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.
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.
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
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
The 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
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.
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?