are persons who, when you look at higher and lower-income, we can practically say off the top of our head that you will not find the higher income on the bus, because it’s not seen as the cultural thing to do.

But you will find the lower and the middle incomes … Truthfully, we have a very, very big middle class here in Barbados — and that middle-income is who we cater to.”

— Lynda Holder, Barbados Transport Board

And transit officials from other Caribbean nations, including T&T, have contacted the Barbados Transport Board to learn more about ways to improve their own public transport systems, Holder said.

How did Barbados’ public transit system become a model for the West Indies?

1. Standardized fares

One of the biggest mental hurdles for people considering a jaunt on a new public transit system is lack of knowledge about how much to pay. What if you don’t have exact change, or your cluelessness causes you to hold up the bus’ departure? When fares change depending on your starting and ending point, there’s a little more anxiety involved in hopping on a bus for the first time.

In Barbados, it costs you $2 (roughly $6TT) to get wherever you’re going — no exceptions. That easy-to-remember system makes public transit a lot more convenient for long-time residents and visitors alike.

2. Signage

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In Barbados, bus stop signs don’t just say “Bus Stop.” They let you know whether the buses in that direction are headed into the city, or out of the city — and if you know you’re headed downtown, no need to memorize particular bus numbers or routes.

That small gesture seems like a no-brainer, but it’s actually a very smart wayfinding manuever. (It’s similar to the approach used in Boston’s rapid rail network, one of the few subway systems in the United States that identifies the direction of each line with “inbound” or “outbound” signs.)

3. Online Maps

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The Barbados Transport Board’s website uses Google Maps to display the entire country’s network of official bus stops — and you can filter out the maps based on particular routes. A “route finder” also allows users to identify useful routes based on the hotel where they’re staying, or the location of popular tourist attractions they plan to visit.

4. Marketing to tourists

quote3The Barbados Transport Board actively encourages tourists to use their bus system. In fact, out-of-towners who send a Facebook message to the Transport Board ahead of their visit will receive instructions on which buses to use and the schedules, tailored to the visitor’s planned itinerary, Holder said.

“Persons still have in their minds that visitors to the island are all wealthy people, and they’ll all be able to travel by taxi,” Holder said. “We all know that is not correct. For those other elements who, like the rest of us, save their money for the entire year to be able to travel, we then promote how they can move around the island using our network.”

5. Recalibrated Routes

Every so often, officials with the government-operated Transport Board alter their bus routes to better accommodate the needs of passengers, specifically taking into account the places where residents are under-served — or over-served — by private buses and ZR vans. In this way, the Transport Board doesn’t see itself competing with private transit operators, but instead complementing other existing options.

6. Late-Night Hours

The first Transport Board buses start running at 5 a.m.; the last ones continue on the roads until about midnight. That’s an intentional strategy, Holder said: People are more willing to use buses if they know they won’t get stranded — even if they have to stay late at work or want to stay at a restaurant a little bit longer to have one last drink.

7. Social Media

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Trinidad’s Public Transport Service Corporation has 764 “likes.” The Barbados Transport Board? A whopping 3,227.
That, Holder said, is the product of an intentional effort to use social media to communicate with public transport customers — and to encourage them to use the bus for their commuting needs.

8. Music

This is what it sounds like to be on a private bus in Barbados. Who wouldn’t want to commute to work or school each day with these jams?

‘Ride-share’ in New York City sounds a lot like a route taxi

It’s the newest trend in New York City transportation: Carpool ride-sharing, a way to let people save money by sharing a taxi with strangers, no advance planning necessary.

From The New York Times in April:

Via keeps costs down by grouping passengers together in an S.U.V., and it does the heavy lifting of matching you with other users who need a ride in the same direction. That, as my colleague Jonah Bromwich recently wrote, gives Via a more communal feel than riding solo in an Uber, or perhaps a more friendly vibe than a crowded New York City subway car in the middle of summer.

Trinis, sound familiar?

To me, new private carpool services in the U.S. such as Via, UberPool, and Lyft Line seem to offer the same kind of convenience and cost-saving that Trinidadians have experienced for decades with route taxis.

Sure, these new versions use smartphone apps to group riders, but the basic concept is the same: A sweet spot between buses and private cars, allowing people to save money by sharing a ride with others they don’t know.

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I wrote about the similarities in an article for OZY that published this week, “What Trinidad Could Teach Uber and Lyft.”

On-demand carpooling is but the latest, greatest and buzziest innovation by U.S. ride-sharing companies. Uber and Lyft are betting big on it, while a whole new outfit, New York-based Via, just scored $27 million for a smartphone app that would offer shared rides in central Manhattan.

When Trinidadian transport engineer Rae Furlonge heard all the hubbub, he wanted to know just one thing: What took so long?

Throughout the developing world, analog carpooling systems have existed and prospered for more than a century, from West Africa’s bush taxis to the carros públicos of the Dominican Republic and the route taxis of Trinidad. All of them enable strangers to crowd into taxis that ply predetermined routes. “We call it something different, but it’s the same concept,” says Furlonge.

Similar raisons d’être, too. Public transportation spending in the developing world is usually strained — and it is becoming so in the United States. Private entrepreneurs are trying to fill the gap, and as more of them do, options in upscale American neighborhoods may look a lot more like the average commute in the Caribbean, Latin America or Africa.

Indeed, the circumstances leading to America’s growing interest in carpool ride-sharing aren’t all that different from the process that happened in Trinidad, says Furlonge. Shared-ride taxis started to appear in the 1930s, when residents began moving out of urban centers and into the villages that snake through the island’s lush valleys. These remote communities weren’t served by the nation’s trains, streetcars or buses, so private-car owners offered rides for a small fee. They created their own routes where they saw fit, and they evolved not just independently from the government but also over its objections.

You can read the rest of the story here.

There are a lot of ways in which transportation in Trinidad can feel as if it’s lagging behind international standards. (See: “bus rapid transit,” “causeway,” “light rail.”)

But in this one respect, at least, it’s heartening to know that Trinidad has a system that generally works — and that other countries can emulate.

These yellow arrows could save you from getting wrecked

What a difference a little paint can make.

In recent weeks, people who work or shop in downtown Port of Spain may have seen a satisfying new fixture on the curbs of city streets: freshly-painted no-parking markings.

But these aren’t just the same-old markings of yore, plain yellow lines or white strips painted onto the curb. These new markings feature arrows on each side that point inward, making it clear exactly where drivers cannot park.IMG_1472

They’re bright. They’re bold. And most of all, they will hopefully help drivers avoid getting wrecked.

In a place like Trinidad, where historic streets can be super-narrow, it’s important to ensure that drivers don’t park too close to the corners of each block. Bad parking makes it challenging (or impossible) for drivers to make a turn without sustaining some deep scrapes on the sides of their vehicles.

T&T law states that cars must not be parked within nine meters of the corner.

And if you break the rules? That’ll be $500 in cash to the wrecker, please.

Some of the new markings even tell you the exact distance of the no-parking zone!
Some of the new markings even tell you the exact distance of the no-parking zone!

But here’s another reason for the rule: Cars parked too close to the corner also make it more dangerous for pedestrians to cross the street. They diminish the line of sight between walkers and motorists. A person on foot must stick his torso out into the road from just past a parked car to check for oncoming traffic, and motorists have less time and space to respond to a pedestrian who steps out into the road unexpectedly.

If you drive in Trinidad, you know that some of the curbside no-parking markings can be … minimalist. Or, rather, completely indistinguishable.

Sometimes, the marking is an 18-inch white strip painted directly onto the sidewalk … and once the paint begins to fade, it can be seriously challenging to figure out whether the marking is truly paint, or if it’s instead an errant smear of bird poo.

I swear to you that this white paint on the curb in Woodbrook is supposed to tell you where to park.
I swear to you that this white paint on the curb in Woodbrook is supposed to tell you where to park.

In July 2013, the Ministry of Works and Infrastructure stepped up their efforts in response to a petition from the Downtown Owners and Merchants Association. workers painted yellow lines on street corners to make it a little more apparent to drivers which spots would get them wrecked.

Here’s what Newsday printed about the parking issue at the time:

[DOMA President Gregory] Aboud said members of the business community, persons working in Port-of-Spain and members of the public patronising the city and restaurants and bars in Newtown, St Clair and Woodbrook were “deceived” by the absence of lines indicating parking distances from corners and “clearly enunciated signs indicating what parking rules existed on the streets of Port-of-Spain and environs.”

Cars have been wrecked from areas without white lines or signage indicating where to park. Aboud said, “based on the abuse which we have observed we came to the clear conclusion that the ambiguity which existed about where to park and where not to park was being exploited by the wreckers to the disadvantage of unsuspecting motorists.”

I reached out to the Ministry of Works and Infrastructure on when, and why, they decided to alter their format for no-parking markings. I haven’t heard back yet, but if I receive a response I will post it here.

In the meantime, let’s cross our fingers that more of these markings appear around Trinidad.

SURVEY: Do you ride a bike around the Savannah?

If you’re a Trini cyclist who rides a bike around the Savannah (at least occasionally), then I’m looking for you.

I’m conducting a survey on cyclists’ experiences while riding their bikes around Queen’s Park Savannah. It’s insanely quick and easy: There are only eight questions, and they shouldn’t take more than a total of two minutes.

Here’s the link to the survey page: http://goo.gl/forms/aSR5zQDoKw

Or, fill out the embedded version below.

The results will be posted on this blog. Please share with fellow Trini cyclists. Thanks in advance for your help!

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